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May 27, 2022

The Power of People in Creating Place

From 360° Asheville School Views Magazine, Winter 2022

John Gregory, though continuing to teach various Humanities classes, retired this summer (2021) as Head of Asheville School’s distinguished (distinction driven by John’s leadership) Humanities Department—a retirement that allows John an opportunity to focus on his teaching and his students, while also giving him time to spend with his family (and aged parents living in Maine). (Family, as an aside, is core to John’s essence. He and his wife, Dr. Kate Gregory, have provided a home not only to their four children but also to countless students and colleagues over the years: gatherings, dinners, parties, movies, pies. Every Wednesday evening, John and Kate lead a Music House gathering for Alpha, a student group committed to spiritual development and study. Kate’s famous pies are frequently part of the draw for students.)

John and his family arrived at Asheville School twenty years ago, in the summer of 2001. (He arrived for his interview in a Christ School colored suit. He rarely made that mistake again.) When considering candidates at the time, his resume stood out to me because of his Duke background, and he had earned a graduate degree from Vanderbilt, so he had connections, I reasoned, to the southeast. (Little did I realize before our meeting that John’s interest in Asheville School was driven by his love for the music of Asheville native David Wilcox. Glad we had an opening before Christ School or CDS!) Place played a role, then, in John’s opportunity these decades to engage countless students and colleagues and nudge them away from their usual cantankerous selves and towards their better natures.

Named Department Head after one impressive year of teaching (and coaching, dorm parenting, advising, and and and….), John led the initial overhaul of our Humanities curriculum back in 2003-2004 to create a sequential program (Ancient, World, European [we read Locke and Montesquieu before studying the Declaration and Constitution, examine Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” before studying the deism of America’s founders], and American Studies) of team taught, integrated classes that has earned our Humanities curriculum a distinctive place among boarding schools that has  been recognized (and funded) by foundations and envied by multiple schools who frequently send teams to shadow our classes. We are the only boarding secondary school we know of in the country with this four-year, sequential, team taught Humanities program. Every Asheville School graduate since the Class of ’08 has experienced the reading of core works of literature and the studying of key historical events in the emergence of human culture and thought—a shared experience shaped by John’s efforts to shepherd our coherent Humanities curriculum into being.

Academic Dean Helen Plaehn, hired by John as the curriculum was shifting to our current model, praises “John’s steady leadership of the department through the years, upholding the vision of the Pope grant, and supporting our interdisciplinary work.”    She adds, with amazement, “He has hired every single one of us and supported and inspired us to teach our students to honor the written word. And, he has sat in on over 1000 Senior Demo orals!”

Our integrated program led Asheville School to apply for an E. E. Ford Foundation matching grant to found Project Connect, a summer institute for teachers, administrators, and schools interested in developing interdisciplinary connections. John not only worked heavily in the grant application process, he also worked tirelessly, outside of his regular duties, to plan for and to participate in each of the three summer programs offered. Part of the planning, emphasized by John, involved making use not only of the work of our department’s colleagues but also connecting the program participants to one another and to Asheville and the region as a place of study and enjoyment.

In addition, Project Connect served to connect prospective teachers to Asheville School. John identified teachers through Project Connect—and as a consequence of his intellectual and social connections to the broader Asheville community. One such connection led to the hire this year of World Studies teacher Chris O’Steen, whose family had known the Gregory family for years. Chris taught a couple of John’s children in middle school. As Chris relates, “McNair was the one who reached out to me about the opening at Asheville School, but when John caught wind of my application, he wrote to me with such warmth that I felt welcomed in. As a friend, he spent hours talking with me about school life, and then once I was hired, we talked further about the curriculum and World Studies in particular. John’s enthusiasm for my move to Asheville School and his incredible investment of time getting me ready for the year were such a gift.”

And John is a gift-giver in every sense. He and I team taught European Studies in 2009-2010. I had been teaching over twenty years, and thought I knew a thing or two about student learning and about designing class experiences to aid the goals for that class. That year with John proved a period of intense, hands-on, professional development: a master demonstration of structuring class lessons for students to enhance their understandings. I drafted in John’s wake, work made easier, and students more engaged, because of the quality of John’s planning, so that, as Chris observes, “Every minute of class time is made valuable.”  It was a year that vastly bettered my teaching for Asheville School’s students.

Every department meeting began with John “sharing the gold” about a teaching practice he had observed in a colleague’s class or a praise-worthy comment someone had written about a student. He would share a paper assignment or project a colleague had prepared for students–always always always, what we were doing well presented as a gift.

That’s the thing with John: he’s always working with his colleagues to aid their efforts to provide better experiences and understandings for our students, always bringing in experts and practitioners to enhance the work we do to develop our students’ writing and reading skills. And the beauty is that John toils in the trenches with us, rolling up his sleeves, sharpening his pencil or uncapping his Pilot Tec pen, to study and to learn alongside us. I’ve never known a more enthusiastic adult student and reader: he’s constantly reading books or watching films or listening to songs that colleagues mention to him.  He’s sharing articles that strike him as important to our creation of a special place for learning and human development. As Helen Plaehn observes, “John never rests on his laurels but always takes on a summer project to enhance his teaching; he’s a lifelong learner.” Simply put, John’s intellectually curious, and he infects us with his enthusiastic curiosity.

My colleagues and I have learned a lot about teaching and student comprehension from John, and, even more importantly, we have been witness to and learned the lessons of graciousness and kindness. John models what is most important in teaching and schools (and rarely performed in a consistent manner): catching our students (and colleagues) doing something right—and drawing it to their attention to reinforce it. That gift has made the case to put the person at the heart of this special place. We are better because John’s very being demands we be better. We are good as we are because of John’s very human goodness.