Jerry Nash: “Chess can improve the student-teacher dynamic”

by Uvencio Blanco

Professor Jerry Nash is the current chairman of FIDE’s Commission on Chess in Education. A long-standing educator who is passionate about helping others, Nash asserts in this interview conducted by Uvencio Blanco: “Chess can really positively alter the classroom environment by improving student behaviour and engagement”.

Professor Nash is the current chairman of FIDE’s Commission on Chess in Education, a national consultant to the US Chess in Schools Foundation, the 2015 National Chess Educator of the Year (prize awarded by University of Texas), and a Goodwill Ambassador in Chess Education for the Judit Polgar Foundation.

erry Nash was born in Lansing, Michigan on September 28, 1955. When he was very young, he moved with his family to a town nearby Paris, Tennessee.

His academic training has a strong humanistic background. He achieved a Master of Arts degree from the Tennessee Technological University (2012), a Master of Divinity degree from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (1984), and a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Tennessee (1977).

He is married to Ruth Price Nash (1977) with whom he has two daughters, Sarah and Rebekah. He is fond of reading, writing, walking, travelling, singing, playing the guitar and…chess.

Uvencio Blanco: Jerry, what is your academic background and your main areas of interest?

Jerry Nash: My professional experience is centred on teaching. I have always had a broad range of interests. My first Master’s degree (Master of Divinity) provided a background for theological education and helped me to develop answers to the questions surrounding why we believe what we believe. My second Master’s degree in English helped me to develop my writing skills and fulfil my interest in exploring themes of good and evil in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This was the thesis paper for my degree.

I enjoy literature of all kinds, and over the years I have come to understand the power of stories in our lives. I have also always had a passion for helping others to succeed. My current activities in chess arise from first-hand observations of the impact of the game on elementary school students. To have the greatest success in life, people need to make good decisions. I believe chess can help people develop the critical thinking and decision-making skills that are needed to survive and thrive in this world.

Chess in Schools (not affiliated with the organization in New York) is soon changing its name to Chess in Education – US to better reflect our educational mission that goes beyond the K-12 setting. In 2021, Jesper Hall of the European Chess Union’s Education Commission invited me to be the Secretary for the group developing a global survey in partnership with FIDE. After the success of the survey, I was asked to lead the effort to develop a 4-year Strategy Action Plan for FIDE’s Chess in Education Commission. This group included CIE experts from more than 20 countries. Not long after, I became FIDE Senior Adviser for Chess in Education. And in November 2022, I was appointed Chairman of FIDE’s Chess in Education Commission.

Can you summarize your chess career in your country up to the FIDE Chess and Education Commission?

I taught myself how to play chess at the age of 14. I lived in a rural area of West Tennessee and no one else that I knew played chess. My first rated tournament experience was as a college freshman at UT Martin. Fast-forward many years and while I was working as a college campus minister in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I was contacted by the local school board. They asked if I would help them start a chess program in the schools. At that time, in an area of about 100,000 people, there were two of us who could help them. Later, our chess community grew to five adults who could teach chess and run tournaments.

But my experience coaching chess to elementary school students became the starting point for training teachers to introduce the game to their students. I saw first-hand how it was helping students to develop critical thinking skills that many of my university students did not possess. My later work as National Chess Education Consultant for Chess in Schools included two significant achievements. The first was a statewide Chess in Education initiative in Alabama sponsored by the state department of education and lasted for three years. Several research articles have been published as a result of the study that accompanied this project. The second achievement was another statewide Chess in Education initiative sponsored by the state Department of Education of New Hampshire.

Throughout the past 26 years, I have also led professional development (PD) for teachers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Detroit, Michigan, Washington DC and Tennessee. The consistent feedback from teachers attending the training — and seeing the results in the classroom — has been extremely positive. Many teachers over the years have stated that our PDs were the best that they had ever attended in their career as an educator. Since most American teachers must attend multiple PDs every year, I take this as a high compliment not just for the training, but for the reality of chess making a difference in their teaching and in the lives of their students.

In addition, I have delivered presentations on the educational connections of chess at numerous local, state and international education conferences as well as at international chess in Education Conferences. It is critical that we help embed the conversation about chess within the educational community to help establish its credibility.

In the exercise of your leadership, what have been the achievements that have given you the greatest satisfaction?

One of the passions throughout my life has been the drive to help others to be successful. Helping others is a core value for me. I have had the opportunity to do that as a teacher and especially as a campus minister for seventeen years. In the latter role, I counselled university students in making critical life decisions regarding faith, career and relationships. Providing a listening ear to students who often had no one else to go to provided a deep sense of satisfaction.

In recent years, creating meaningful professional development (PD) experiences for teachers has given me great pleasure. Most teachers enter that career to make a difference in the lives of students. I love to watch the discovery process take place during a PD as they realize that they can really play chess and use it in their classrooms. They leave the training eager to implement what they have learned. They contact me later about how it has changed their students and themselves as teachers. I am gratified to know that I have helped those teachers achieve their own goal of making a difference.

We are still under the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In response to the statement that confinement is the greatest psychological experiment in history, what is your opinion?

It is unfortunate that the latest pandemic occurred during a time of increased social polarization and media disinformation. The lack of trust within society that was already building exacerbated the negative impact both from a medical and psychological perspective. Better critical thinking skills and the ability to discern truth from fiction would have helped. These skills may be crucial when the next pandemic arises.

How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has affected education, particularly students in primary and secondary schools?

My wife is a second-grade teacher, so we saw the effects of the pandemic first-hand. The lasting impact has been difficult both for teachers and students. Teachers are now leaving the profession in larger numbers due to the stress imposed by government regulations as well as the increased difficulty in dealing with students who are farther behind in skill development than ever before. Students have suffered significant learning loss through the pandemic period. In addition, many of them find it harder to engage with teachers and other students as a result of the isolation.

Trying to make up for the lost time in developing knowledge and skills has placed enormous stress on the entire educational system. In the US, it is increasingly difficult to find qualified teachers for all the classrooms. And if a teacher gets sick, it is almost impossible to find a substitute teacher.

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