Richard Lodge: The spirit of an innovator
Everyone called him Ted.
Not Dr. Sizer, even though he was a nationally known leader in the education reform movement and founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools.
Not Dean Sizer, former dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, former head of the education department at Brown University, and former Phillips Academy headmaster.
And not even "sir," although he literally wrote the books about what the New York Times called "the entrenched limitations of the American educational system," starting with "Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School," in 1984.
He was just "Ted" - as in "good morning, Ted!" - to the students he passed in the halls of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School, which he helped found in 1995 on the decommissioned Army base at Devens.
Ted Sizer died in October at the home he shared in Harvard with his wife, Nancy, after a four-year struggle with colon cancer. He was 77. The roster of his academic, literary and educational policy impact was documented in a lengthy obituary in The Times.
Friends and colleagues gathered for a memorial at Harvard University a month ago, but early this week, the Parker community paid tribute to Ted in the small gym at the school. Among the speakers was Deb Merriam, an arts and humanities teacher when the school opened in 1995, and now Parker's academic dean. She talked about Ted and her dog Blue, the (un)official Parker dog a fixture in the classroom, at meetings, at retreats, as well as the hallways.
It wasn't that everyone was on a first-name basis or that the occasional dog slept in a classroom that made the Parker School unique, of course. It was the education that took place there, under the nine essential principles, drafted and espoused by Ted Sizer. Among them:
Help adolescents learn to use their minds well. Help each student master essential skills and areas of knowledge. "Less is more" was a mantra. And students learned far more than less because they learned how to learn and how to think.
Parker teachers, many of whom were only 22 or 23 when they first stood at the front of the class, teach by asking questions, by listening, by encouraging participation by every student. That's how Ted worked with them. Many current and former teachers recalled visiting Ted and Nancy who served as co-principals of Parker one year at their hilltop home where he pulled aside even the most junior faculty member to ask how it's going, what's working, and to solicit suggestions and ideas. Merriam recalled these hilltop talks, and said it was quite a while before she realized that, to the rest of the world, Ted Sizer wasn't just someone she knew, he was someone to know.
This was Ted, who, one day would be in Washington, D.C., speaking as an authority on progressive, innovative education. The next day he would be back at the school in Devens, beaming as a middle schooler detailed his upcoming "gateway" project documenting flora and fauna in a nearby wetland. This was Ted, traveling cross country one day to be keynote speaker at a conference on education, then back at Parker the next day to help set up the gym for the regular "Cafe Wednesday" open mic sessions that drew out poets, classical pianists, budding rock stars and dancers from the ranks of the Parker community.
For people who had read his books or heard him speak on essential school education, or, perhaps, had sought his counsel as dean or headmaster, Ted Sizer was a person to know.
To those who knew him, he was an inspiration, a mentor, an influence. That was Ted.
Richard Lodge is editor of the Daily News and writes an occasional column, published on Friday. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.