Teaching Kindergarteners to be Humane Leaders: An Interview with John Tewksbury, M.Ed.

When John Tewksbury left the military and then a corporate career, he became a Kindergarten teacher and organic farmer. When he came to IHE for his humane education immersion week as part of our M.Ed. program, I kept thinking, “I wish I’d had John as my teacher when I was a child.” Wise, kind, and almost always smiling, John helps his young students develop compassion, responsibility, self-discipline, and leadership. Since most of our resources and solutionary training focus on middle and high school education, we were eager to hear how John brings humane education to Kindergartners.

Zoe: What inspired you to become a Kindergarten teacher after serving in the military for 10 years and working in the corporate world for 12 years? 

John: I have tried my best to live an examined life, asking myself why I am here and how do my actions affect those around me. In doing so, I have been on a varied path that has led me to where I am now. Army life meant deployments and time away from family, as well as constantly moving our home every 3-4 years. I left so I could have more time with my family and establish myself in a long-term community. Working for a large manufacturing corporation allowed me to purchase land and a home. Together, my wife and I developed a sense of community by working and volunteering in our neighborhood. I was happy with this arrangement, but I recognized that I could be doing even greater good for my community if I stopped serving corporate shareholders and instead served my neighbors by educating their children and feeding their families with organic vegetables, and that is where I am now.  It took awhile to get to this point, but I was able to align my life energies (that is my work and career) to the principles that I think are most important. I believe I am following your principle of MOGO, doing what is most good in terms of my career and life energies.  

Zoe: What did you learn in the military that has influenced your teaching?

John: When I reflect on my time in the Army, the thing I remember the most is the esprit de corps, a sense of belonging and being part of something special, and the camaraderie of my fellow soldiers. So, I try to recreate that for my students. My students call me Mr. T. and they are the T-Birds. And they aren’t T-Birds right away; they have to earn it! During the first couple of weeks at school, they have to work together, help each other, and show that they can overcome difficult challenges cooperatively. After the first two weeks of school, my students earn the name T-Birds and a sticker on their folder that states, “I am a T-Bird.” On that day, they run out of the door after school to their parents waving their folder in their hands and yelling “Look Mom, I am a T-Bird!” This process gives my students confidence. It allows them the opportunity to feel that same sense of kinship and uniqueness I felt with the soldiers in my Army units. There is a standard that T-Birds meet; they never give up, they think of others, and they always do their best. The idea of being the same within a small group, but distinctive in comparison to a larger organization, holds a special power that can motivate teams, companies, or classrooms to reach their full potential.

Zoe: Humane educators teach about such complex and worrisome issues – injustices toward people, cruelty to animals, and environmental destruction – and Kindergartners are too young to be taught about such things. Yet, you bring humane education into your classroom every day. What’s your approach to cultivating compassion and responsibility among your students so that they’ll one day be able to address and solve the challenges we face in the world?

John: My approach has been to live my life as an example for my students. Throughout the day I am frequently sharing with my students the things that are important to me, the topics I am thinking about, and the actions I am taking. They know that I am a farmer, and I raise fruits and vegetables organically so that I can feed our farm members in a way that preserves and respects our complex ecosystem. They know I am a vegetarian and choose not to eat meat to do my part to reduce suffering in the world. They know that I was in the Army, and that I worked in the business world, but now I teach Kindergarten so that I can give back to my community in a different manner that is more in line with my principles. They know I exercise and have healthy habits. They see me being kind to them and other members of our school. I don’t ask them to do anything that I am not already doing. And I tell them that directly by stating, “I try to live my life in a way that is an example for you. I want you to be like me.” In terms of the leadership principles I teach, this is an example of how I “walk the talk.” I want my students to think and act in a compassionate and responsible manner, so I model that behavior for them.

Zoe: In a wonderful video for your students that you made during school closures due to COVID-19 you focus on cultivating leadership skills. Why leadership? 

John: Teaching my students leadership skills is something I have been working on for the past several years. First, I used Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Covey’s leadership training program for kids The Leader in Me. I then combined elements of Covey’s work with my own experiences in the military, business world, and classroom. At the heart of all this is our T-Bird motto, which we shout out every morning: “Work hard, play hard and be kind!” Those are words that can guide your life at any age. There is a lot of social-emotional learning going on when cultivating leadership skills. One of the most important traits a good teammate and leader possesses is empathy. Understanding how others feel and what they desire is critical in having a successful team. My training program first focuses on Self Skills, the skills you need so that people will want you on their team; then Team Skills, the skills that are necessary to be a contributing member of a productive team; and then finally Leader Skills, the skills that help you lead your team to achieve success. If we want our students to address and solve the problems we face in the world, then we must give them the tools to learn how to operate in a team environment. They must be able to work, compromise, share, brainstorm and think of others and not just themselves. Working together as a team makes us so much more powerful than as individuals. One way I teach this is by having a tug of war. I call one student to try and beat me in a tug of war. Of course, I win (remember I exercise, and they are only 5 years old). Then I have the rest of the student’s team come up and hold the rope, but I tell them not to pull, and I win again! Next, I tell the team to all pull at the same time, and then they can pull me over, no matter how hard I try. They love winning and can see that a group of little kids working together can be stronger than a grown up. This event then creates a saying for us, “Are you pulling on the rope?” which means are you helping your team?  

Zoe: Can you tell us a story about a child in your class who’s become a humane leader?

John: Each day I select a random student as the T-Bird Leader of the Day. At the beginning of the year that just means they will be the line leader whenever we walk in the hall. But starting halfway through the year, after they have received my leadership training, the T-Bird Leader takes on additional responsibilities, such as getting the class ready to learn during transitions, moving the class through the hallway, solving problems between students, and taking initiative to help run the classroom smoothly. At the end of the day, I have a rubric that my class developed with me to assess the T-Bird Leader’s performance that day. The students can use this feedback to improve their ability to lead the class, and if they earn 10 stars, they are promoted to the level Super T-Bird Leader and are given additional responsibilities next time they are the leader of the day. 

Last year, prior to COVID 19 restrictions, one of my students, Cailyn, earned the Super T-Bird Leader title with a fantastic leader of the day performance. She demonstrated all the traits that we determined make a good leader. When leading your peers, it takes a certain finesse. You need to be firm in giving directions, but also kind and considerate. It can be a tough balancing act. Cailyn was able to do this with much more maturity than I expected. She was able to get the class to move through our daily routines without a hitch, all the while giving encouragement, praise, and redirection as needed to her peers. All day long, she went out of her way to help others and to make the whole class successful. As I have given students the opportunity to lead, I am constantly amazed at the ability they have to make the classroom a more self-directed organization.   

Zoe: I love that! You’re an organic farmer, so I’m going to ask you a question using a farming metaphor: In what ways do you think the education system needs to change to cultivate the seeds you are planting in your Kindergarten classroom so that they grow, flourish, and thrive?  

John: More work needs to be done in our education system to promote the importance of social-emotional learning. The singular focus on academics does not allow students to develop to their full potential. As an organic farmer, I don’t just focus on the yields of my crops, but also on the impact my farming methods have on the larger ecosystem. As a Kindergarten teacher, I am not only concerned about reading and math test scores, but also about the development of my students’ character using the principles of humane education so that they grow up to be compassion, productive, and responsible members of our community. I use the teaching and learning of academic skills as a vehicle to teach what I think is most important: how to interact with the world around you so that you make that world a better place for all living beings.