Reinventing Schools That Keep Teachers in Teaching

By Deborah Meier

Illustrator: Rob Dunlavey

Illustration: Rob Dunlavey

Editors’ Note: This essay is another in a series of Ford Foundation-supported articles and essays focusing on retaining and nurturing teachers. Your comments and anecdotes are welcome. Please address them to Fred McKissack at

If we want teachers who are smart, caring, alive to students’ needs, and are in it for the long haul, we need to consider how to create schools that are themselves centers for the continual learning of everyone connected to them. We’ve learned most of what we know about teaching K-12 from our own schooling experience. Unlearning powerful past history in the absence of equally powerful settings for relearning won’t work. 

We can’t ignore the likelihood that few would-be teachers are themselves “well-educated” when they walk in the door—on subject matter or on teaching/learning. But the school setting is a gold mine for doing something about it in the very process of educating the young. So it was for me when I began teaching in the early 1960s, and so it was for the schools I helped found, in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. Universities can assist in this process, as can every other educational agency we can lay our hands on. But the schools are the center of where it must take place. Because in that way it does double or triple duty—it educates kids, their teachers, and their families all at the same time. Whether young teachers improve and whether they remain in the profession depends in large part on the character of the schools they find themselves in.

The startling reality for me was that even in an average inner-city kindergarten in Chicago in the 1960s, I found more intellectual stimulation than I had experienced in graduate school. No doubt, my previous education helped me to sort out what I was observing, but kindergarten teaching did so by involving me in ways that no school before had. It did so by adopting exactly the opposite message than the current style of standards-heavy reforms propose. 

It was my own empowerment—in the company of children—that reignited my curiosity about matters I had long since lost interest in. My good fortune was to enter that classroom at a time when my own children were young and where I found some interesting experienced teachers. By happenstance, the school I began at was small. We formed an instant informal community; we couldn’t stop talking about what we were discovering.

Joining with others over a shared interest became the model of schoolwide life. We recounted the connections kids made between the seemingly obvious and the quite profound. We noticed ways in which the so-called “language deprived” children had rich and extensive vocabularies once they were excited and involved. We tried to make sense of the connections we were making with families who at times appeared passive or angry.

We were insatiably curious about subjects we had once thought dull, like mathematics. We signed up for workshops, went to newly created teacher centers, and built networks of adults who were fascinated by life itself—and how we come to discover it. The company of both peers and young people—the cross-generational communities that grew out of this work—became our homes-away-from-home.

It was an adventure, not a chore. We couldn’t imagine ever “burning out.” 

I had the odd good fortune to go from this small Southside Chicago school (Beulah Shoesmith) to an even smaller Head Start center in Philadelphia—where three of us started our own “school” in the basement of a church. A year later I got a job in a large Central Harlem elementary school, where the principal allowed four of us to use one wing of the building for a pre-K through 3rd grade sub-school. And in 1974, a daring New York City district superintendent decided to give me and a few other teachers the chance to start “our own schools”—in regular neighborhood school buildings.

East Harlem was, at that time, considered one of the poorest and educationally least successful districts. We opened our doors as Central Park East (CPE), which led to a bold experiment in small, self-governing public schools—a bit like charter schools, but part-and-parcel of the public system. Over the next 20 years the idea grew to be almost normal—before the latest round of reforms hit us all: standardization via testing, scripted, “paternalistic,” top-down deform. Nearly 100 small CPEish schools opened their doors in New York City between 1974 and 1985. Simultaneously, Central Park East became CPE I, then CPE II, then River East, and finally, in 1985, we started a secondary (7-12) school CPESS. 

Our high school mentor, Ted Sizer, had just written Horace’s Compromise and started the Coalition of Essential Schools. He advised us to keep it simple. Only then, he told us, can you keep your mind on what cannot and must not be simplified: the mind of the learner and the subject under study. It turned out, as with the elementary schools, that this work appealed to many other teachers because keeping it simple (and small) meant that it could also be a place for adults to learn from too.

Once again, the same formula that works for kids, works for the adults who work with and for them.

Put interesting adults together with interesting young people—add their families and other curious neighbors—and you have 98 percent of what’s needed to keep them all enthralled. And it’s not that we chose more interesting adults than were in other schools. It was simply that we structured school life to ignite their curiosity and conversations.

Human beings, if treated as such, don’t burn out the way appliances do. But they do need some time off, especially from the labor-intensity of teaching. That’s why we didn’t take an “all or nothing” approach. When a colleague’s husband died suddenly, leaving her a bereft single mother, we reorganized the school so that she co-taught with a close colleague in adjoining rooms with a third adult to give her the time and support needed for a few years. When another teacher needed time to explore becoming a playwright, he took off a year with our blessing and then came back, also with our blessing. But we also created space within the school for us all to play different roles, even just temporarily. The school became a place where adults—including parents—gathered for shared meals and talk, where parent-teacher conferences were family-school conferences, something between celebrations of learning and brainstorming future plans.

We mixed ages and grade levels, and made sure the teachers of the younger students weren’t considered “dumber” than the teachers of the oldest by putting everyone on the same committee-of-the-whole. We designed the curriculum together, including graduation requirements. Would-be graduates were judged by their peers, by parents, by the teachers they had long ago, and the current faculty, as well as by members of the larger public. This same collective met to share their concerns, review the work of the school, and make changes for the future. Every year, for example, the high school staff reviewed, revised, and voted on its initial “understandings,” the graduation requirements, and the rules of the game.

It was hard and fun. The school challenged us to expand our roles and accept new ways of thinking. Case in point, we all became architects. Just as the kids needed spaces of many sorts so did we—indoors, outdoors, big rooms, little cubbies. We needed, for example, a “common” room, a sort of central village square for work, exchanging ideas, and access to each other. Our hallways needed rethinking, to provide wall space as well as sitting and talking space. We needed a schedule of some sort, the simpler the better. We needed sufficient time for each part of this equation (parents, teachers, kids) to spend time together and apart from each other—time to reflect, observe, and reflect again, to read about and share information that we might later choose to follow up on—minutes later, months later, and, if needed, years later.

We built an in-school culture that bound us together on behalf of a common cause, not against a common enemy. Most of us didn’t want to leave. Some did due to family moves to other locations, occasionally for pregnancy, and a few teachers found this way of teaching did not satisfy their notion of teaching. However, some went on to start other sister schools with similar school cultures. Just as our graduates stay in touch with us and with each other, the same is true for staff. They have clustered together for summer retreats years after they were working together, and many look back nostalgically from their current positions as coaches or college teachers with longing for the excitement of those years.

What’s interesting even about our nostalgia is that we recognize that while the work may have been hard and time-consuming (and our children at home can attest to that), even after 20, 30, and 40 years of teaching, we keep hanging around schools. In short, for most of us, retention will take care of itself, given a human-friendly school. I tell new principals that their first task is not to “do something” about children’s learning, but to look upon their staff as their classroom. If they can “do something” about the learning curve of the adults—and that includes families and neighbors—that will get transferred across the generation gap to the young. It goes also for the relationship between younger and older students, more and less experienced teachers—who can play powerful roles in passing on know-how to each other. That’s the job of a principal, their “tunnel vision” task is to keep their eye on the whole so that others can focus on this or that child or classroom. Oddly enough, to do so well requires that the responsibility remain in the hands of everyone. We don’t at such schools ask, “Who’s accountable?” We’re all accountable, including the kids, their families, the larger society. We therefore save a lot of time for asking each other?”what else could I/you/we have done?” “Come look at this piece of writing!” “Come visit my class.” “Talk with José and see what you think.” “Read this, read that?it’ll amaze you, surprise you, reassure you.” And out of all this “just talk,” comes caring about both ideas and practice, and each other.

At Central Park East Secondary School and Boston-based Mission Hill, the last school I started, we all agreed we needed at least five hours of adults-only time a week, a few retreats away from school, and time at the end of the year and before school starts—the way any halfway decent summer camp does. We invented ways to do this. We developed a community service program for the kids that gave each cluster of four to five teachers a whole morning off each week. The key is that the faculty was in a position to figure most of these things out themselves. On matters such as these, they were the ultimate deciders. If we are concerned about “retaining teachers,” then we need to be concerned about making schools more democratic.

That included deciding everything from whom to hire and, if necessary, counseling those who were not making it out of teaching. We often felt that someone was not right for our kind of expectations and approach but that they’d probably be OK in a school that taught differently. But in both the elementary and secondary school, we mostly worked with people to help them become very good teachers. That meant we had to figure out how to “judge” each other in ways that sustained a sense of community, but also maintained our responsibility as heads-of-school. In a user-friendly school, these are not as mysterious as they appear, even if hard to explain. No one likes to teach badly, and we are all sensitive to even the facial expressions of colleagues who are—on purpose—in and out of each other’s classrooms, share kids and families, and spend many hours together. It’s also the one special responsibility of the head-teacher/principal to figure out what might help—either to help teacher x become better or on rare occasions to help teacher y consider another path for future work.

We need lots of forms of networking—the adult staff is one network, our teacher-colleagues city- and nationwide are another, our students’ families and their community is still one more, and on and on. Crossovers make it easier for me, so I loved working in the same community as I taught and where my own children were schooled, but I found ways to make up for it when I didn’t. The smaller the class size and the student/teacher ratio, and the school itself, the easier it is to manage these networks, and this close observation. And it improves the odds. Every time we can improve the odds, we need to do it—weighing the trade-offs carefully and opting for what best creates that interesting cross-generational community.

There are those seminal experiences in our lives that give us a taste of what might be possible in the larger society more of the time. Not replicas of such a society, but a means for judging what those big words might mean—trust, respect, understanding, along with affection and loyalty. Good schools are not the only place where these happen, but these are some of the few places left where they can happen in public spaces, where our joint work—not our kinship or even friendship—is what brings us together, and where our responsibility for each other’s learning is the measure of our mutual success. These are the kind of institutions that nurture attachment, commitment, and growth.

It’s doable. The details will vary from school to school, and some will fit one person and not another. But we cannot dare continue to keep kids in schools for so many, many years—incarcerated if you will—without doing a better job of making our schools places we all love. Places that we can’t wait to come to every morning and that we leave, exhausted and pleased with ourselves, every afternoon. Places where long-term experience and wisdom are not dismissed as the bad products of “seniority” rules, but what good societies take seriously. Schools are for the children, but they are also where the young build their images of adulthood. Our schools need to serve the students and the teachers. 

It’s doable. To accept the status quo would be the greatest disservice to students and the society at large.

Deborah Meier began teaching in Chicago in the early 1960s. She later taught Head Start in Philadelphia and kindergarten in Harlem. She founded a number of public elementary and secondary schools in New York and Boston, all of which served predominantly low-income African American and Latino students. Meier, a 1987 MacArthur Foundation fellow, is the author of many books, including The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust.