Richmond mother-daughter teaching duo has relationship down to a science

Lenni Johanson and Erica Sarna, mother and daughter, work together as science teachers at Nippersink Middle School in Richmond. Johanson teaches seventh-grade science and Sarna teaches eighth-grade science.
Lenni Johanson and Erica Sarna, mother and daughter, work together as science teachers at Nippersink Middle School in Richmond. Johanson teaches seventh-grade science and Sarna teaches eighth-grade science.

RICHMOND – Lenni Johanson and Erica Sarna have spent summer days floating in the water and talking science.

Besides working in the same science department at Nippersink Middle School in Richmond, the pair are mother and daughter.

“We eat, sleep and dream science a lot,” Johanson said. “If we’re commuting, we’ll usually talk about the day, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to work this, what we need to remember, blah blah blah, and a lot of times, the ride home is a rehash.”

The two live about seven minutes away from each other, just on the other side of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. Sarna and her husband, John, have two children: Logan, 7, and Lucy, 5.

Sarna has two other sisters, Beth and Jessica, one in Idaho and the other outside of Rockford.

They have similar teaching styles, focused on empowering the students through programs such as Science Splash, where the students teach younger kids. The programs also provide the students with opportunities to develop nonscience specific skills such as public speaking, time management and problem solving.

Over the past three summers, the two have operated a small business called Apron Strings with Mom and Me. They find “treasures” and “weird items that catch our eyes” at flea markets and estate sales, fix them up and resell them.

Despite being so close, they don’t draw attention to their relationship. Sarna calls her mother Jo at work, and Johanson calls her Sarna.

“It never gets focused on,” Sarna said. “I don’t introduce myself [as her daughter]. Now it’s just known. We’ve been here long enough. When the kids find out, they’re like, ‘That’s your mom?’”

But when they get home, there’s still a mother-daughter relationship.

“She’s still the grandma,” Sarna said. “She’s the mom. That doesn’t change. We’re friends, but she’s still my mom.”

When Sarna was just starting her career, Johanson would help her out, talking through issues and suggesting new ways to do things – a role Johanson has assumed with a lot of teachers over the years.

“I think the biggest thing was I had to make sure I was myself,” Sarna said. “I couldn’t start teaching and think I was going to be as good as my mom right away. I needed to learn the content and learn how I was going to present it.”

Growing up, Sarna saw her parents – both of them teachers – come home with papers to grade and lessons to prepare, and she thought she’d never go into education. But after about three years in sales, she was ready for a change.

She got her master’s degree in education, but near graduation and not sure how to navigate this new world, she asked her mother to go along with her to a job fair in Crystal Lake.

Johanson, who was working in a small district outside Rockford, ended up getting called about a position at Nippersink Middle School, and a year later, Sarna also joined the staff.

Johanson didn’t go straight into teaching, either.

She graduated from college as a medical technologist but found she enjoyed the teaching part of it the best. Her husband, Dave – who has taught physical education, science, social studies and building trades – recommended the switch to teaching.

Johanson started at St. Patrick Catholic School in Rockford, which no longer exists.

“It was where I learned to love the kids,” she said. “It was the best place to learn how to become a teacher.”

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