After 42 years of working as a teacher and school administrator, Stuart Grauer figures he has learned a few things — among them that large schools with hundreds or thousands of students, where the focus is on test scores and homework grades, are not the most conducive places for high student achievement.
Rather, the best places for learning, according to Grauer, 65, who founded and heads an independent private middle and high school in Encinitas, are those where students feel safe and connected, and values such as kindness, compassion, perseverance and courage are emphasized.
On Jan. 1, Grauer published a new book that he intends to celebrate the teaching profession, and the stories of teachers from around the globe that he has found to be inspirational. “Fearless Teaching” is available on Amazon.com, and at some local bookstores.
“That’s what I’m writing about. I’m going around the world and finding communities where these values are alive,” said Grauer, who founded The Grauer School in 1991 in a storefront in an Encinitas shopping center. Today, the school has 150 students in grades 7 through 12, and its own campus on South El Camino Real. The school is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2016.
The book includes 33 stories of teachers working in a variety of settings, from Africa to American Indian reservations to the Pacific Islands. The common denominator, he said, is that the teachers in his book are working in environments that enable them to develop deep personal connections with their students.
“Teaching is the study of the student,” he said, something that is lost when talented and dedicated teachers are part of large school systems where as many as 50 percent of the employees are not working in the classroom. Grauer, who subscribes to the “small school movement,” advocates moving control of school districts — and education funding — away from Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, and back to local communities.
Referring to his new book, Grauer said, “When you read these stories you cannot help but think, wow, I’m in a real cool field. I’m a teacher. Let’s reclaim that.”
One story in “Fearless Teaching” is about the Hadza, a tribe of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania.
“World over, most schooling emphasizes accountability, meaning that the will and free spirit of a fair number of our youth are drummed out of them over years of mandatory sitting in rows for hours every day and ranking the value of each based fundamentally upon how compliant they are with our requirements and standards,” Grauer wrote.
“Hadza children are subject to no such competitions or judgments. They merely play. Through mimicry of their elders, they care for infants, build huts and tools, make fires, defend against make-believe predators, and tell stories. If their parents have quarreled, they may rehash it the next day in playful mimicry. Suicide and anxiety are incomprehensible. They learn to stay alive and healthy naturally,” he wrote.
Students need free time and outdoor play, which in many cases has been replaced with test preparation sessions, Grauer said. That doesn’t mean he is against testing.
“I love tests,” he said. “It’s like doing pushups, exercising the mind in different ways.”
But test scores should be used to help teachers better understand students and their needs, rather than for determining how tax money is spent, or how teachers are paid, he said.
The rules imposed by large, bureaucratized school systems put teachers in a tough position, Grauer said.
“Today’s teachers have to be willing to risk their job to listen to and support students,” he said. “If they don’t keep drilling through the required, standardized program, they’re probably going to get fired.”
According to Grauer, the ideal size for a school is probably no more than 250 students, and definitely below 400. Students benefit by mixing with different age groups, he said, and they must feel both physically and emotionally safe.
“When you achieve this, you have what you need to really get high performance,” he said.
Grauer will do a reading and book-signing at Warwick’s book store in La Jolla at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 21.