Educator Deborah Meier stresses the importance of teaching democracy

A scholar, author and education advocate, Deborah Meier did not set out to be a teacher, but teaching changed her life and the lives of those around her. She emphasized to the graduands of the Faculty of Education last Monday the importance of teaching children the complexities and subtleties of democracy, and of standing up for what they think is right in the classroom.

Meier received an honorary doctorate of laws from York during the Spring Convocation ceremonies for her dedication and commitment to education and the educated mind. She was the founder and teacher director of a network of highly successful public elementary schools in East Harlem, New York City. She was also the founder of Central Park East Secondary School, a New York City public high school in which 90 per cent of the students who entered went on to college. High School II, a four-hour documentary, was made in 1994, based on the success of the school.

Left: Deborah Meier

Meier started her teaching career as a supply teacher, which she called the hardest thing she’d ever done, then became a regular teacher in a kindergarten class.

“Teaching kindergarten was the most interesting thing I had ever done,” said Meier, a faculty member of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development. “And the most important accomplishment turned out to be opening up possibilities for a specific group of people whom I came to love – those students, their teachers and families, and the communities that I both worked and lived in.”

She taught first in Chicago, moved to New York City then on to Boston. Over the years, she said, she often fantasized about changing the world of education across the US or at least in New York City or Boston. “Most of those attempts didn’t succeed, but I haven’t given up.” She encouraged the graduands in joining her in accomplishing change in the education system in Canada and the US, starting with the classroom.

“I think the most critical part of that work remains in the classroom, close to children, their families and their communities,” Meier said. But it is the voice from the classroom that is not being heard in education policy-making today. “The odds are often against us. Few great, inspiring schools survive for too long, but they still leave a legacy….” Even though educators might not get it quite right, and they probably won’t live to see it perfected, it is still worth striving for.

“Voluntarily or involuntarily, we are members of a community and we will do it ill or good, joy or pain. What we can’t have is no impact at all,” said Meier. “But we can choose how to have an impact.”

Right: Deborah Meier (left), Chancellor Roy McMurtry and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

One of her prime loves has been democracy and the importance of teaching it in the schools, not allowing it to be absorbed by chance. “Schools are the most powerful place for teaching [democracy] intellectually and socially. Our task as teachers is to teach ourself and others how to exercise judgment wisely,” said Meier, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. “That’s the definition of what it means to be an equal citizen – to have an equal opportunity to enter into the arguments of society and to be able to exercise wise judgment based on mindful experience, which includes imagination and careful culling of many forms of evidence.”

It is the messiness of democracy and its absence of guarantees, that Meier says she treasures about it. “It’s also why it’s so easily lost, because when things don’t work well in the classroom, in the community, in the larger society, we often think that democracy should be abandoned.”

Meier feels that schools today are abandoning democracy. It is not properly taught, nor is it practised in the educational system. “Most of the great schools of education in my city of New York are merely pipelines for producing research and policy and scripted teaching.” Teachers are no longer trusted to take the teaching beyond the script in America, but Meier thinks that’s a mistake. She told graduands the number of school boards in the US has dwindled from 200,000 when she first entered teaching to less than 13,000 now, although the student population is three or four times as large. That is because educators at the local level are no longer trusted.

She encouraged graduands to make a difference, keep good company and to join with their students in learning, instead of mandating it to them. It is important to huddle over the mysteries together, with all their fascination.

Meier is the author of several books, including The Power of their Ideas: Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem (1995), In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization (2002) and Many Children Left Behind (2004).