When Dr. Susan Johnsen reflects on her career in education, it’s all about the students. From children she taught in vacation Bible school, who inspired her interest in education, to Baylor PhD graduates who are now blazing trails across the nation, it’s been those students — and her quest to meet their unique educational needs — that has driven her.
Imagine her in 1999 as director of Baylor’s University for Young People, a summer enrichment program for gifted students. She had just realized a dream by securing a grant to bring economically at-risk gifted children to Baylor for the program — the launch of Project Promise. But she had forgotten to plan money for transportation.
“So we drove around town and picked them up each day and brought them to campus,” she said. “We had some homeless kids, so we had to find out every day where they were going to be and with which relative. But it was a really neat thing to do; I got to know the kids — and the parents — in a different way.”
Known as a national expert and innovator in gifted education, Johnsen has written more than two dozen books on the topic and developed widely used assessment instruments for gifted students. She is the editor-in-chief of Gifted Child Today
journal. She received the prestigious Outstanding Leadership Award from the Council for Exceptional Children in 2014 — the first time the award had been given to someone in the field of gifted education.
But Johnsen actually began her career as a special education teacher, and she also made a mark there.
“When I graduated from Baylor in 1964, special education children were really excluded from school,” she said. So she taught at the state hospital in Austin, beginning the first program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Once classroom inclusion practices began in the 1970s, Johnsen developed a teacher training program for Houston ISD to accommodate children in the classroom who ranged from severely handicapped to gifted. She personally trained more than a thousand teachers, and the training was replicated in more than 27 different states.
Also known as a prominent researcher, Johnsen earned her master’s and PhD from the University of Texas. Johnsen said that research is a natural bridge from being curious about what is effective teaching practice. “That’s why I went back to get a doctoral degree,” she said. “We had tried out some models in schools, but I didn’t have the statistical foundation needed to look at their effectiveness. My questions and research always arise from practice; for me, the practice is primary.”
Johnsen developed expertise in gifted education when a colleague in Austin asked her to co-teach a course. “I had always been an advocate for children who were urban or low income or special education, and I believed certain myths about gifted kids,” she said. “But I realized there were gifted kids among those poor kids and those special education kids also, so that has always been a focus.”
Johnsen is currently interim chair of the Baylor School of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology and director of the Gifted Education Program. She also served the School as an associate dean from 1999-2002.
After nearly 30 years on Baylor’s faculty, she plans to retire this summer.
—By Meg Cullar