Mary Jane Johnson, Assistant Director of Clarke Boston

“Mary Jane is the consummate professional in the field of deaf education,” says Dr. Jan Gatty, Director of Child and Family Services at Clarke Northampton and a member of the Smith College faculty. “During her career, Mary Jane has worked with children of all ages, in all settings and with families of many different cultures. Her tenure in the field has provided her with a breadth and depth of knowledge and skills that are extraordinary—and rare. Also, Mary Jane is a teacher’s teacher. She engenders confidence in her co-workers, and she inspires the beginning learner.”

After 31 years teaching at the Rhode Island School for the Deaf (RISD), Mary Jane—or MJ, as she’s affectionately called—wasn’t quite ready to empty her various “teacher bags” of their books, markers, toys, treats, testing protocols and notes to pick up her knitting needles on a full-time basis. So she decided to join the team at Clarke Boston… just for five years.

Ten years later, and MJ is still part of the Clarke team, driving all over Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, providing direct services to kids, filling in when necessary in Clarke classrooms and providing direct consulting services to Clarke teachers and staff. But these past ten years represent only a quarter of what has been a remarkable journey for MJ.

In the 1970s, as a first-year teacher of the deaf, Mary Jane wanted to know how students with hearing loss—who had limited pre-literacy and communication skills—were supposed to be able to learn to read and write. This led to the creation of a story structure curriculum that enabled students who are deaf or hard of hearing to access the countless stories available to children with typical hearing. This innovative curriculum is still being used by RISD today.

Around the same time, MJ had her first opportunity to work with Clarke. She was part of a research team collaboration between RISD and Clarke that influenced changes in the language curriculum at both RISD and Clarke.

MJ’s research soon came to the attention of Dr. Betty Vohr, a neonatologist at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Vohr had learned of a new technology being developed in England to detect hearing loss in newborn babies, and asked Mary Jane to determine how this could be made available in the states. And thanks to the groundbreaking work of Mary Jane and her team, that newborn hearing screening process is now the standard of care in all 50 states.

As the Parent Guidance Program Coordinator at RISD, Mary Jane worked with state agencies, audiologists, pediatricians, teachers, special education directors and parents to provide the best possible services for students. During her tenure, the program grew from just three families to 50. While resources for families were improving, MJ saw that technology available to individuals with hearing loss was changing—and it was changing rapidly. She was aware of the advancements being made in cochlear implant technology, and she knew the implications and possibilities with regard to mainstream services. It was then that she helped to establish the first auditory/oral program in Rhode Island.

For the past ten years, Mary Jane has served as Assistant Director at Clarke Boston, where her decades of experience have proved invaluable. “Mary Jane is able to draw on her wealth of experience working with hundreds of families and children to provide the right information at the right time based on what the family needs educationally and emotionally,” says former Clarke Boston Director Cara Jordan.

Clarke Boston has also provided the opportunity for Mary Jane to mentor new teachers of the deaf. “Mary Jane is a model teacher of the deaf who has been a personal mentor since I began at Clarke six years ago,” adds Katie Jennings, Mainstream Coordinator at Clarke Boston. “Her spirit for helping children and their families is inspirational to all of us at Clarke.”

Barbara Hecht, Director of Clarke Boston notes that, “Mary Jane is an amazing colleague –a great listener, mentor and problem solver. She has boundless energy and enthusiasm… we often call her the ‘energizer bunny!’” True to form, MJ has even completed two marathons in support of Clarke, raising thousands of dollars to help more children with hearing loss learn to listen and talk.

Above all, Mary Jane loves working with kids, and it is immediately apparent. When she enters a classroom, all the students—even the ones she isn’t there to see—greet her with big smiles, and a loud, “Hello, Mrs. Johnson!” And according to MJ, this is what makes it all worthwhile.