We talk with MacArthur “genius” award winner Deborah Meier, a founder of the small schools movement, about what makes a good school. She talks about how to build and maintain trust and mutual respect among students, teachers, and families.
*Overview and transcript below.
02:10-03:24 What is an ethical school?
04:49-06:31 Centering families in secondary school
06:32-09:54 School as an intergenerational community
12:40-16:11 Advisories and a democratic community
16:12-16:20 Connections between teaching early childhood and high school
Transcription of the episode
Jon M : 00:15 I’m Jon Moscow.
Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to our Ethical Schools podcast. We talk to all kinds of educational innovators who are creating what we call ethical classrooms and schools and we’ve been talking about how to develop relationships. Ethics is based on relationships, and within the community, if there are relationships that are trust-based and resilient, we can build entire educational communities that feel like real communities.
Jon M : 00:47 And you know, the idea of what a school community is is important in itself. We use it to include students, teachers, administrators, all of the other staff members, parents and families and local community members and a lot of these are excluded from the sense of community in many traditional schools. Our guest today is one of the founders of the small schools movement and she’s somebody who’s thought deeply about all of these issues. As they say, she needs no introduction, but as people usually do after saying that we’ll introduce her anyway. Deborah Meier spent 50 years as a Chicago, New York City, and Boston school teacher and principal, including a pre-k and kindergarten teacher and principal of a secondary school, an elected school board member, the mother of three public school children, a union activist and author, including “The Power of Their Ideas, ” In Schools We Trust” among many other things and recipient of the MacArthur genius award. She was also the principal of Central Park East I and Central Park East Secondary School or CPESS that my sons attended many years ago. Welcome. And may we call you Debbie?
Deborah M: 02:03 Yes. That’s what you once called me, right? What the kids called me, too.
Jon M : 02:10 Yes. Well, thank you so much for joining us. One question is, what’s the essential element of what makes an ethical school in your view or a really good school? What’s, what’s the key piece?
Deborah M: 02:22 Yeah, lots of people would disagree with me because I have a different ethical understanding. But I think the most important thing to me in a school is that everybody should have a respectful relationship with each other, which means that they think that other people are worthy and important. No one was disposable and no one is less worthy. So, that includes the family, the community the school is in. And I think that kind of relationship is the ground basic thing that you need in the school where people can trust each other.
Amy H-L: 03:04 Sounds like we, the way we envision communities as well, people trusting each other.
Deborah M: 03:12 Not agreeing with each other always. But trusting that their intention, that people’s intentions are nothing hidden or hostile to ours.
Amy H-L: 03:25 Yeah. I mean, Debbie, you’ve spoken about the need to have as few secrets as possible, to be transparent. How does, what does this mean in practice?
Deborah M: 03:36 It’s complicated in practice because it means as few secrets about things that are relevant to the two of you. I’m not saying that everybody should lay out everything on the table starting from their first sin as a five-year-old. It means that people are not keeping secrets that are of importance to the other person from them. So it means I’m not keeping secrets from parents, that I’m not keeping secrets from kids about what I’m up to and why I’m doing what I’m doing. And the same with my colleagues and with the people in the kitchen and so forth and so on. It’s what parents who are, especially from minority communities and maybe from lots of communities of poor people, that the school is up to something that is hostile to the family. I regard the family as worthy, they may even regard the child as worthy but not the family and their intention is to pull the child away from their community and their family, to help them escape their family and community.
Amy H-L: 04:49 How do you center families when you’re talking about middle schools or high school?
Deborah M: 04:56 I think in fact it’s more and more important that you have a good relationship with the families. Part of the relationship. I used to think like a lot of people, including a lot of kids, that once they were teenagers, parents should stay out of the way. But I found out when I started the secondary school that parents remain and perhaps even as kids are leaving childhood, the parents are even more important because they’re beginning to try to figure out the long term bond between family, mother and child and father and child and also that parents are so important in letting the child grow up and have independence so that if you’re not all talking about that openly together, that hurts. And you know, I have conversations with some families where I realize that this child leaving home was going to be an enormous sacrifice for family, which, because this child has taken over the role of helping out with the younger children, doing some shopping and I hadn’t realized how much that family needed the child. So if the child went off to college, you can understand that both the child and the parents might suffer and we didn’t talk about it and try to figure out a way to help everybody solve that problem. We were just fooling ourselves.
Jon M : 06:24 So how, how does the school fit into, you know, what you’ve talked about as intergenerational culture? What’s the role of the school there?
Deborah M: 06:32 Well, it’s also the staff are intergenerational too, you know, so I was often much older than the teachers in the school and sometimes much older than the parents back usually. And like I still see you as a youngster.
Jon M : 06:52 I’ll let social security know that.
Deborah M: 06:54 My children are just getting social security, too. So that’s what I call a youngster. I think it’s making the world available to kids without trying to shield them from it so that they witnessed the, the staff as a community. They witnessed the community, including the custodian and kitchen staff. They witnessed the various relationships between people and hopefully they witnessed them as respectful relationships even though sometimes there’s sharp disagreements. And that in a sense they see what that can look like, to have sharp disagreements and still hold on to a strong, even affection for each other. Then we just spend a lot of time trying to bring the family into this community. Obviously they’re not there every day. The rest of us are, but they need to feel as though they could be there. Their entrance in the community would change the community. They belong there, too. And so we’ve never said parents have to have a appointment to come into this school. They’re welcome at any time. If they want to spend time in a particular class, we urge them to talk to the teacher ahead of time so that they have sort of communicated beforehand. And then we have several times a year formal family conference and then we don’t any longer call them parent teacher conferences because we hope as many members of the family that seem to be relevant come grandmother, older brother and sister. And we think that if there’s particular teachers that are relevant to that particular moment of jobs, like they should be there and the students should be sort of in charge of the conference, to set the agenda and bring with them work that demonstrates their progress as well as their problems. And um, now we often end up a conference saying, let’s get together in another month when there’s not family, formal family conferences to see how things are going. Maybe a suggestion is made about how we’re going to handle certain difficulties. I’m not very sure about whether that’s going to work. So we say, come, let’s talk again in another month. Um, right now we all agree we’re going to do this, but let’s see whether it works. So we have [inaudible] phone conversations with families also. One of the things we tell kids is don’t tell us secrets that you want to keep from your parents as we may or may not be able to honor them. And we will probably, the one thing we’ll promise is if we don’t honor the secret or the semi secret, we will let you know first so that we can talk about how to help parents hear some news that I think they need to know about.
Jon M : 09:55 So the advisor is clearly essential person in this interaction with the families. And more generally. I mean, looking back at my experience with my sons at CPESS, the advisory was, was an absolutely critical part of that. And I think that you basically created the, the concept of the advisory as people know it now, or you certainly played a major role in it. How do you see that? What, what’s the advisory? What should an advisory be?
Deborah M: 10:26 I popularized it, but we used to have something in the high schools. By the way, the elementary school is different. Their teacher is in a sense the adviser. She sees the child across many different domains. But in high school the problem is that the math teacher sees the student only as a math teacher, 40 minutes a day or whatever. But the advisor’s job is to see the child is the whole across different subject matters. And also to create a place where there’s usually no more than about 12 or 15 students in an advisory and most advisors stay with the same students for several years. So they get to know the child as a, not just as an in-school person, but they take trips together and see what they’re like on a trip. My advisees used to come to my place in the country few hours north of Manhattan, so for a few days we would work together making meals and going to visit colleges, which was part of the purpose of the trip. Shopping, sometimes going to a movie together and I would see them and they were sometimes quite different in a very different setting and we began to develop a different kind of relationship. Um, we had the advisory every day for, I think it was 45 minutes to an hour. Unlike homerooms, which was what high schools usually had, which meant the first 15 minutes or 10 minutes of the day really as a check in time to what is, who wasn’t there. So it was, I still think homeroom was better than nothing [inaudible] that idea. And I think for a lot of high school teachers it was an eye-opener because they had not ever experienced, that sort of an open agenda, an hour a day in which they were control of what in a way. And their group of students were in control of what to talk about. There was some agreement across the school level about what went on in advisory, but most of it was designed he advisees with the advisor. Yes.
Jon M : 12:40 Well, actually it sounds as though, I mean Amy mentioned at the beginning, you know how this really ties into the concept of community and it also ties in really fundamentally the concept of democracy. I mean, what do you see as the definition of democracy in a school setting? How does it play out?
Deborah M: 12:59 Well, everybody has a stake in the school and all the people who have a stake in a school have a voice in the school and ideally, which of course can’t happen in a much larger setting, they know each other and trust each other. So in a larger setting, the trust is kind of on faith. We pretend. We act as if we can trust each other is often not the case. And we, it’s an important “as if” for democracy to work, and it’s one of the reasons racism is so [inaudible] to democracy because there is no reason for some people to trust others when race comes into play. So at least it helps students get a sense of what could be if we all could trust each other. And if we all could, if there were no secrets and we take that idea of no secrets to another level, and that is, it’s important to democracy that we all have the same information even if we interpret it differently, we have access array of information as possible.
Amy H-L: 14:07 You have these close communities in a form of advisories. How do they interact with one another? How do the kids feel that the entire school is their community?
Deborah M: 14:20 Well, first of all, most of the rest of the day they’re not particularly necessarily with the same students that are in their advisory. And second of all, the advisory includes in our system included two grade levels. Seventh and eighth graders were together in advisory.,10th so that they and all of these students have other networks of their own. So students get to know each other’s networks. There are lots, their sports teams and a lot of things where children work together in different combinations. So I have the feeling, you know, we had, there was a reunion that was held by, uh, I think the first two or three graduating classes last summer. And one of the things that intrigued me, I went to it and one of the things that intrigued me was that the, there must’ve been 7,500 students there, I don’t know, something like that. And it was to watch a grade, they all knew each other across age groups and how much they felt that they belonged to some special community and network that was always available to them. And they help each other find jobs. I mean, they have hung out together and created a network not only of themselves, but between themselves and adults that they came in contact with, often during the years at Central Park East Secondary School, when they went out to community service jobs, some for those who else helped them get into college, but they were also people that the student could call on for many years and could make available to their phones. It’s complicating the network and expanding it in a way that makes the school more powerful than just the time you spent there.
Jon M : 16:12 I have a, which for me is the last question and Amy may have others to ask, but it’s interesting because Debbie, you were both a pre-K teacher and a high school principal. What do you see as the connections?
Deborah M: 16:25 I think every high school principal should have experience in pre-k and kindergarten. When I was being vetted to become a high school principal, I hadn’t been an elementary school principal. In fact, I ran, I was like the principal, but I was the lead teacher, so when I went to high school the state required me to be a principal and the one of the questions pushing at me those high school interviews was how, in a sense, how dare you apply to be a principal when you haven’t ever been a teacher. The high school I, I did with them that in fact it’s one of my, one of my advantages over there that I knew where the kids had come from, that I knew families in a way that most high schools don’t get to know them. And because I had mostly taught only morning kindergarten, I also had the afternoon to visit schools, including my own children’s schools. So I saw schools from many different perspectives that I think it was a great advantage, but the best of all was [inaudible] how intellectually curious they were. That gave me the unshakable belief that there was nothing wrong with those children, which I think a lot of high teachers don’t have an opportunity to see, how much of the children they meet in class have been in a sense damaged by not only by the school but by the years in a society that has been look down upon them and treated them disrespectfully, but I saw the kids who came from the families and knew that it wasn’t family in most cases that had failed them.
Jon M : 18:15 That’s very powerful.
Amy H-L: 18:16 It really is. Thank you so much.
Deborah M: 18:21 Thank you for raising these questions.
Jon M: 18:23 Thank you for your time.
Amy H-L: 18:24 And thank you for tuning in. Please tell your friends and colleagues about the Ethical Schools podcast. Visit our website to subscribe to the Ethical Schools newsletter and to this podcast. You can follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @ethicalschools. Thanks again. See you next week.