Sizer Returns to Andover to Share Past Experiences

Nancy Sizer shared her memories of Phillips Academy with the community during Wednesday’s All-School Meeting, sharing anecdotes ranging from the school’s move to co-education to the origins of Head of School Day. Sizer’s husband, Ted Sizer, served as the headmaster of Phillips Academy from 1972 to 1981. During her time at Andover, Sizer served as an Instructor in History and as a tennis coach, who was “much beloved and very accessible to students,” according to Head of School Barbara Chase. During the All-School Meeting, Sizer described her uncertainty upon her family’s arrival to Phillips Academy in 1972, “which was [a school] not nearly as good as the one today,” with a “sink or swim atmosphere,” little diversity, and even a tradition of bullying Juniors at the start of school. She recounted the school’s controversial decision to admit female students, the eventual merger in 1973 between Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy and the successful but difficult effort to “change the school without changing the school’s constitution.” Phillips Academy feared that state politicians would force the school to give admission and scholarship preference to students from Massachusetts and therefore change the school constitution created at its inception in 1778. “We didn’t want the scale tipped for a certain group of people. After all, there’s supposed to be ‘youth from every quarter,’” said Sizer. Sizer also described the aftermath of the merger, when the new female students and the transferring Abbot students struggled to coexist. Sizer recalled a story about a math teacher, who had strongly resisted the idea of co-education, but later realized that “girls could be bright and do math and that [one] could grow fond of them.” She also shared an attempt to get the entire student body involved in a secret project to make a sweater for academy receptionist Meredith “Dickie” Thiras. The goal was for every student to knit at least one stitch in the sweater. Sizer said that when the Andover community presented the sweater to a surprised Thiras, Head of School Ted Sizer declared that there would be no school the following day, calling the event “Dickie Day,” the equivalent of today’s Head of School Day. Sizer said she valued seeing how much “a serious, exciting and warm community can add to the lives of ‘youth from every quarter.’” “[Ted Sizer and I] learned a lot at Phillips and some of the things we learned would go into the designs of the schools we helped [to plan],” she added. In addition to working at Andover together, the husband and wife taught at Brown University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In addition, they served as co-principals of the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School. Comparing Phillips Academy to the Parker Charter School, Sizer said that both schools have students and parents who have sought a better education, well educated faculties and teacher workloads small enough so that each student is recognized. Sizer said that the future “public purpose” of Phillips Academy will be to provide a practical model for education “not so out-of-the-question for people that it can’t be considered by [the public.]” “It means that you can be selective, but not universally selective with only one criterion, and that you can be expensive, but you’ve got to work hard to keep the costs down and keep scholarship money up,” she continued. “It requires a lot of modesty in order to be a good model,” she said. “If you want to blow the country away by how amazing you are, you can do that, but that will only appeal to a certain amount of people and [the model] probably won’t have good replication.” Throughout her speech, Sizer alluded to The Students Are Watching, a book Sizer and her husband co-authored that Andover’s Class of 2011 and the faculty were required to read over the summer. Sizer and her husband originally did not plan to write such a book. An editor of The Beacon Press attended one of Ted Sizer’s speeches about the “moral dimensions of education” and suggested that the Ted and Nancy Sizer pen their ideas into a short book. The couple drew upon their own teaching experiences to write parts of their book. Sizer wrote the anecdotes that appear at the beginning of each chapter, and her husband wrote the analysis portion. They edited each other’s work. “We had done jobs together, we raised kids together, we lived in the same house, but writing a book together was a brand new experience. We each had full reign over the other person’s prose. But it was fun,” said Sizer. According to Sizer, the book emphasizes the fact that “the students are watching” their teachers and thus faculty “should ponder what [the students] are seeing.” “We [teachers] should make sure that we are both devising policies that are truly wise and exhibiting behavior that is truly principled,” said Sizer. “I think everybody [at Andover] is with the program on that. I don’t think it’s particularly deficient here.” Sizer referenced a chapter entitled “Bluffing” in which a student, Angela, who hasn’t done her English reading feign as if she has and a teacher, who hasn’t had time to prepare properly for class, tries to make appear as if she is prepared for the lesson. “Environments like the one Angela and her teacher faced, [in which you] have too much to do and cannot get through it without corner-cutting, can slip into your life if you don’t make sure that they don’t,” Sizer said. “I imagine that that is quite a problem [at Andover]. There’s just so much you can do, and there is so much that is provided.” “The teaching here is better than it used to be. It’s just livelier, it involves kids more, and so they grapple more,” Sizer added, saying that she considers the school’s student-teacher relationships excellent. “I think, in many respects, that the relationships we had with our teachers were profound enough that we were attracted here and want to recreate that,” said Christopher Shaw ’78, Instructor in History, one of Sizer’s past history students. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the beautiful buildings or even the richness of the curriculum. It had to do with the fact that an adult really cared about me, listened to me, cared about what I thought and gave me a voice,” he added. Aram Shrestinian ’11 said he enjoyed reading Sizer’s book because it discussed “how faculty-student relations are important to how a school educates the students.” “I think Phillips Academy does that really well, but I think students need to take responsibility of having relationships with teachers into their own hands because teachers aren’t going to reach out to kids who are unresponsive,” he added.