Minnesota Teacher’s Desire for “A Change” Takes Him on an Adventure He’ll Never Forget
By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer
(Plymouth, Minn.) – They say one’s purpose in life is to learn and grow, and then to give something back to the community that has nurtured them. Craig Johnson of Plymouth, Minn., is doing just that by sharing his story about an overseas adventure inspired by his desire for change.
The story begins in late 1996. After a 36-year teaching and coaching career, the last 25 of which were at Wayzata High School in the Twin Cities Metro, Craig Johnson was getting ready for a new phase in his life. Retirement was just around the corner, his oldest son was out on his own, a second son was just finishing up college, and his youngest, a daughter, was a high school freshman.
So what possessed him to drop everything and head overseas to Turkey to teach? In the beginning of his recently published book about the experience, Eat the Grapes, Don’t Fight the Battles: A Memoir of a Teacher’s Experience in Turkey, Johnson says, “I was not burned out. I merely needed a change which my current employment at a Minneapolis suburban high school could not provide. For me, to cease teaching would grant me an opportunity to explore, take risks, accept any failures, and hopefully enjoy the process.”
Three months later, Johnson officially retired. He kept busy with odd jobs for the next year, then shortly before Christmas 1996 heard about an international teaching job fair, and traveled to Iowa for the interview. The next day he got an offer to serve as a 6th grade teacher, athletic director and basketball coach at The American Collegiate Institute in Izmir, Turkey. His wife, Jean, was offered a job teaching computer classes and keyboarding to all grade levels. After a long talk with their daughter, Jennifer, the Johnsons accepted the offers.
The next several weeks were spent finalizing the arrangements, then the family headed overseas. In his book, Johnson outlines all the things that needed to be taken care of before they could leave – renting out their house, getting passports, putting furniture in storage, etc. The rest of the book is devoted to their time in Turkey.
Johnson shares stories about how his family became integrated into a culture unlike their own; how they dealt with hardships and challenges they would never have faced at home, such as frequent water shortages; how he handled situations involving students that he never expected to run into in his career; and the exciting opportunities for travel they would have never been able to enjoy had they stayed home. The Johnsons visited Rome, Barcelona, The Canary Islands, Prague, Vienna and Budapest while living overseas.
“I never intended to write a book about my experience, but as I was going through it realized there were so many things that happened I hadn’t expected. I wished many times I’d been given a guidebook that would clue me in on the culture. So when I got back home, I decided to use the journal I had kept to write one myself,” says Johnson, who points out there are three major themes in his book: dealing with change, how to exist and thrive in a culture that is not your own and how to find the courage to do something you’ve never done before.
Johnson says he learned a lot about himself during his time in Turkey, but perhaps the best lesson: “I learned to pick my battles,” he says. “I learned to bite my tongue and just do it their way sometimes even if I didn’t think it was the best way.”
For example, when it came time for graduation and the kids were being lined up by height, Johnson thought it was wrong and spoke up. “I said, ‘I’m not doing it that way. It’s wrong for the kids to line them up that way because it’s something they can’t control. I don’t care, line them up by grade point average or go boy-girl, boy-girl, anything but height.’”
In the end, Johnson lost that battle, but there were others he won. Despite the occasional struggles, Johnson says he’s glad he went and hopes his influence on the children of Turkey will result in a positive impression of America for years to come. “We had a great experience. The Turkish people were so inviting and warm. We were invited into their homes and there was total acceptance of who we are,” he says.
While not originally intended to be a guidebook for others considering teaching overseas, that’s what the manuscript turned into. Johnson is proud to report his book is now being used as a resource at several international schools. “Teaching overseas was the highlight not just of my career, but my entire life. I’m so glad I did it,” he says.
Eat the Grapes, Don’t Fight the Battles: A Memoir of a Teacher’s Experience in Turkey, was published by Beaver’s Pond Press and is available at bookstores everywhere, as well as online at Amazon.com and www.eatthegrapes.com. The book retails for $14.95.
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About Craig Johnson
Author Craig Johnson is a career teacher with nearly 40 years of teaching experience. Along with being a classroom teacher, Johnson was a staff development trainer and a varsity boy’s basketball coach. In those capacities he conducted countless educational seminars and workshops as well as dozens of basketball camps and clinics. He received a B.S. from Concordia College and a M.Ed. from the University of Minnesota. He also spent an academic year studying at the University of Virginia. Presently Johnson is retired and lives with his wife Jean in Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis.
About Rachel M. Anderson
Rachel M. Anderson is a freelance writer who lives in Minnetonka, Minnesota. She has written professionally for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Christian Chronicle and Tampa Tribune newspapers.
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