When new Austin Elementary School principal Clay Johnson welcomed students to campus on the first day of school, he probably felt like he was back in his element. He was serving as a director, pointing students to classrooms, leading parents to kindergarten classes, and helping his staff make beautiful music on the first day of the 2022-23 school year.
That would all make perfect sense because Johnson spent the first 16 years of his career in the Abilene ISD with the Cooper High School band, first as the assistant director (2003-05) and then for 14 years as the director of the Awesome Cooper Band.
“I had been looking forward to the first day of school since I was announced as the principal at Austin,” Johnson said. “It was an incredible day and I was very proud of our students, faculty, and staff. For most of the summer, I didn’t have the excitement I knew I would eventually have for the school year, mainly because I felt like I was drowning because of all of the material I was working through. But I started feeling more and more excited the more I got done and the more faces I started seeing on campus as we got closer to the start of the school year.”
For Johnson, directing students and choreographing all the movements on campus is not unusual for the first-year principal. He said he felt even more prepared because of his experience as band director.
“I believe my time as a band director prepared me the most for this position,” Johnson said, “even more than being an assistant principal because, as a band director, I worked closely with athletics, fine arts, transportation, purchasing, accounting to make sure the band functioned. When I combine my time as the band director with my time as an AP I feel like I’ve had the perfect training.”
Johnson was named the principal at Austin in early May, replacing Alison Camp who was chosen to lead the district’s grade configuration study. Not long after being named the principal at Austin, Johnson began meeting with Camp and other staff members, not to mention thinking about the work ahead of him to get ready for the 2022-23 school year.
“Everything was very exciting when I got the job,” Johnson said. “There were so many things to do and so many things that I didn’t know I needed to do, but those things presented themselves over the summer. It was a lot of work to get ready. Over the course of the last couple of weeks of the school year, I was able to meet with the majority of the staff, either individually or in pairs or grade-level teams, and we had the chance to talk about a lot of things, including where they’ve been and where we want to take this.”
Johnson lives in the Austin neighborhood, which has made the transition a bit easier for him.
“The conversations I’ve had with parents since last spring have been incredible,” he said. “The Austin community has embraced me from Day One. I’ve been in the district for 20 years and live in this neighborhood. As I’m driving to work or back home each day, I’m seeing people out in the neighborhood, and those people are friends who have students at Austin. It just feels very much like home.”
Johnson is, admittedly, taking on a thriving campus; one that does not need major changes, and he wants to keep the ship moving in the same direction with some minor tweaks. The theme at Austin this year is “Live Aloha,” which means embracing the aloha spirit in everything on the campus.
“We want our students to build relationships by being kind and always having respect for others and themselves,” Johnson said. “In the Hawaiian culture, the word for family is ‘Ohana.’ The Austin Elementary campus has gone through many changes in recent years. We want to connect our campus like a family and ‘Live Aloha’ every day. Our hashtag for this school year is #weAREohana. ‘ARE’ is capitalized because it stands for ‘Austin Raiders Elementary.’ “
After his 16 years at Cooper, Johnson got his first administrative post before the 2019-20 school year as the assistant principal to Tina Jones at Bowie Elementary School. He served in that role for two years before joining new Abilene High School principal Emme Siburt’s staff as an assistant principal last year. He said the three years he spent with those two have been invaluable in preparing him for his first job as a principal.
“I learned so much from both Tina and Emme,” Johnson said. “Both are incredible leaders and their expectations are so high for their employees and campuses that I’m taking a little bit of everything from them and putting it to use at Austin. They’re both very detail-oriented, and so am I, and that made it fun working for them.
“Tina has been in the business for long and she’s a staple at Bowie,” he said. “And, of course, I’ve known Emme for a long time and worked with her at Cooper, and I consider both of them to be mentors. It was so much fun to work with Emme on an administrative level as opposed to the teacher-administrator level. I have incredible respect for her.”
Johnson said he believes perspective gained having worked under principals Gail Gregg and Dr. Karen Munoz at Cooper and then working alongside Jones and Siburt will help him as he develops his style at Austin.
“I’ve always had great respect for my principals, and I felt like they had respect for me as a teacher,” Johnson said. “That relationship – knowing I could go in and talk to them about anything – is the kind of feeling I want the teachers and staff at Austin to have about me.”
And Johnson hopes that he has a long time to develop those relationships at Austin.
“I want to be here for a long time,” he said. “I was at Cooper for 16 years; it was my first job right out of college. I find comfort in stability, so moving around to two campuses in the last three years is a little bit out of my comfort zone. But I valued the experiences because I needed them to get to Austin. I want to be here and grow as an administrator and educator.”