To the Editor:
In response to your obituary of Theodore R. Sizer (“Sizer’s Legacy Seen in Appeal of ‘Personalized’ High Schools,” Oct. 28, 2009), I would like to share a personal story that gets to the essence of this wonderful person.
It’s important to bear in mind that, at the time of my story, Ted Sizer had been a successful schoolteacher, Harvard faculty member, and dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as the headmaster of Phillips Academy and a faculty member at Brown University, where he had turned his attention to American secondary schools. His books had become classics, and he had founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, involving hundreds of high schools throughout America. He was one famous dude, able to call upon senators, university presidents, chief executive officers, media stars, and wealthy philanthropists to support his cause.
At the height of this fame, he took two days away from his schedule to come to my home state of Georgia to work with public school educators on a problem critical to us. My colleagues were amazed that the Ted Sizer would take the time; how often does a Northeastern, urban intellectual, Harvard dean, and so on drop what he is doing, catch a plane, and spend several days in rural Appalachia to help people he hardly knows, and on top of that, refuse even to entertain the idea of being reimbursed?
Upon entering the packed room where the meeting was soon to begin, my teacher friends asked me in awestruck tones, “Where is Ted Sizer? What does he look like?” I looked around the room and found him—in a blue shirt and khaki pants, moving around the meeting table by himself and asking those seated, one at a time, if they would like their coffee cups refilled. I told my friends, “He is the guy over there, with the coffeepot in his hand.” This was quintessential Ted.
Don’t get me wrong, Ted wasn’t a meek person. His advocacy on issues of assessment, equity, and personal attention to students were unflinching. But more than anything else, he saw himself as a person, no different from anyone else, and believed that the way the world works best is to listen more, talk less, and then figure out together how to provide a better future for all. Ted, the person with the coffeepot, was the message, and that is why I miss him so.
A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as Ted Sizer: ‘The Guy With the Coffeepot in His Hand’