July 1998 marked the end of my two years teaching English and Drama at Tiger Kloof School in South Africa. Earlier that year and with little idea of what to do next, I made a short trip back to the States for some lightening networking, determined to secure a new professional adventure. By luck, one of the conversations was with Ted Sizer.
Ted visited Tiger Kloof years before, about the time that this celebrated school was reopening from forty years of closure by the Apartheid regime. He traded school lessons with David Matthews, Tiger Kloof’s visionary principal, and added to the school library a copy of Horace’s Compromise, marked with a thoughtful inscription.
David arranged for me to meet Ted, who was by then co-principal of Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, Massachusetts. At the time, I knew little about his work or the Coalition of Essential Schools. Nor could I explain the difference between a charter and district school.
But as far as Ted let on, this hardly mattered. He was eager to hear about Tiger Kloof’s progress and flatteringly asked my opinion of public education in South Africa. He toured me around Parker Charter, located in a windowless intelligence building on the decommissioned grounds of Fort Devens. He patiently explained the school’s approach and essential features: the importance of relationships and personalized instruction; the notion of students as workers; an emphasis on depth over breadth; the modeling of democratic practices; and the advancement of students to increasingly challenging work based on a demonstration of mastery. To a relatively inexperienced teacher, this last point came as a bit of a shock, particularly when Ted shared that students of different ages were in the same grades and would move on only when they and their teachers determined they were ready.
When it came time for advice, Ted made two recommendations. First, and based on what was surely a poorly-articulated interest in public policy, he suggested I read Lisbeth Schorr’s Common Purpose. The book was a revelation. Its argument for a more coordinated, personalized, and relevant social welfare policy was intuitive, seemingly within our reach, and not unlike what Geoff Canada would build in the Harlem Children’s Zone. Then Ted, always the teacher, suggested I go back to school, get my Master’s, and re-enter the work of education fortified with new skills and knowledge. So inspired, I thanked him for his time and then, impulsively, drove straight to Cambridge to pick up an application at the school of education where he was once Dean.
We stayed in irregular contact over the years, e-mailing through his mischievously-named “faustie” address. He offered guidance when New York City was planning Children First. We met, somewhat ironically, in the office of Building Excellent Schools to discuss the Chancellor’s charter school initiative. On another memorable occasion in Hyannis, he chastised the attendees of a charter conference for lacking a sense of history and failing to judge their work against forty years of research and evidence. A couple years later, he expressed some interest in the UFT’s planned charter school but also encouraged us to look at the pilot-model, such as the Mission Hill School founded by his friend Debbie Meier. On the few times we chatted, he always shared what he happened to be reading and what he was thinking about, and it was always interesting.
I valued his guidance and the clarity with which he advocated for a democratic education that celebrates ideas and history and the patience and care it requires to help children learn. Ted distilled the purpose of our work into just a few words. Amidst all of the noisy controversies of policy, politics, and personality, Ted asked us to prepare well-informed skeptics. We’ve a long way to go, but the charge is clear.