For Immediate Release
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

ISBE names Justin Johnson of Niles West High School 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year

​ISBE honors 240 additional educators and school personnel with Those Who Excel awards​

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) today named Justin Johnson of Niles West High School in Niles Township High School District 219 in Skokie the 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year. A 2016 Golden Apple Award finalist and Teacher of Distinction recipient, Johnson has been the director of bands at Niles West for nine years and oversees all aspects of the band program. He uses his music program to inspire students to be more responsible, instill great work ethic, take pride in their efforts, and be part of a great community that desires a common goal.

ISBE also presented 240 other educators, administrators, school support personnel, teams, and volunteers with Those Who Excel awards. The Those Who Excel winners from across the state help shape and inspire our next generation of leaders. View the list of honorees.

"Justin Johnson leads the marching band, the wind ensemble, and a long list of other musical groups he created to give every student an opportunity to stretch their talent," said Governor JB Pritzker. “Mr. Johnson reminds us of how profoundly teachers impact our children and our communities. On behalf of Illinois' students and parents, I want to extend my deepest gratitude and congratulations to Mr. Johnson and all of this year's finalists and awardees across the state."

View a video of Gov. Pritzker congratulating Mr. Johnson.

“Justin Johnson stood out in the selection process not only for the way he impacts the lives of his students but also in how he supports his peers," said State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala. “He makes it his mission to know his students on a personal level and use those connections to help him teach in a way that they understand. In addition to mentoring new teachers and working to diversify the teaching profession, he meets with other educators once a week to study literature and have authentic conversations about the most difficult issues of our time. Thank you, Mr. Johnson, and all of the other Those Who Excel awardees, for your incredible dedication and achievements."

Johnson advocates for equitable access to music education and has worked to promote cultural diversity in music education.

“My favorite moments as an educator have been the looks on students' faces when they finally understand that elusive concept or when they finally master that one section of the literature that they have worked so hard to refine," said Johnson in his nomination packet for 2021 Teacher of the Year. “The most important benefit of music programs in schools in my opinion is that it inspires students to experience emotion, to connect with feeling through the awakening of the senses through music-making. We must find a way for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status or race, to have these same experiences through music."

Johnson's passion for equity in education also extends beyond music education. He also has participated in committees formally tasked with increasing the recruitment and retention of diverse teachers and has mentored new teachers at Niles for the past five years. Over the course of three years, the district has increased its hiring people of color by 200 percent.

“Mr. Johnson constantly dedicates his time, energy, and talents towards the well-being of his students," one student said in a letter nominating Johnson for Teacher of the Year. “Every day he encourages us to grow. Even though he is enrolled in classes of his own and has two young kids at home, he never fails to be there for a student in need of help. Not only does he manage three ensembles and percussion during the school day, but he also teaches the jazz band every morning and the marching band for hours after school every autumn."


Johnson is one of Niles West's most highly respected teachers among students and staff, who marvel at how much time, dedication, and passion he pours into his job due to his own high standards. This year, Johnson received the Niles West High School David L. Zemsky Teacher of the Year award, which is determined by student vote. He models for his students how setting high expectations combined with a strong work ethic to bring about success and personal fulfillment.

Another student added, “Mr. Johnson shows how much he cares in the way that he doesn't give up on his students and, somehow, improves people. Instead of lowering his expectations, he keeps going, giving out knowledge on how to do things."

Johnson received a bachelor's degree in Music Education from the University of Memphis and a master's degree in Music Education from Eastern Illinois University. He is a member of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Illinois Education Association, National Association of Music Education, Jazz Educators Network, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Phi Beta Mu International.​​