Laura Mulligan Thomas conducting the CHS orchestra at TEDx Charlottesville

Agnor-Hurt Elementary School teacher John Hunter believes that educators have an impossible job.

“[Educators] are trying to prepare students for something they cannot imagine or see,” Hunter said. “We might not ever live to see what they’re going to face, yet we’re charged with preparing them to deal with it.”

“How do we do that?” Hunter asked a packed Paramount Theater Friday, during TEDx Charlottesville. “We try to inspire them to build open-ended tools of critical and creative thinking.”

Hunter is the creator of the World Peace Game, a board game that forces students to negotiate peaceful solutions to the world’s economic, political, natural, and military problems.

Three of Hunter’s former students spoke about what they learned from their teacher.

David Cohn, who now plays in the Charlottesville High School orchestra, said Hunter helped him develop patience.

“When we first started playing the game, crises would pop up left and right,” Cohn said, noting that he would rush decisions in an attempt to solve all of the problems and win.

“The true genius of the game,” Cohn added, “is the way in which he taught us these lessons. He created situations where we could make our own successes, and at the same time make our own mistakes.”

Brennan Lee, now a data analyst in Baltimore, said the world he lives in now is scarier than it was in childhood, but that Hunter taught him to think optimistically.

“Even as time goes on, and all of these changes occur,” Lee said, “I’m confident that the 4th grader [that I was] will stay with me, the one who doesn’t see obstacles, and believes in overcoming challenges.”

Amelia Thompson, who played the World Peace Game seven years ago, said Hunter inspired her to be hopeful.

“My generation is stereotyped as being pessimistic, lazy, and egotistical,” Thompson said, “but Mr. Hunter created a group of kids, who instead of looking at the world’s problems and becoming overwhelmed, are going to sit there and figure out how to solve those problems.”

Hunter, now a teacher in Albemarle County, said the essence of fostering that inspiration is building teacher-student relationships.

“The only thing that will work is what’s right in front of me,” Hunter said, “the collective wisdom of the children, and the relationship you have with them.”

But Hunter also stressed that teachers need strong administrators to support this style of teaching. High-stakes testing, he said, was not the answer to assessment.

“No multiple choice test can tell us what’s going to happen,” Hunter said. “A year of bubble sheets won’t tell us.”

“What I think I’ve found over time is that assessment is in who they become as individuals,” hunter added.

Charlottesville High School Orchestra Director Laura Mulligan Thomas is another local educator who spoke about inspiration Friday.

“I believe that teenagers, when guided and inspired, are capable of amazing feats of artistry,” Thomas said. “My love for my students, and my belief in them as individuals and as an ensemble, drives those high expectations.”

Currently, more than ten percent of the CHS student body plays in the orchestra. In the last 30 years, they have amassed a room full of first place trophies, completed three international tours, and have sent alumni on to play with symphonies, as well as pop groups such as the Dave Matthews Band, Michael Bublé, and Taylor Swift.

But, Thomas said, it wasn’t always this way.

“In 1982, when I was hired to teach at Charlottesville High School, there were just eight students in the program,” Thomas said. “Most people didn’t even know we had an orchestra.”

Thomas said developing trust with her students has been the key to the program’s success.

“I listen to my students, I ask their opinions, and I deeply respect their responses,” Thomas said. “I go to their football games, and their lacrosse games, and their field hockey games, and their theater productions because I want to know who they are as individuals.”

Additionally, Thomas credits Charlottesville City Schools for creating a culture of artistic excellence. Charlottesville students can begin playing music in the 5th grade, and Thomas said, many of them are excited about music when they get to high school.

But Thomas said that above all making music is fun.

“There’s no feeling in the world like playing beautiful music for an enthusiastic audience,” Thomas said. “It’s joyful to discover a great musical masterwork from the inside out.”