On the Shoulders of Ted Sizer
posted by Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school
I cannot teach a child well, whom I do not know well. How can I teach that child well, if I do not know her enthusiasms or why she makes mistakes or what seems to be out of sorts for her at a given moment, or what is behind her at home? And no two of our children are alike. ~Ted Sizer
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. ~Isaac Newton
We sat in couches and chairs in his living room on the East Side of Providence, 15 college juniors and seniors, sharing our writing with each other. The week before, we had driven together with Ted Sizer and his wife, Nancy, to visit a high school outside of Boston. Each of us, including our two professors, had “shadowed” a student for the entire day, trying to experience and understand the school through the eyes of that teenager. Everyone had photocopied and passed out a one-page “portrait” that we had written, a description of one moment or interaction we had observed during that child’s day. And now we were all discussing what we had learned.
Ted Sizer, education reformer, school leader, teacher, visionary, was one of the most kind, humble, and forward-thinking individuals I have ever known. He was my advisor, teacher, and mentor in college and beyond. My sister worked with and for him after she graduated from college. I decided to go to Bank Street after a conversation I had with him. Ted’s work and ideas are a big part of how I think, what I believe, and who I am. When I read about the current small schools movement, I think about Ted. When I hear about instilling habits of mind in kids, I am reminded of Ted. When I work to hold students accountable for their learning in authentic ways (not through standardized tests), I credit Ted. When I think about creating communities of adult learners in schools, I am deeply inspired by Ted.
Ted Sizer’s work has affected countless students and educators. In regional and national school reform efforts, he continually focused on the importance of each community identifying its own needs and defining ways to better serve its children. In the early eighties, he founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, a network of teachers, leaders, students, and schools. Guiding each school, whether elementary, middle, or high school, is a set of Common Principles, not dictates or rules, but shared values. Learning to use one’s mind well, knowing each student, believing that less is more (curricular depth over coverage), creating a tone of unanxious expectation, and modeling democratic practices are some of the principles that are envisioned in CES schools and are exemplified in Ted’s own life. Ted’s integrity, hopefulness, and generosity of spirit guided both his interactions and his vision of equitable schools, schools that inspire every child to learn how to learn.
In the mid-nineties, Ted and Nancy helped found a charter school in Massachusetts where they later served as acting co-principals. Whenever Ted was asked to give a talk at a conference or university, he brought high school students with him. When Ted sat and listened to a twelve-year-old, he spoke with the exact same tone, interest, and gentle questioning as he used when meeting with an education world bigwig. He believed that schools should be places of decency and trust for everyone, and that is how he lived his life. Last week, Ted Sizer died at the age of 77 after a long fight with cancer. Ted was a giant for me. I know I will hold him in my mind and heart as I learn so much every day about collaborating with colleagues, working with families, spending time with children, keeping a school.
If you have thoughts to share about Ted Sizer, please add a comment below or submit an Alumni Blog posting through Your Voice.
Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program. For the past 15 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has written a handful of postings on the Alumni Blog about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.