Graduation 2020


Unconventional Teaching for Unconventional Times

-John Hugh


Over the last decade, I’ve been lucky to be the Chaplain of a local school, Jackson Academy.  While our city has an array of great schools, I’ve been privileged to serve here.  The position allowed me to teach two courses, Biblical Worldview & Moral Leadership.  I’m forever grateful.   The art of teaching has taught me vital lessons:  honest relationships where people communicate their underlying assumptions and ideas gives way to unending possibilities.

It’s been said and as I’ve stated in a previous post, teaching is the greatest profession.  A good teacher opens up minds, hearts, and a future for their students.  And these students can be future CEOs, U.S. Senators, military leaders, or more.  Great teachers create & shape not only potential, but improbable dreams.

I like the unconventional.  Teaching in an unconventional way, therefore, is appealing to me.  I found this method was appealing to students as well.   The unconventional to me is more in line with the Socratic method, where the teacher pushes back against the students, allowing a cooperative dialogue where arguments are built.   There is more critical thinking, dialogue, and drawing out of ideas and assumptions.  My best teachers taught me in unconventional ways, both at Ole Miss and at Harvard.  I’m indebted to the Christensen Institute, founded by Clayton Christensen, who taught at Harvard Business School.  He was passionate about education in a creative and unconventional way.  Our personal friend, Michael Horn, has continued Christensen’s seminal work, articulating new means to foster better learning and teaching.  I try to read everything he writes.

At Jackson Academy, I saw the classroom more as a laboratory for life itself, not simply teaching a subject.   The subjects were the students themselves, mostly high school juniors and seniors.  My courses, Biblical Worldview and Moral Leadership, were vehicles for self reflection, for honing gifts in debate & public speaking, and for helping make sense of current, hot button topics in the world around them.

I would not lecture for near an hour.  Open dialogue, giving students freedom to ask anything, pushing back on why they thought a certain way, and helping them articulate their reasoning clearly, was more important.  Of course I talked a lot, by way of anecdotes, and covered the subject matter, but did so hopefully in a way to keep every student engaged and responsive for the entirety of our time together.

Methods could be simple.  We would rearrange desks around in a circle.  Leadership was given to individual students, some challenged to step up and lead the classroom on certain days.  The school let us to meet for a monthly breakfast at Broad Street Bakery, a popular local hub for coffee and conversation – a perk all the students loved.  And each year, a pattern emerged:  the students would slowly open up, parts of their guard would loosen, deeper relationships developed, natural mentoring occurred – and all of us learned together.

Such methods are not the norm.  This is okay.  I’ve said before I come from a line of teachers:  parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles.   Yet for my style and voice, I don’t teach like them.  I do admire all who teach, regardless of the method.  Teachers inspire me.

The classroom can be in many spaces: in a traditional school classroom, in a Board room, on a sports field, or in a coffee shop.   In all, I believe the best teaching happens when a safe space is created to ask honest questions & receive honest answers with fair feedback.  This was always my foremost aim.  In my JA classes, our parameters were matters of faith, belief, passion, and communication.

Our material helped the students not only ask provocative questions, but learn how to articulate their point of view orally or in writing.  We delved into the Bible, Christian theology, leadership, history, public speaking, and debate, but made sure to discuss abortion, marriage, divorce, gun control, sexuality, war, politics, genetics, and race-relations, to name a few.  This laboratory expanded to cultivating communication abilities:  how to make a clear point, how to have robust, thoughtful discussion, how to debate respectfully, how to craft a speech, and how to deliver your speech in front of peers.  In probing students for their self knowledge and awareness, their desire to learn and their teachability grew.

Part of the reward of teaching is seeing results.  Looking back on students I’ve taught and the relationships I have maintained with many of them, I’m inspired by the leaps they have taken.  Whether entering seminary, coaching a sports team, serving in the military, throwing their hat in politics, exploring contours of medicine, starting their own business, or starting a family, this generation continues to grow.  I am optimistic evidenced by their own growth.

This May, with an unending Covid-19 season upon us, we are unable to collectively celebrate the efforts of graduates.  It’s not the same, but we celebrate virtually and individually.  Hopefully we can gather later this summer.  Much has been made about this class of 2020, born the year of Sept 11 and finishing high school in a time of pandemic.  These unforeseen bookends create opportunity.  Sept 11th and COVID-19 has given them a unique opportunity to see the true needs of this world, possibly escape a culture of self-promotion and gratification, and grab hold of a life of purposeful service, near and far.  I believe greatly in this generation graduating in 2020, that they shall meet this new charge with boldness in a new era.

Our current days have become unconventional, forcing us all to a greater creativity and adaptivity.  Such unconventional days need unconventional teaching.  To think and communicate in new ways.   What we can do and how we can respond to students, but also to communities around us, to help them flourish?   Change is our only certainty.  

In some ways, we are all like these 2020 graduates.  We are all starting a new journey amidst COVID-19.   These times call us to adapt.  These times call us to create.   We can construct unconventional laboratories – virtually, one-to-one, or in groups.  Unconventional means not only help us function, but help us see problems as opportunities.

All of us are learners in life.  Whether we seek out teachers, in safe spaces, for honest questions & honest feedback is up to us.  To flourish well, we need to use our knowledge, but knowledge with greater creativity, to join these graduates on the new journey ahead.

Congratulations class of 2020!  


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