Conversations on Quality

An interview with Deborah Meier

By Catherine Capellaro

Deborah Meier has spent more than 30 years working in public education. A teacher, writer, principal, and visionary school reformer, she is best known for founding Central Park East Elementary Schools and the Central Park East Secondary Schools in New York. She is the author of The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem and many other books. She is principal emeritus of the Mission Hill School in Boston and a senior scholar and visiting professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.
— The Editors

RS: How do you define quality teaching?

Meier: Teaching that engages — or reengages — kids and their curiosity about the world, gets them asking questions and subjecting their own and other people’s ideas to tough testing, that calls upon the best habits of mind and imagination, that makes perseverance seem obvious and natural, that widens their horizons in terms of subject matter, people, and places.

RS: What can teacher education programs do to prepare students for classroom experiences — especially in high-needs schools?

Meier: They could reengage the adults who are interested in teaching to their own resources as learners, help them reflect upon when and how they learn. Teacher preparation should be set within a community of learners who struggle to identify important ideas, take some responsibility for their ideas, and help them translate their learning in varied formats, including how to pass it on to novices.

RS: What do you think of No Child Left Behind’s provisions for “highly qualified” teachers?

Meier: Not very serious.

RS: How do race and class play out in relation to teaching quality?

Meier: For significant conversations to take place we need a teaching force that reflects the diversity of learners — that is able to grapple with the various perspectives and difficulties that we experience as learners in our society. How things “seem to be” through the eyes of males vs. females, blacks vs. whites, the well-off vs. the poorly off is critical to developing schools that take advantage of our children’s multiple strengths.

RS: How can teachers be better prepared to teach across cultures?

Meier: Mostly they need teaching settings that are also learning settings. That means not teaching so many students that they can’t do much else than sort, grade, classify, and stereotype — that they can truly listen and learn. Ditto for colleagues. We must learn also to challenge each other — seeking consensus is not always a healthy way to approach discourse. We need to enjoy disagreements.

RS: How can a school’s culture and policies enhance or inhibit teacher quality?

Meier: A school’s culture is what teaches — not just individual classrooms. Teachers who are not themselves challenged, interested, curious, and in conversation with their peers have far less to “pass on” to the young; besides, the kids are watching us for examples of what a culture that enjoys challenge is like.

Catherine Capellaro is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools.