In 1994, Deborah Meier, the venerable educator, author, and founder of the Central Park East School in East Harlem, retired from teaching in New York City public schools. But her respite was short-lived. As she recounts in a new book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (Beacon), Meier was driving to Boston in 1996 when she began entertaining the thought of starting an elementary school in that city. A year later, at age 65, she launched the Mission Hill School, which she has since operated within the Boston Public Schools.
In her book, Meier envisions public schools that, like Mission Hill, are democratic and intellectual communities. Learning emerges not from an endless cycle of externally conceived standards and tests—which she sees as intrusive and destructive of community—but from close relationships forged among faculty members and between teachers and students. Educators in this kind of environment come to trust one another so that they can freely exchange ideas and resolve differences.
Meier spends half of every week in Boston, the other half at her home in rural Hillsdale, New York, where she was recently reached by phone. She spoke about her new book and reflected on the lessons she’s learned—such as the values of small schools and of critiquing colleagues’ work—over a teaching career spanning four decades.
Q. Why aren’t more schools under the democratic control of the people who work in them, as is your hope?
A. My ex-husband and now partner, who is from Missouri, was using the phrase “the Show Me State” the other day. Well, the “show me” is about American skepticism and self-reliance. It assumes that there is evidence in the world you can get your hands on, that you don’t have to rely on someone else’s judgment. Yet more and more and more people say that schools can’t be under democratic control because those [running] them don’t know enough. They believe that outside experts should make the decisions. But if schooling, which is so directly related to raising kids, is considered as something too complex for ordinary people and teachers to wrestle with, then that Missouri “show me”-ness is gone. I want to bring it back.
Q. You want schools in which teachers routinely share ideas, raise questions, and make difficult decisions.
A. Yes, one of the things that made me hesitate about getting into teaching is the usual isolation of teachers within the school. Now, it’s true that some of our greatest teachers [in the past] wanted a room of their own, to avoid other adults. These were the stars, mostly single women who saw the children in their classroom as their life’s work. The school gave them, in the classroom, a private place to create a world. But of course this model of the school as a haven for the solitary great teacher has serious weaknesses. For one thing, children come to see the adult as someone whose power is limited to the classroom. And because the model was all about being able to shut doors, bad teachers could do their own thing without interference.
Q. You’ve long been an advocate of small schools. Is it possible for this community you talk about to be created in large schools?
A. I don’t think so. In a large school of, say, 2,000 students, it would be chaos to try. If kids are moving all over the place, they and their teachers have no home base. What’s key is having a physical place that is a shared space. At Julia Richman [High School] in New York City, a giant school that was broken into several smaller ones, teachers have their desks in a common space so that they easily talk with each other and with their students. Also, each school must have its own distinctive character. When you walk into one school, you must know that you’re not in another one.
Q.You spend a lot of time in In Schools We Trust discussing how important it is for teachers to critique one another. But that’s hard to do, isn’t it?
A. Yes, it’s like critiquing your friends. Teaching is highly personal in nature. Your personality is very much out there. Your temper, good humor, mistakes you make—it’s all exposed, including the stupid things you say, which is unavoidable if you’re an open teacher who refuses to put up a wall between yourself and the kids.
But we need to critique each other all the same, both to improve ourselves as teachers and to help kids do the same thing. At a school meeting last week, someone was commenting on how hard it is to think about how others see us, but we expect kids to take feedback all the time—critical feedback. If we get better at giving and taking criticism, we might help the kids be better at it, too. After all, they’re observing how we work with one another.
Q. But isn’t it hard to know how seriously to take criticism? Different people often have very different ideas of what a teacher should and should not be doing.
A. That’s why you need criticism from a variety of people. And while you need to be open to others’ opinions, you don’t necessarily have to do what they recommend. Furthermore, seeing others teach will give you a greater repertoire of what you can use, what you like—how someone makes transitions from one thing to the next, do students raise hands or not raise hands. Also, watching others teach helps you rethink your own practice, even if it’s a matter of seeing something bad you, yourself, have done and now want to avoid.
Q. What do you see as the single most important thing for schools to achieve?
A. At the top of my list these days is the question of how we can create schools that give kids a chance to belong to an exciting, respectful, intellectual community. When I think of how kids grow up these days without spending a lot of time with their families or with grown-ups, I wonder how they’re going to experience that sense of community deep in their guts.
Now, I know that some school communities will offend me, but I’d rather be offended by what I think of as someone’s bad judgment than drift into this state of distrusting all human judgment. Some of my progressive friends say to me, “If we follow your model, Debbie, there will be some right-wing schools that won’t teach evolution.” Well, I’d rather have schools that don’t teach evolution than have them teach it in a way that has no meat to it because the teachers don’t believe in it themselves. The larger danger is that we’ll have schools that all look alike because the common culture is so strong. And the fact that we put a fake academic culture on top of it isn’t believed by anybody.