North Platte principal balances life at school with work as firefighter

BRYCE MERENESS/Citizen photo North Platte junior and senior high school principal Michelle Johnson chats with students during lunch on Monday, Aug. 31 in Dearborn, Mo. DEARBORN, Mo. — Brad Johnson doesn’t know how his wife finds so much time in her day.

A first-year principal at North Platte junior and senior high schools, Michelle Johnson does not clock out after the bell rings to end the school day, and her duties still don’t end after climbing into bed at night. Johnson remains on call, ready to help out in the community as a member of the Dearborn Area Fire Protection District in addition to her full time job at the school.

BRYCE MERENESS/Citizen photo Michelle Johnson demonstrates working the pump controls on the Dearborn Area Fire Protection District truck Saturday, Aug. 22 in Dearborn, Mo. In addition to her volunteer firefighting duties, she also serves as North Platte junior and senior high school principal.

“I was born here, raised here, graduated from North Platte in ’89,” Michelle Johnson said. “I feel like I want to make sure that I continue the right education and growth in the kids. Just being out in the community, any time we’re out on a fire call the kids are always like, ‘Mrs. Johnson! Mrs. Johnson!’ It’s always good to see them.

“I had a student say, ‘Did you quit the fire department? Is that why you are the principal now?’ They don’t think I can do both.”

Michelle Johnson became a volunteer firefighter in 2008 when daughter Sarah — now a freshman at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Mo. — was heavily involved in athletics. When Sarah was not at practice or at school, she hung out at the fire station with her father — now the chief of the department. It also helped that Sarah Johnson’s grandparents lived right next door to the station, which was built in 1996.

Michelle originally just kept the log books of who went on which calls and the response time, clerical tasks mainly which appealed to her highly-organized personality.

When Sarah was old enough to become a cadet at 14 years old, Michelle went to her first house fire, a mutual aid call in from South Central Buchanan County Fire in 2010. The mother-daughter combo kept the blaze from spreading out of a dumpster while the rest of the crew worked to extinguish the main fire in the home.

“It’s kind of an addiction,” Michelle said. “I call it an addiction. There’s times when I’ve gotten up and fought a fire from midnight until 4 a.m., gone home got dressed and go to school the next day. You’re always getting phone calls and text messages, ‘Are you on the fire call?’ or, ‘Did you see this or that?’ Of course it’s confidential until there is a report publicized. Then they say, ‘You’re dedicated to do that.’ I just want to give back and help out as much as I can.”

The Dearborn Area Fire Protection District works many mutual aid calls with its surrounding districts including the Camden Point and Edgerton/Trimble fire protection districts. The firefighters from the three districts which provide coverage to the entire North Platte School District work very closely together, especially now that the district’s schools are aligned by grade level — grades k-2 in Camden Point, third through sixth in Edgerton and 7-12 in the junior and senior high school in Dearborn.

“Camden Point, Dearborn and Edgerton all work very closely together because we are all the North Platte School District,” Brad said. “The three departments work really close together. We have mutual aid trainings, and we interact with everybody on the other departments all the time. I’ve taught classes down here that mirror the requirements to get the rural firefighters the same state certification as the paid guys have.

“The volunteer service has a bad rep across the country, and 80 percent of departments are volunteer, which is zero pay no matter if I am a cadet or the chief. It’s the same paycheck, zero.”

Michelle still goes to every call that she can despite her growing role within the North Platte School District.

After her graduation from the district in 1989 she too attended Missouri Western where she met her future husband in freshmen English class. They went on their first date in October of the fall semester — after a month of convincing — and have been together ever since. They were married on News Year’s Day in 1992.

Michelle graduated college in December of 1993 and went to teach special education in the Osborn (Mo.) School District as her first job. After a year and a half, the opportunity came up to move back to Dearborn to teach special education at North Platte.

This year marks her 21st within the district.

Michelle taught special education until her ascendance to intermediate school principal in 2012. She earned her master’s degree in education with emphasis in administration in 2004 from Park University in Parkville, Mo. and she recently began working on her specialist in education degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

As a member of the fire department, Michelle also helped awareness for her students.

The Dearborn Fire Protection District presented commendations to two of her students last year at North Platte Intermediate School in Edgerton, Mo.

Aaron Thomas, now in seventh grade, woke his family up in the middle of the night to alert them to smoke in the family’s home. His quick thinking allowed the family to get out of the burning home without injury and kept the damage to the structure to a minimum after the quick response.

Emily Westwood, now in sixth grade, earned her merit after reacting quickly and calmly to get medical attention to her friend who had a seizure while the pair was walking around Dearborn. She quickly ran to a nearby home and called 911.

“It was rewarding to see and knowing some of my kids at school know how to react and what to do in crisis situations,” Michelle said.

In addition to her work with the school district and fire department, Michelle also recently agreed to sit on the Dearborn Housing Board and the Dearborn Cemetery board. Not a surprise for a woman who worked three or four jobs at a time to help pay for her college.

There just seems to be an unlimited amount of hours in Michelle Johnson’s days.

“I’m very busy,” Michelle said. “It’s my community, I love everyone and I want everyone to know that I’m here to help everyone not just the kids.”