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In Memoriam: John Chubb

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On Friday we learned of the sudden death of John Chubb, president of the National Association of Independent Schools. John was only a couple of years into what promised to be a long and productive mission at NAIS, and his voice and wisdom and vast experience were already beginning to awaken some of the sleepier members of the independent school community.

To be frank, I had been among the skeptics when John's appointment as president was announced. His background was outside "the industry," although very much in the field, and over the years he had staked positions with which I could not easily agree. I worried that his presidency might further isolate independent schools from the mainstream dialogue on education. Just days before he took office, I called on him in this Education Week blog to make his presidency about bringing independent schools into the national conversation on education, to connect our work more authentically with the "real world" in which we live and a part of whose future we purport to be creating in our work with students.

It didn't take long after that letter for the good people at NAIS, for which I have done some contract research and writing over the years, to whisk me to their offices for a chance to meet John. He was an exceptionally vigorous and thoughtful man, and in a way we seemed in a way to hit it off over an intense talking lunch. In the following weeks he generously allowed himself to be interviewed for my blog, and a year later he was willing to reprise the experience.

Along the way I began to realize that John, as on outsider, was in a position to do some gentle prodding in ways that skeptics had not foreseen. In his NAIS President's blog bearing his name and in many of NAIS's recent initiatives bearing his stamp there is a clear push on schools to do the very things I had called for in my open letter. My attitude went quickly from wait-and-see to a growing inner smile.

I also caught sight of something else, the last time I saw John speak to a large audience. He was recounting a visit to some students on a school-related adventure in the outdoors, the kind of learning experience that can visibly transform students, and John had observed this happening. As he told the story I heard a familiar catch and hesitation in his voice--the same thing that happens to me when I am talking about kids and learning and find myself moved. I get misty--too easily, my own kids tell me--and this was what was happening to John.

I knew at the moment, however he and I might have disagreed on tactics, that in the end this was a man whose first and last care would be for kids and for making their lives and learning richer, better, more completing. However awesome his résumé, however compelling he was as a writer and a speaker, in the end John Chubb was simply an educator who cared very, very deeply about children. There is no better epitaph for a teacher.

Peter Gow is currently executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group.

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