Off the beaten path: Somerville


Before teaching, Somerville spent 20 years in the restaurant industry.

Armaan Rashid and Anumita Jain

U.S. history teacher Mr. Johann Somerville’s first teaching experience — as a TA in college — inspired him to pursue a career in education.

“I was nervous,” he says. “I sat down and I was literally sweating, they were asking me questions, I’m just anxiety all over the board, and about 10 minutes in it just kind of all clicked and at the end I had maybe five or six kids come up and say ‘thank you. That was so helpful, we now all have a direction’ and after the test, I want to say a good 20 or 30 of them came up and said, ‘you put us in the right position, thank you so much,’ and just the rush that I got from it, that fueled every ounce of what I do.”

This was back in 2006, just before the financial crisis of the late 2000s. After seeing nearly three-quarters of his colleagues receive pink slips while working as a long-term substitute teacher in West Sacramento, he decided to go back to the restaurant industry to stay afloat, at least for the time being.

His career in dining began when he was 16, at Little Caesar’s in San Ramon. After briefly attending college, he dropped out at 19 and started to work at two different restaurants.

“I learned more in the four-to-five years in the restaurant industry because it exposes you to people at so many different points in life — people changing careers, people who didn’t put effort forth in school and where they ended up. I didn’t put a lot of effort forth in high school, when I was in it. I ended up dropping out of college at 19, working two jobs and realizing, ‘Why? I don’t want to do that.’ That’s what led me back to school.”

He then decided to take a second shot at college, studying at DVC before transferring to San Francisco State. After his gig as a substitute teacher, he helped open a new restaurant concept for Paul Fleming — the creator of P.F. Chang’s — called Paul Martin’s American Grill, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement of the 2000s.

“We were the ones who went to the table on a nightly basis and explained everything to everybody. And then I came here — I moved back here in 2012 and started with On the Border for a minute but then I ended up at Forbes and then I was at Forbes for three years, even while I was student teaching.”

Somerville joined the staff of DV in 2015, student teaching for Mrs. Chamberlain. A year later, he got a job as a U.S. History teacher, with her encouragement. As a teacher, he hopes to shift focus towards critical reading skills.

“Information is readily available to us. As opposed to the old lecture form, which … was my first idea of teaching … now it’s [about] giving the tools that you need to break things apart. That’s really my focus this semester. It’s demonstrating the skills, and handing them the skills, and then letting them use them and then giving them feedback on if they’re accessing the information you desire — that’s what you’re looking for now.”

Librarian Mrs. Kerri Knapp, a close friend of Somerville’s, comments that “he is very thoughtful and reflective, one of the most important qualities you can have as a teacher.”

Because of Somerville’s unconventional path in life, he tries to reassure his students that straying off the beaten path is okay.

“[I want my students] to not ever feel bad that you aren’t on the same path as someone else — there’s nothing wrong with you. And if anyone’s ever making you feel like there’s something wrong with you — I mean, what’s wrong with them? Not you. There’s no blueprint to life — unfortunately, we’ve been fed a blueprint that there’s a prescribed method to achieve success, but who knows? We’re all different individuals.”

Somerville appreciates his unconventional path because he’s ended up where he always wanted to be.

“[My life today is] probably the most balanced it’s ever been. In the restaurant world it’s like, your hours are different, you’re at home and sleeping when people are at work and vice versa. It’s like I’ve reached that point where I’ve always wanted to be. I go home, I have work to do and I enjoy doing it. And I have a happy home with four roommates — [including] an awesome boxer, who got sprayed by a skunk on New Year’s. That was fun.”