The Nutcracker Suite, A Winter Holiday Confession


This is a really crazy story, from a little village in the Swiss Jura, and it happened a long time ago. I never thought I’d tell it. But it’s been a few years now and this feeling that I need to come clean is coming back. It’s kind of a winter holiday story, anyway, that time of year. Maybe your kids will like it.

It started out when I wanted to ski the Alps but, as a starting teacher, couldn’t afford a plane ticket. Somehow, after 4 years of letter writing, I finagled a job in Switzerland.

Skiing in exotic locations was the reason that sounded good. But here was another reason, maybe the real reason: I had never felt confident or connected as a young teacher. I was never in the faculty in-group. Moreover, I wanted to belong to more than a clique, and like some of you have found out, we might have to leave our own culture to find that.

So when the unexpected job came up (the only actual telegram I have ever received), in a handful of days I had dispersed most of my worldly possessions and was airborne.

In a little Swiss village, I had to walk across a castle moat to get to work every day. It was a small school. Connected. I thought, “Here is a traditional culture where teachers will be treated not as bureaucrats but as dignitaries. Maestros.” I felt a part of an ancient, learned fellowship. Gelernt.

Ski season wouldn’t be long. To stay fit, I soon learned that some of the men in the school were forming a gym fitness club, so I joined. We did workouts two or three times a week in the shiny, spacious gymnasium next-door to the old castle.

Long about November, a new instructor was introduced, an unlikely one. It was a fit and charismatic dance teacher, a beautiful, young blonde woman.

Now, to understand this story properly, you need to appreciate that every area of Switzerland has its own dialect of the Swiss German language, and I was picking up maybe one in three words at that point, doing a lot of gesturing and nodding in getting along. So when she started teaching us ballet moves, I just took it on faith that she was nothing more than an interesting guest.

But she came back the next session, and all that next week, and the next. We were, at least in part, becoming a ballet troupe.

I don’t want to cast any judgment, but I have to say, and few Swiss would deny it, that the Swiss men are built thick and strong in general, and that the word “graceful” is not among the first words that might come to mind in describing them. This was a Dumbo the elephant ballet troupe, all the way.

These hopeless lessons continued with the greatest camaraderie and humor till late December, at which point we could dance an entire scene from the Nutcracker Suite. Wondrously, my understanding of the Swiss German language along with my adjustment into the faculty began growing secure and humorous for the first time in my young career. After travelling 6000 miles to a foreign land, at last I was feeling more a part and at home as a teacher.

It can be a dance, but with connection and a pinch of comedy we can toss out presumptions, baggage, rank and politics that come on so many faculties. The research is overwhelming: Teamwork in organizational settings is a vital aspect of creating a happy, highly motivated, inclusive and safe environment. (At The Grauer School today, we believe real teams can transcend cliques. As a small school, we can evaluate our best teachers based upon their part of the “whole” and its myriad, interconnected teams — not just on what happens when they close the classroom door.)

At last the performance day arrived. I had borrowed some black tights from my friend, Lizzie. Our beautiful teacher showed up with size large, pink tutus, which we donned with pride like a uniform.

Most likely, I was not especially talented as a ballerina, and I doubt I look good in tights, but I know I have remembered the moves I learned there in that gym my whole life. I learned them as a part of forming a real team, and that meant something to me: purpose, connection, and tribe.

Today, three decades after these events, I grinningly enjoy thinking of The Grauer School faculty as a repertory troupe that, if need be, and however wild that need, could divide up and cover all the parts — who would do the pas de deux? Who would choreograph? Who would manage the stage? — learn the Nutcracker, and, in crisp and gorgeous synchrony, on stage before all the world that was willing, to dance.

My main impulse here is not merely to set the record straight about one more crazy checker of my past, one that may at first cut appear to lack significance beyond the admittedly simple joy that making an embarrassment of myself once again brings to so many who know me, the little sitcom of my life. On the one hand — the thing that sounds good — I have skied almost every region of the Alps, steep and deep. But I am also a former member of a men’s ballet troupe, a high performance team that danced the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in full drag before the entire village of Bottmingen, Switzerland, one New Year’s Eve, a long time ago.

Happy Holiday Season, Everyone!

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at

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