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16 October 2012

John Shortt, educator

John Shortt, educator

John Shortt is a senior adviser with European Educators' Christian Association, professorial fellow in Christian education at Liverpool Hope University and an adjunct professor at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

John's main work in the past decade or so has been in in-service education for Christian teachers across Europe with EurECA and in the countries of the former Soviet Union in association with ACSI (Association of Christian Schools International). Before that, he was a mathematics teacher for seventeen years and he worked at the Stapleford Centre near Nottingham for ten years. He is co-author, with David Smith of Calvin College, of The Bible and the task of teaching.

His main hobbies are family history research, bird-watching (with his wife Val who is rather more expert at it than he is), cycling (when he overcomes inertia) and Sudoku (the killer variety).

What did you want to become when you were a child?
A cowboy riding the ranges of the Wild West on a big white horse – I was quite young then!  But later on, in my teens, I wanted to leave the rural Irish farm where I grew up and become a successful business person with a nice family, house and car like my uncle who lived in Dublin.

Can you give us a highlight and lowlight of your own school years?
A highlight would be my experience as a lone Protestant in a Roman Catholic secondary school of quality education at the hands of truly caring teachers. A lowlight would be my failure to achieve Honours standard in English Language and Literature in the Irish Schools Leaving Certificate.

How come you never left education?
Oh but I did! I worked in motor insurance (like my uncle) for several years after leaving school. That was a great time (not least because it was during those years that I came to a personal faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord). I only became a teacher several years later and that was as a way into a Muslim country that was closed to conventional missionary work. Nomadic camel-herders did not have a great need of motor insurance underwriters but everybody needs teachers! Having taken up teaching as a means to an end, I discovered that I loved it and it has been my passion ever since.

What is your philosophy of education?
All depends on what you mean by 'philosophy' and 'education'!  Seriously, though, the two Christian writers on education who have influenced me most are Parker Palmer and Nick Wolterstorff. Both of them put relationships at the heart of education, relationships with what one is studying of God's world and relationships with those with whom you're studying.

Palmer says, "The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds." Wolterstorff argues that education is for shalom and he says, "To dwell in shalom is to find delight in living rightly before God, to find delight in living rightly in one's physical surroundings, to find delight in living rightly with one's fellow human beings, to find delight even in living rightly with oneself."

I heartily believe that teaching and learning should be ultimately about developing those relationships.

Do we value league tables above the child's wellbeing and character?
After what I have just said, you will not be surprised to hear my answer to this a resounding 'yes'. We tend to focus on that which can be measured and we forget that there are understandings that are difficult to quantify, skills that cannot be measured or observed easily, and character qualities that defy definition in behavioural form. The Book of Proverbs says that wisdom is supreme – we may recognise it when we see it but we cannot measure it easily.

How does your faith shape your perspectives on education?
In every way. I believe that a Christian perspective makes a difference to why, how and what we teach, no matter what subject we are teaching. This is because teaching and learning are about opening windows on an aspect of God's wonderful world and looking through them along with others who, like us, are made in the image of God.

UK schoolchildren are unhappier in their education than their European peers. Why is that?
A UNICEF survey a few years ago found this to be the case. I think a big factor must be the grip of the consumerist myth that it is more blessed to receive than to give.

It is encouraging to see a greater interest in happiness/well-being/flourishing as the realisation dawns that abundance of possessions does not correlate with happiness. But I hope that Christian teachers, whether in the home, school, church or community, can teach more and more by life and lip that true well-being is found in a right relationship with God. The greatest Teacher of all teaches us this.

What does it mean to be a professorial fellow in Christian education?
My brief is to support younger colleagues in the Education Faculty (and, at my age, that's all of them!) in their research and teaching – especially those linked with the University's Centre for Christian Education. There was a mention in the job description of teaching 'masterclasses', a somewhat daunting prospect but nobody has mentioned it since I took up the post last March!
Who would you like to share a taxi with?
Barnabas – because, when I grow up, I want to be an encourager like him.