John Fisher reflects on 50 years of teaching at Aspen High School
Woodworking teacher doesn’t plan to retire any time soon, he says
John Fisher built Aspen High School, in a way: the trophy cases in the entryway, the counseling center, a print shop, tables in the commons. Most of the high school theater sets? Fisher had a hand in those, too.
He’s built something of a legacy while he’s at it: The 2020-21 academic year marks 50 years of “life skills” taught in Fisher’s workshop on the Aspen High School campus. He turns 75 on Thursday.
“I always say they should rename the school John Fisher High School,” said Pam Fisher, his wife of nearly 49 years. (The couple met in church shortly after John moved to Aspen; they’ll celebrate their wedding anniversary in August.)
Skiing brought John to Aspen in the first place on a trip in 1970 from Kansas City, where he was teaching at the time, and to an extent got him the job, too, he said. While riding a lift at Buttermilk, he struck up a conversation with someone in town to interview for a job at Aspen High School — in woodworking.
“I said, ‘So what are you interviewing for?’ He said, ‘They want to hire a woodworking drafting teacher to start five vocational programs,’” John recalled. “I said, ’Oh, OK.’ So I got off the lift at the top, went to the restaurant, of course got on the payphone — it was 1970 — called the school, talked to the superintendent, set up an interview.”
The two-and-a-half hour interview was a success, and he began that fall. He has spent the past half-century teaching students here how to construct cabinets and furniture, draft architectural designs, and build skis and boats and paddle boards in his curriculum of woodworking, laser engraving and drafting courses.
Those tangible skills have drawn many students over the years into careers in those fields: projects, newspaper clippings and memorabilia cover classroom walls from alumni who are now studying architecture, designing sports equipment or working in construction.
Though not listed explicitly on the syllabus, he instills some universal lessons too — ones that will apply to any path his students follow after graduation.
“One of the things I try to convey to the kids is, whatever they choose to do, do the best that they can possibly do,” Fisher said. “The other thing I try to convey to them is, learn to do your job as if it were not work. In other words, choose something to do that it’s not going to be like going to work every day.”
That ethos has served Fisher well over the years, he said. His five decades of teaching tenure include work under 19 district superintendents, 23 high school principals and the global COVID-19 pandemic. And still, there hasn’t been a single day when he woke up and wished he could stay home and sleep in instead.
“This is a man who never complains. That’s why we’re married,” Pam joked. “He just takes it step by step.”
In addition to his schedule of high school courses, he owns Fisher Construction with his son Travis; in non-COVID times, he also teaches night classes for adults looking to practice the craft.
“It’s been fun,” John said. “It’s never been boring.”
The hybrid learning model dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly added new challenges to his work — teaching woodworking online isn’t exactly an ideal method for hands-on instruction.
But John has adapted nonetheless, just as he has for decades as new technology emerges. A laptop with a camera setup allows him to travel throughout the classroom and position the camera above a drafting table or workbench to demonstrate a lesson.
Some students who choose to attend online come into the shop only occasionally to use the tools. Participation in his courses has dwindled this year due to the hybrid setup; Fisher is hopeful for an eventual return to normalcy.
“I’m looking forward to the day when all the kids are back in class — and no masks,” he said.
With 50 years of teaching at Aspen High School under his belt, is retirement ever in the cards? Not likely, according to the couple.
“We don’t believe in retirement,” Pam said.
John plans to keep on teaching “as long as I can do it,” he said with a laugh — literally.
“When you see his obituary in The Aspen Times,” Pam said, “you’ll know he isn’t teaching.”
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