by Chloe Kiparsky
The English teacher who gives extra credit for juggling, who teaches “grandma” instead of grammar, who jumps on tables in a gorilla costume each Halloween, who has a tie for every ridiculous occasion, and who changes lives, is leaving this year. Mr. John Kissingford, known to students as Mr. K, is retiring after 10 years of teaching at Ouray High School and 30 years in the profession.
Having taught in many places and contexts, including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, a residential special education school, and a private school summer program, Mr. K has “had to remake myself as a teacher in each new place,” he said, which has given him the ability to adapt to many different situations while teaching.
Before he was a teacher, Mr. K was (and still is, of course) a scholar. His love of literature and theater drove him to pursue instilling that love in others, and he has succeeded; senior Mica Hart spoke for many of his students when she said that “he’s completely changed the way I think about literature and art.” He has not lost his passion for literature, which makes a difference in his classes. “Literature offers questions but no answers,” he elaborated, “so you have to sit in the spiritual paradox of the fact that you can make some meaning, you can find meaning, but it’s impossible to know anything, and that can be really painful.” In assignments, he does not force students to answer those questions but to develop their own theses and really explore the work, whatever that may mean to them.
Mr. K has observed that “a lot of people slip into patterns where they don’t get seen, they don’t get known, and that’s the central tragedy that we’re watching.” But showing up to school here every day has given him hope. “It’s an amazing educational environment because every kid is known, and is known in such a way that they can’t hide,” he said. “We humans function best in small community. It’s being anonymous that drives us crazy. It’s rich, deep connection from human to human that keeps us sane and grounded. Teaching here is that.”
The running joke in the high school is that Mr. K is the best - and worst - English teacher in the high school - which is true because he’s the only one. “I always say that I’m the department, and the department meetings are really contentious - a lot of big egos, a lot of problems,” he deadpanned. Because of this, he has had to design a four-year English curriculum. Not only does he teach four core classes a year, but he also teaches college classes, theater, journalism, and has picked up the odds and ends that inevitably surface. Being spread thin may wear some people down, but for Mr. K it poses a unique and exciting challenge. “The goal that I have in all of my classrooms is to figure out the structures where people can learn together,” he said.
One of Mr. K’s favorite stories to tell is when, in college, he didn’t want to write the assigned essay, so he wrote a satirical poem on the topic that made it more fun for him. Not only does he use this story to encourage his students to be creative with his assignments, it encapsulates his draw towards making his classes as fun as he can, while still cultivating an environment of learning.
This is why he advocates for students to think outside the box, and he has observed that “we start shutting down, don’t we, when we get into the grind… when life’s a to-do list, our natural love of learning starts to wilt. When people are hating school - hating an assignment - it really is my only and best advice to find the way you can have fun doing it.” This philosophy has a tangible effect on students; Mica said that “English is definitely not my number one subject, and yet it is one of my favorite classes to be in because Mr. K makes it so fun.”
Observing his students and colleagues throughout his career has given Mr. K a unique perspective on the world - present and future. “The effect of 30 years teaching, of teaching thousands of students, and of reading literature with them, has been to open channels of compassion,” he said. This compassion has driven him to pursue the best possible connections with everyone he comes across, and, according to science teacher Ms. Lakin, “he is so empathetic and he cares so much about students.”
“I think a lot of people are cynical about the state of the world,” he said, but he has a different point of view, shaped by his years of being a teacher. “Teaching has instilled in me a basic belief in the goodness of humanity. All the evidence in the newspapers to the contrary, people want to have good, decent, honest, hard-working lives.”
What’s next for Mr. K? He will be staying in Ouray, and one will likely find him poring over Shakespeare, directing or performing in plays, fencing, traveling, running, and reading.
Casting his eyes around his classroom filled with student art projects, “grandma” lessons, juggling balls, and stories, Mr. K reflected on his career, and on a “joyful decade” at Ouray School. “I’m so grateful that this is the life I’ve led,” he said quietly.