Not just a visitor: The life of John Chubb

By:

Nov 16, 2015

I first met John Chubb at an event that EdisonLearning hosted in San Francisco in February of 2009. Disrupting Class had come out a few months earlier, and Anthony Kim, then at Edison, invited me to speak to a gathering of educators.

The timing of the meeting was note-worthy from my perspective. John, along with his longtime collaborator Terry Moe, had a book about to come out called Liberating Learning, which would make several of the same observations that we did in Disrupting Class—but our book had come out first.

Knowing this, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I met him. As a novice in the education world, I was nervous to meet this luminary.

What I remember from the event though was John’s grace, magnanimity, and smile. And what a smile it was. Infectious and larger than life.

Those qualities make it all the harder to realize that it is also a smile that we won’t see again on this earth, as John passed away late in the evening of November 12 at the age of 61.

As I came to learn over the six and a half years since that evening in San Francisco, John cared about one thing: opportunity for all students. If that’s where your heart was, and you were going to help, then John welcomed you. Your methods might be different or you might disagree on the particulars, but it didn’t matter. He cared about helping all students.

Several years later, I joined the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) board because of John Chubb.

I attended public schools growing up, wrote Disrupting Class from the perspective of wanting to help district schools innovate, and knew little about independent schools outside of the fact that I had taught tennis at one, competed against students who attended independent schools, many of my friends from college went to them, and I had worked with a few independent schools over the years since Disrupting Class was published.

But John was now president of NAIS. He exuded optimism about the opportunity independent schools had to innovate and do right for all students worldwide. When he asked me to join, help, and work with him, it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to.

John was a man of big ideas, action, and a penchant for saying what he thought. He was courageous in the face of criticism and welcomed a good debate. He never hesitated to prod, poke, and improve his own thinking.

He dripped with passion, and he had a big heart. He was also indefatigable and unafraid of hard work. As the seeming model of physical health with the energy he possessed, it makes his passing all the more difficult to process for so many of us.

As we mourned and shared our memories of John at the NAIS board meeting November 13, Wanda Holland Greene, the head of the Hamlin School in San Francisco, recalled the last line of a poem, “When Death Comes”, by Mary Oliver: “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world”.

John didn’t simply visit our world. He left an enduring legacy that will continue to change the lives of students for many years to come—from his work as a visionary with his research, bold writing, and speeches to, more recently, his time as president of NAIS, where he set an audacious course that will live on even as he does not.

I remember the last time I saw John. We had dinner over the summer. I was sharing stories and photos of my twins, who were then under a year old. John shared stories about his own twins, who were then in college. I soaked up his vignettes, wisdom, and life lessons. John’s pride in and love for his family were evident. As we sipped wine and talked, he smiled.

That’s a smile I’ll hold on to here, in my memory, as so many of us honor John’s legacy by continuing to work on behalf of all students.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.