Last week one of my heroes died. Ted Sizer was an educator, author, school reformer, and the source of much of what inspired me in my own work in schools and with teachers. That may seem like a funny start to a post about what keeps me going, but it actually makes sense.
My first teaching job (somewhat by accident) and my second (completely by design) were both at schools associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), the school reform network that Ted Sizer founded. Connected by a set of Common Principles (there were originally nine, now there are ten), teachers and administrators in CES schools strive to help students do meaningful work, to develop equitable school practices that acknowledge and support all students, and to allow students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that honor both what has been learned and the uniqueness of the individual who has done the learning.
That is the context in which I learned to teach, and in which I developed my beliefs about what it means to be an educator. Although I no longer teach in a CES school, those principles guide my work still. I share them with my current students, and I keep them in mind when I plan and teach my university classes.
Talking about making schools better is popular these days and just about everyone has an opinion about what to do. Ted Sizer’s opinion, and his work, represent what I think is a good start — one that respects teachers and what they know, that asks us to listen to our students and that places a value on meaningful learning that helps children develop into caring, thoughtful adults who can make society better for everyone.
I recently heard a story on National Public Radio about farmer, philosopher and environmentalist Wes Jackson that ended with this line: “If you’re working on a problem you can solve in your own lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.” That’s how I think about my own efforts to change public schools for the better, and Ted Sizer’s life and work inspires me even though I know it’s a job that isn’t likely to be solved in a lifetime.