Petra Davis-Johnson, middle level student activities director at Las Flores Middle School (LFMS) in Rancho Santa Margarita, CA, has been named the 2021 Warren E. Shull Middle Level Adviser of the Year. The annual award is named for the founder of National Student Council and recognizes middle level and high school student council advisers for their exemplary character, leadership, and commitment to young people—with a special focus on fostering student leadership development.
As an award-winning science teacher, science department chair, and school activities director, Davis-Johnson teaches leadership from experience. She developed the Associated Student Body (ASB) program at LFMS 23 years ago, and continues to guide and build her students’ capacity as leaders (even referring to them as “my leaders”) by challenging them to think outside the box when designing or brainstorming themes. Actively encouraging students not to fear failure, council members debrief after each activity to identify what went well and what they could do better next time without judgement.
“There’s always a chance what they envision will fail, but they won’t know until they try,” Davis-Johnson says. “It is in failure that learning takes place.”
To foster a culture of servant leadership, she says her students spend a great deal of time bonding and creating a culture of trust. The council is ever mindful of keeping the needs and wants of the student body at the forefront when planning activities and events, going into planning with a mindset of “give what you need.”
In Davis-Johnson’s mind, there are two benchmarks that indicate a student’s growth as a leader at the middle level: the ability to take initiative and having self-awareness. When a student can identify a need without prompting from her or a peer and execute a plan to fill the need, that is a good indication of their personal growth. At the end of each quarter, her students complete a five-point leadership rubric, where they rank themselves on six standards—attitude, attendance, engagement, work relationships, quality of work, productivity, and working up to potential as a leader—to identify areas of growth and areas of need, and set a goal for the following quarter.
Jonathan, ASB president at LFMS, says Davis-Johnson is the perfect example of “a leader of leaders.” He explains, “She brings out the best in all of her students and guides them in the direction of success. She teaches in such a way that we have to learn our own lessons, while still having a safety net in her guidance.”
Her work has not gone unnoticed beyond her students, garnering her a district Teacher of the Year Award, a CADA Area F Service Award from the California Association of Student Leaders (CASL) and California Association of Directors of Activities (CADA), and a Middle School Activities Director of the Year Award from CADA.
For over a decade (2004–2019), LFMS served as the host school for CASL’s Leadership Development Days, with Davis-Johnson helping to coordinate with her district’s 10 middle level schools to register and bring their student council members and PAL students to the event. She also presented a student workshop for many years.
“Davis-Johnson is dedicated to giving as many change agents as possible the opportunity to grow and learn as their confidence expands every year,” says CASL Executive Director Sandra Kurland, who Davis-Johnson worked with on coordinating LDD, including tailoring the program specifically for her district. “Petra is also active in working on our summer camp staff and brings her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge to our team. I have witnessed Petra’s ability to gently inspire students in a positive manner at many CASL events. She is someone everyone looks forward to seeing and learning from year after year.”
LFMS Principal Tim Reece also sees Davis-Johnson as a catalyst for change and innovative leadership in his school, noting that she developed their original ASB program and has run the program her entire time at the school. “Her program is a well-oiled machine, promoting positive behavior and participation in school activities, including honor roll recognition, dances, lunchtime activities, spirit days and weeks, assemblies and field trips,” he says. “Even though the program is already very effective, Petra continues to add or try new ideas. I value and depend on Petra’s input when I make important school site decisions and appreciate her calm, thoughtful presentation of ideas and opinions.”
Davis-Johnson has always approached teaching with a growth mindset—or as she now refers to it after working as an activities director, an “infinite mindset.” In leading by example, her students feel empowered to work independently, and she will someday be able to turn over the reins to the program, which—like her students—will be well equipped to grow at LFMS without her.
“The hope” she says, “is when they leave my program, they are able to leverage their strengths and recognize their needs. In recognizing areas in need of growth, they will seek out opportunities to expand their leadership skills.”
For her tireless efforts in working to inspire and develop students as leaders, National Student Council proudly recognizes Petra Davis-Johnson as the 2021 Warren E. Shull Middle Level Adviser of the Year.