Meet John


No matter what we do, what we do matters.


Meet John Smoke. John is a sixth-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Downers Grove, Illinois. John is passionate about teaching kids not only the academic skill set that they will need, but the life skill set that will transform their lives. John is also an ordained United Methodist Pastor at a local church.


G: How long have you been in education?

J: I have been teaching for ten years. Before that I worked, and still do, in a church, and was working with kids in the youth programs. And with the children at the church, that’s where I saw the most hope. I just loved working with kids. They are just so open, and they are such good listeners and thinkers and are the way of our future. So I decided to go back to school and got my teaching certificate.


G: Yes, I believe that kids are the way of the future too.

J: Yes. There is a great story that happened a few years ago when I was getting started in my teaching career. I had gone to the library, and gotten a book called “A Long Walk to Water”, which is a story about a girl in Africa who has to walk four hours each way twice a day to get water. The kids were really engaged and wanted to know more about it. So we found an agency that builds wells in Africa, and they kids wanted to build one. I found out it took $15,000 to build a well, and I didn’t really think they could do it. But they raised money and wrote letters and raised over the amount. So now there is a well in South Sudan that has a plaque that says “Downers Grove Hillcrest School”. And that’s why I love working with kids. Because they see possibilities. As adults we see obstacles.


G: That is amazing. That is just confirmation of what you believe that kids can be the genesis of change.

J: Yes, children are one of our greatest human resources.


G: Seeing challenges as opportunities is what I feel like I am hearing you talk about. That kids possess that spirit. I am sure being a teacher comes with it’s own set of challenges. How have you found growth through challenges in the classroom?

J: The biggest thing that I have come to recognize this year is that the coping strategies and coping skills of our children are much needed and are lacking. We have had a lot of tears this year in terms of some really hard stuff. I have realized that kids need to know that when things happen, how are they going to deal with it? I do think we need a little thicker skin, but we need to learn how to respond. I keep bins of corn here in the classroom because of something I learned through an activity at church about playing with corn and focusing on mindfulness. That was a growth point for me to know that there are little things we can do that will help kids learn how to relax and be more mindful.


G: That is such a great tool and idea. We all need to learn how to move through challenges from more of a place of calm centeredness.

J: Yeah, I have really been doing a lot of work with mindfulness. I have a Tibetan singing bowl that I use in the classroom as well. My favorite part of the day is when we begin with the ringing of the bell. It’s a great way to start the day. The energy just shifts.


G: That sounds a lot like Eastern philosophy.  You are a Christian minister, but you are obviously introducing ideas and concepts from other traditions. How did you come to this approach?

J: The word “God” carries so much baggage for people. Whenever I hear the word “love” I think of God. “Love, Kindness, Holy”, whenever you can use those words instead it crosses every tradition. Then you invite everyone into something that is bigger and beyond us. One of the things we did this year at school was to start a Kindness Club. And it’s the kids that are coming up with these ideas. For me, that is my faith being lived out.


G: It sounds like you have really developed through the kids different ways of teaching better coping skills. You are a Dad of teenagers, you are a teacher in the trenches dealing every day with these kids and the stuff they bring in from their lives outside of school. What do you really draw on when you need inner strength and coping to get through your own challenges?

J: Well, breathing for one. I think that it can calm us all down incredibly if we just breathe and calm our mind. The other thing I try to do and tell the kids is to just smile. There is scientific evidence that even if we don’t feel it, if you smile, it makes you feel better, so I try and do that. I also love quotes. I do a quote of the week. One of my favorite ones from this year is “You never know what kind of battle someone is going through, so be kind”, and that is the biggest thing I am trying to teach these kids here. I am trying to get them to really think that because I don’t know what the person next to me is going through, I can’t judge. I have to be kind. If you are having the worst day in the world, be kind to someone, and most likely, your day will change in some way.


G: What gets you out of bed in the morning?

J: It’s things like the year with the building of the well. I had no idea that was going to happen that year. There are just so many possibilities that can happen in a day. The kids say things and it becomes our mission. It’s the surprise of what can happen in a day. And when you have a class of 26 sixth graders, there are a lot of surprises that can happen. I am always excited to see what the day has in store. Being in the school setting is an adventure.


G: I feel so hopeful for these 26 kids. And those kids will go out into the world and teach their parents, and their kids, and affect others through what you have taught them. There are so many ways what you are doing will create ripple effects.

J: There is a lot of good stuff happening, so I am glad to have an opportunity to share. Teaching is about so much more than facts and geography. It’s about community.