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John Hunter: Teaching Peace, Reaching through Time

5 June 2012 No Comment

John Hunter

It’s June, the month of Fathers Day, and once again we’re featuring peacebuilding men we love.

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John Hunter is the subject of the PBS documentary World Peace and Other Fourth-Grade Achievements and the recipient of numerous awards. TED and the Huffington Post named his 2011 TED talk the year’s “most influential.” In March he and his class were invited to the Pentagon to meet with the Secretary of Defense and other officials. A teacher in the Albemarle County Schools, Charlottesville, VA, Hunter has spent over 30 years developing the World Peace Game, a multi-dimensional simulation that invites 9- and 10-year-olds to solve complex global problems in what he calls “the tension between love and fear.” Love almost always carries the day.

Our nation and our world seem to be increasingly polarized. What gives you hope and keeps you working for peace?

I’m a teacher, so the energy in my career and my work in the world comes from other people, from our collective greatness. Walking into school every morning is like walking into a power factory, into a positive current of love. I’m just naturally a very happy person. I’ve had a very fortunate life, so I have lots of gratitude. The children always give me energy. I see children not as unfinished adults but as people, unique individuals. I treat them almost as colleagues, peers. I tell them, you have one teacher, but I have thirty.

How long have you been teaching and learning?

Almost 40 years all told, since 1974. I started getting paid in 1978. My first gig, in my college years, was an experimental teaching program, very intensive, very immersive. We went out to tour the community, the factories, the prisons, all kinds of schools, every kind they could find. We had practicums, internships of all kinds. It was very real and very unusual.

Tell me about one moment out of all those years that really stands out for you.

One of my greatest experiences started out as my worst day, a day that almost ended my career midway through. I was teaching in a middle school with what I considered, a harsh, draconian principal. The kids in my class had been working for six months on a literary magazine that the principal had to approve before it could go to print. Just at closing time on Thursday she sent a mean, hyper-critical letter to them. The publication was blocked.

I came in the next morning to see the kids in a mob heading to the principal’s office to give her a piece of their minds. You know where that would have ended; they would have been expelled. So I somehow got out in front of the group and addressed the ringleader: “What’s happening here?”

He told me and I said, “Oh, OK, but just step in here for a moment first.” They walked into my classroom and I locked the door behind them just to be sure. I held them for an hour, they vented all their grievances, and we came up with a letter expressing their position. That hour upset the schedule for the whole school for the whole day, so the principal called me in and told me she was going to fire me. I went home to my wife and a new baby with that hanging over my head.

As it turned out, I kept my job. Less than a year later I moved to another school. Ten years later―I think it was 2005―I get a call from the University of Maryland, which I have no association with, inviting me to come there to receive an award. I thought it was some kind of phone scam at first. They offer to send a car for me, and I tell then “No thanks, I’ll drive myself.” Turns out that ringleader had nominated me for the Philip J Merrill Master Teacher Mentor Award. A total of 25 teachers nominated by students had been selected. One of the other teachers was flown in from Germany, one from Indonesia. The room was gorgeous, with crystal chandeliers, linen napkins, the best of everything. Best of all, each award included a partial scholarship for another student somewhere in my hometown to go to college, because of what I did. That really made me happy.

How do we get more of all that?

The Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence in Memphis TN, has set up master classes for me in 10 cities this summer. I’ll be traveling around the US to share what I’ve learned from my students. But, I don’t want anyone else to teach like me! I was lucky when I started that I was free to discover my own style. I’ll encourage each of those new teachers to look within themselves and use what they’ve got, to be a one-off. I can talk to them not just about the World Peace Game but about living and teaching with some core principles I’ve tried to distill from my experience.

Hunter and his class with Secretary Panetta

What are those principles?

They’re on the World Peace Game website. One important one is allowing students the luxury of failure. Our binary, right-wrong culture makes it difficult to live in the gray area. In class we create a safe environment, with great care and love, where it’s OK to fail and learn from failure.

Another is not to be afraid of complexity. In the Peace Game we over-complexify intentionally. The game is designed to fail massively at first. The students come through confusion and fear and enter what a friend of mine calls a state of flow. Learning occurs in the tension between love and fear―it somehow torques on that mismatch.

Another principle of my teaching is developing empathy and compassion as a primary objective of education, not an incidental on the side. It’s possible to create situations where empathy arises spontaneously and do that often enough that it becomes their ingrained response without preaching a single word on it.

What do you see over time, as these students grow up? Does the effect last?

Ten, twenty, thirty years later the kids find me―now it’s through social media―and they describe an off-the-cuff comment or a little gesture―really granular stuff, things I don’t even remember doing, usually―that affected the choices they’ve made, the roads they’ve taken in their lives. If we are talking on video chat or Skype they’ll call their kids over and I’ll see them doing it, and then lately it’s their grandkids too, and you know you’re reaching through time.

I see a practical expression going out through the generations, and I interpret that I have made an effect. And I realize how many people here and people in the past made a sacrifice, some of them 100 years ago, so I can be here now doing what I do. We’re all so connected, so interdependent! The gratitude is just automatic because it’s so obvious, but I become more and more aware of it as I get older.

What’s the best thing that has happened since the Washington Post story appeared?

The Post story…way before that―it has been a whirlwind for two or three years running. So many things are happening! There’s the documentary, World Peace and Other Fourth-Grade Achievements, about to be on PBS stations all around the country. A book will come out in the spring of 2013 about my teaching and my life. There are the master classes this summer. In September I’m going to Austria to receive the GLOBArt Award, a prestigious international award for peace work. Vaclev Havel has received it, and Yehudi Menuhin, and Hans Kung, a theologian I greatly admire. I’m grateful. I’m so grateful. What more can I say?

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Also in the June PeaceTimes:

Sami Awad: To Create a Common Narrative

Ambassador John W. McDonald

Generation Peace: Alex Simon, “Empathy and a Loud Voice”

or read the pdf version of PeaceTimes.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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