February 8, 2017

PHS Science Teacher Joy Barnes-Johnson: “Embellish Every Day With Laughter”

As she was growing up, Joy Barnes-Johnson planned her future life as a dancer. Then an injury during her junior year in high school turned into a loss for the world of dance but a great gain for the world of education and for hundreds of students at Princeton High School, where she has taught science since 2007.

“When I knew I couldn’t be a dancer, I fell in love with science,” she recalled. “And I remember my chemistry teacher said to me, ‘Joy, you’re not going to be a dancer, but you’re really smart and you’ll probably be a great teacher.’ I knew I had this ability to explain things to my peers.” 

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Science Supervisor Ed Cohen described how Dr. Barnes-Johnson’s “passion, excitement, and love for the students and what she teaches comes out every day in the classroom and in the halls. She’s at the cutting edge in research with the new science standards.”

Jersey Roots

Ms. Barnes-Johnson grew up in Montclair, New Jersey with her parents — her mother a banker and her father a postal worker, three brothers, a twin sister, who is also a teacher, and a younger sister who is an electrical engineer. She described her mother as a “tireless worker” and her grandparents as also a big influence on her work ethic. “They were committed to making sure we all went to college,” she said.

Ms. Barnes-Johnson went to Johnson C. Smith University, a predominantly black college, where she majored in chemistry, then returned to Montclair, where she worked at Montclair High School as a lab technician before getting her certification and embarking on her teaching career in 1994.

The Teacher

“I understand my significance in a diverse classroom,” she said. “Montclair was a school very much like Princeton schools, but it did not have many teachers of color, especially science teachers of color. So I took my chemistry background and started infusing a love of art, dance, and literature into the classroom experience.”

Earning her masters degree in curriculum and instruction at Montclair State University, Ms. Barnes-Johnson continued to teach as she incorporated her interest in literature and the arts with science. Her students would perform biographical sketches of scientists, dressing up as George Washington Carver or Benjamin Banneker, as they taught science lessons to their peers.

When she came to Princeton High School as an inclusive earth science teacher, Ms. Barnes-Johnson was able to take on a part-time schedule and simultaneously complete her doctorate at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she focused on equitable science teaching, emphasizing strategies to engage a diversity of students.

Since 2007 she has taught earth science, chemistry, and a new class titled STEM in the 21st Century, in which she described her goal of “getting more diverse students involved in rigorous science.” She observed, “It’s interesting to be working in this community where science matters a lot.”

Ms. Barnes-Johnson discussed her commitment to equity and social justice in her work in the classroom. “The challenge is to address the issue of language diversity and ability differences in thoughtful ways,” she said. In a community like Princeton everyone wants to be the best, and they’re willing to work to get there. It’s important to challenge children’s belief systems about social justice, to help them understand that ability alone does not determine who they are.”

She continued, “To try to teach students to collaborate fairly and effectively is the biggest part of my job. I work hard to address issues of social justice and ability in my classes. Students of all abilities must be empowered and attended to, not neglected. I don’t want any students to feel isolated.”

PPS communications director Brenda Sewell described how Ms. Barnes-Johnson “teaches kids about science, but she also goes beyond to bring in connections to bias, diversity, and culture along with the science she teaches.”

Ms. Barnes-Johnson described how her STEM 21 course, which links science with math and sociology, confronts students with “why humans need science and the place of science in the government of humanity.” The first semester of the course, titled “Designing for Disaster,” focuses on manmade and natural disasters, and the second semester focuses on science and policy and how they relate to the environment.

Losing Sight of the Child

“I want students to know more, but especially to know better, to use information more responsibly. It’s interesting for me to be at this point where I feel this generation is going to know so much, but they’re not necessarily going to know better.”

Ms. Barnes-Johnson expressed her concern about the current direction of education in this country. “We’re so busy trying to reinvent the education paradigm that we’re losing sight of the child,” she said. “We’re creating conditions that cause deep anxiety and fail children in many ways.”

Citing the works of John Dewey and Kahlil Gibran in particular, Ms. Barnes-Johnson emphasized that “the purpose of education is to make the human whole. If they become masters of play, as they become older they will be masters of work.”


Ms. Barnes-Johnson, 46, lives in Willingboro with her 17-year-old son, and they love to travel They’ve taken on ”a 50-state challenge,” which they look forward to fulfilling soon. So far they’ve been to 44 states, with just six more on the itinerary for their road trip this summer. Other interests include film-making, “my son’s aspiration — we spend a lot of time at the movies,” and volunteer work with the NAACP.

For the future, Ms. Barnes-Johnson is working on a few books and says that someday she would like to be a teacher of teachers on the university level, “but for now I’m content to enjoy my students. I challenge my students, but we laugh every day, and that’s wonderful.”

She continued, “I understand the gravity of life beyond high school, but I try to embellish every day with laughter. You only get to be under 18 once.”