Creatively talented graduate combines love of film, history and teaching

portrait of Devon Johnson

As Devon Johnson moves the tassel on his graduation cap at commencement, the Arizona State University senior also celebrates the opportunity to finally merge his three passions – film, history and teaching. A film and media studies major, Johnson will join Teach For America in June to follow his family’s legacy of working in education.

Growing up in Phoenix, the creatively gifted student with musical parents described his Spielberg-like obsession with movies. From the time he was young, he suffered from asthma that kept him mostly confined to inside his house – and binge-watching films he loved.

“By the time I was 14, I had this gambit going where I would use the lunch money my mother gave me to buy books and movies instead,” he said. “I would go through phases. If I liked a director or an actor or a writer, I would try to watch all of their films. Or occasionally, I would be in the mood to watch comedies for a week, then dramas, or I would watch the same movie over and over till I was done with it.”

Johnson, who is musical himself, said he especially loves musicals, naming “Singing in the Rain” as his all-time favorite film. “If you’re happy, it’s a good movie to watch because you can just sing along and dance along,” he said. “If you’re sad, it’s one of those movies that will pick you up no matter what.

“So if I’m in a rut, I can just play the soundtrack on my iPod. And I’m still in a rut, but I’m in a singing rut or a dancing rut, and eventually it just goes away.”

As a youngster, Johnson also taught himself to memorize monologues from his favorite movies. It was a skill that came in handy when auditioning for roles in high school plays, as well as memorizing poems in the classroom. “If you memorize things that you want to then it’s easier to remember things that you are graded on,” he said.

Johnson, who graduated from Bourgade Catholic High School, said that when he applied to college he was looking at history programs because his goal was to become a history teacher. He was planning to keep his interest in film and theater as an avocation or hobby.

“Then I saw that ASU had a class in film history and a class in film criticism,” he recalled. “And suddenly I realized that I could merge my two interests and become a film historian. I said ‘That’s it!’ and the rest is history, no pun intended.”

Both in high school and at ASU, where he works in the School of Music, Johnson has performed in theatrical productions. But he wasn’t convinced he wanted to pursue acting as a career, he said.

Instead, he followed up with friends already working for Teach For America to find out more about the organization and what its corps members do. After attending an event, he decided to recommit to his dream of becoming an educator.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” he explained. “So I’m going to keep film as my passion and do what I want to do, which is teach.”

Johnson comes by his interest in education honestly. He said his grandmother was an elementary education teacher who taught kindergarten through second grade in Sierra Vista, Ariz. One of his fondest memories was helping her decorate her classroom before the school year began.

“Using a projector, my sisters and I traced Dr. Seuss characters and then painted them on the wall,” Johnson said. “That was really fun, and I thought it would be great to spend your day in the classroom. That affected me.”

Johnson found out recently that both grandparents on his father’s side were substitute teachers for 30 years. Also, both of his sisters work at schools, one in counseling and the other, also an ASU student, helping with an after-school program.

Already, Johnson is interviewing at Phoenix elementary schools for his two-year commitment with Teach For America. The experience is only reinforcing his decision to pursue an education career at the elementary school level.

“I think it’s the best place for me to make a difference,” he said. “I think that’s the age where a teacher has the most impact.”

See the full list of ASU graduates who are becoming Teach for America corps members.