In memory of Ted Sizer

Several years ago, as the director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, I was lucky enough to meet Ted Sizer. A lion in the field, Ted was warm, welcoming, and eager in both theory and practice to create space for a new person like me to join him in his life’s work.

Ted died five years ago today — too young, at 77. In 2011, I edited Faces of Learning: 50 Powerful Stories of Defining Moments in Education, to try and honor his work and the impact it had on my thinking. It was a book that stitched together 50 people’s stories of their most powerful learning experiences, and the final one to share was Ted’s.

On this anniversary of his death, I want to share that story here — and urge everyone reading to consider reflecting on, and sharing their own story, at

We miss you, Ted. And we haven’t forgotten what you taught us.

Ted Sizer’s Most Powerful Learning Memory

My first real teaching was in the army, where, as a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant in the artillery, I needed to teach my charges—mostly Puerto Rican high school dropouts who were as old or older than I was—how to prepare howitzers to fire at objects that were miles away. It was an important and practical form of geometry, a subject at which I had not been very successful in school. By now I was good at it, but I feared that learning would be too difficult for them, and then we would all fail.

I learned then that most teachers need to learn before they can teach. They have to learn about their students—and especially about what is relevant to them. My students were determined not to hit the wrong target; they struggled with the guns’ sights’ calibrations until they got them right. They took care of the ammunition so that it wouldn’t grow too wet or too dry. They followed all the safety precautions as if they had written the manual themselves. Where they came from, the learning difficulties they had had in the past, the many differences between their childhoods and mine, even what language they spoke mattered less than the job we had to do together. They did their new work successfully and gave me something I have valued ever since: faith in the possibilities for learning if teachers and students align their incentives.

Ted Sizer

Categories: Democracy, Learning

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 26, 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    thanks, Sam. I loved Ted Sizer. He spent my first 3 weeks at HGSE with him in an intensive on curriculum that he taught on the Andover Campus.

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