School & District Management Opinion

Remembering Ted Sizer

By Deborah Meier — October 29, 2009 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

I have been feeling sad during the past month. First came awareness that the health of an old colleague of mine has moved into its final stages. When she joined us at CPE 32 years ago, she was the first person my age to be my colleague. It was nice not to be a mother or mentor to someone. I learned so much from her. It’s like losing a part of my own history.

Then came word of Gerald Bracey’s sudden death. I was startled because his sharp-witted, clever, and yet erudite contribution to our work has been a life-saver to me over the years. Bracey’s annual reports and his Phi Delta Kappan columns made me both wince and rub my hands in delight.

Then came news of Ted Sizer’s death last week. I was at an AFT/NEA meeting of TURN in Washington, D.C., listening to “Arne” Duncan. (Asking us to call him Arne doesn’t ring true to me—why is that?) My cell phone rang—confusion, embarrassment. Then came George Wood’s words—"Ted died last night.”

A week later, and it’s still not believable. Can it be that he is not “there” for us, for his family, and for America’s schools? But maybe that’s the wrong way of thinking about it. Maybe he is still “there,” but in a different way.

Ted was, first of all, a close friend—he and Nancy have been at my side on many a nerve-wracking occasion, and their home has always been open to me, as have their ideas. We met in Paris and introduced our granddaughters to each other at a lovely Paris restaurant. Mine still remembers the occasion. Was Ted a mentor? I think so, in the sense of that word that I like best. Not from the perspective of a “follower,” but an aspiring colleague. His words and his actions represented the highest standard for what it was we should aspire.

That’s what I mean by having standards. That is not lost.

He also met a high standard for friendship—both of a personal and collegial kind. He regularly showed up when any of us needed him—to speak to yet another chancellor or to another “ornery” school board member. He “used” his status in the most tactful way and that made all of us gain stature from him.

His patience-toleration level was much higher than mine; he would sit at meetings in which I poured forth my passionate opinions and not say a word. His face did not betray (as mine so often does) his opinion. At most, a benign and slightly amused look would on occasion pass over his features. Then, he would enter the conversation for a few minutes of laid-back words that changed the course of the discourse. I will “imagine” him at the next heated gathering I attend—and the words he might have uttered.

Whether it was at meetings or during school visits—he was a learner every second. His ears and eyes were taking in what I too often missed, or rushed by. His equanimity in the face of what would seem to be crisis situations buoyed me up. It did not appear to be the response born of naiveté or foolish optimism. We need to learn to pass this on to our colleagues in the field.

I met Ted 27 years ago. His background made me suspicious—Harvard, Andover, New England WASPS (white Anglo Saxon Protestantism). He was indeed all of these. But he took from each institution and culture what even I had to admire about them—and left the rest behind.

Ted, we shall overcome in time the obstacles facing us, and we will use the wisdom of your character and your ideas to do so. These ideas, propositions, and principles may not flourish tomorrow or even in my lifetime, as they didn’t in your lifetime. But you made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds and thousands and more of us—those you taught formally and informally about how schools could be. The impact you have had can never be taken away from us. It has already changed the shape of so many schools and school people (including parents and kids). What lies at the heart of your mind and heart will persist, and persist, and never die.


P.S.: It’s interesting how different Ted Sizer and Gerald Bracey were. The gentle giant and the sharp-minded grouch. It would be a poorer world if we didn’t have some of both!

P.S. 2: To add to Diane’s Tuesday blog re. what the rich want for their children:
Michael Bloomberg: Spence (average class size: 16-18);
Joel Klein: Miss Porter’s (average class size: 11);
Photo Anagnostopoulos (COO of NYC Education Department): Dalton (average class size: 15)
President Obama: Sidwell Friends (average class size: 15).

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