“Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” -Colleen Wilcox

Emily Dickinson was a fool. In her naivete she probably did believe that Hope was a fragile thing that “asks not a crumb.” In fact, Hope is a ravenous thing that pecks out your insides and sucks up all the oxygen in the room.

I had a truly exceptional student who was offered scholarships by a few different private colleges. But then her father lost his job, her mother was out on disability. Even with the scholarship, she needed an additional $10,000 for freshman year. But she couldn’t get a loan and her family couldn’t help her get a loan.

Then she discovered all other options were closed to her. With all the cutbacks at state colleges and even two-year colleges, there was no late enrollment. In fact, some students who believed they had earned a spot at the nearest state college were confounded to learn that (because they didn’t reply to a certain email in a timely way) they were dropped from the school roster. They would have to wait a full year before they could begin college.

Please understand, the young person I’m talking about wasn’t just another A student. She was a true leader, possibly the most competent and responsible teenager I’ve dealt with at the school. She will spend the next year working at a fast food restaurant.

There are other students who’ve been accepted to well-respected state universities. But they end up at the local two-year community college because it’s all the family can afford (and often they need to stay and help in the family store). Trouble is, with cutbacks most of them can no longer complete community college in two years. They can’t get the classes they need for their Associates degree.

Then there’s the news I got over the summer about a student who graduated six years ago. This young man had started out as a 9th grade troublemaker, getting in fights and missing classes. But by the time he was in 11th grade, he was making positive choices. With a larger than life personality, he became a school leader. I also learned that he was a writer of great power and intensity.

The son of a single mother who had immigrated to this country, he continued to lead “the right kind of life.” He was in the police academy, especially passionate about making a difference in the lives of other kids who thought they were “tough guys” — the kind of kids who became involved with gangs and trouble the way he had once.

A few months ago he was out drinking with buddies from the police academy. He got in his car to drive home. A half hour later a man was dead and my former student was under arrest for Vehicular Manslaughter. He made a stupid mistake — one of the dumbest anyone can make — driving a car while drunk. Because of his choice that night, a family is deprived of its father.

It was my first time visiting one of my former students through thick glass. This tough, talented, caring young man was a blubbering mass who just kept repeating, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

And now I face a new class of students this year. I need to convince them to work hard so they can go on to a four-year college, even though that seems unlikely. I need to convince them to make wise choices in life so they can have bright futures. I need to convince kids who are growing up in abject poverty that there are ways for them to achieve success in America — even though I think their prospects are slim to none.

Here’s another requirement for a successful teacher: In addition to transmitting knowledge, you also have to give them hope. In times like these, that could be the toughest part.

The yearbook deadline was the next day. I should have left it to the students, but I picked up the good camera and went out to the courtyard to get pictures of three more seniors to fill out a page layout. A tall boy stopped me to ask if he could get a yearbook portrait taken. I told him those were done last fall but offered him a way to get into the book. All he had to do was answer a question about what he would remember from high school. I snapped his picture.

Two weeks later this same boy was shot getting off a bus. He’s still in the hospital with one bullet in his arm and one in his abdomen. He’s out of danger now but will need time to recuperate.

Of course word spread throughout the high school. The same day I first heard the news one of my students told me this boy was sprayed with ten bullets (not true).

From the start this boy was labeled a “problem” student. He created problems. He was a problem. He couldn’t focus in class and most days he was disruptive. He disappeared from school for long stretches of time. Even as a freshman he already had a parole officer.

As a freshman he was shorter than me. He was shorter than most of his classmates and took on a role typical of “the little guy.” He was the joker. Starved for attention, he wasn’t the angry thug. He was thug lite, quick with a smile and wanting to get other people to smile.

He started 10th grade taller than me. He’d stop by my room sometimes to visit, but soon after I stopped seeing him. I wasn’t certain whether he was still registered at our school. Other students needed my attention. I had other students to worry about as I had worried about him.

When he was my student I wondered what the future had in store for him? Would he mature and be disciplined enough for the job market? Would his math and reading skills improve enough? Or would he be swallowed up by life on the streets. I have other students now and I ask myself the same question: What future do they see for themselves? I’ve never gotten an answer to that question.

Another teacher was talking about the newspaper article she read about the shooting that left our student in the hospital. She couldn’t get over the newspaper calling him an “18-year-old man.” The truth is none of us had ever thought of him as a “man.”

Old enough to vote. Old enough to go into the military. Old enough to get shot walking out of a bus. And in my eyes still just a boy.

I always start each year with the same question: Why go to school? After we get through the obvious answers (“Because my mom makes me go.”) the conversation invariably heads toward: What do you need to learn? Once again we slog through the obvious of reading, writing and basic math.

So what should kids learn in order to lead a full, rich life? What should they learn in order to succeed in our competitive world?

Why should a student do a research project about the socio-economic factors that led to the Harlem Renaissance? I could talk about young people learning to appreciate the arts, learning about cultures and communities, and understanding the forces of history. But how far would that take me with those who want to quantify education and boil it down to assessments and bottom lines?

The answer I lean toward is: You need to learn how to learn.

What are the steps in writing a report about the founding of the California Missions? You find information. You process that information, synthesizing the important points. You communicate your version of the information and put it in the form of a deliverable (essay, presentation, poster).

Interestingly, the above describes the steps of Information Processing: Input; Processing; Output; Storage. And in life, these are the steps a reasonable person uses when searching for a job, researching mortgage rates, choosing a school for their children, planning a vacation or buying an expensive new outfit.

What’s the point in teaching a kid how to use a current computer application? We need to teach them how to approach computers and applications, how to figure out the functions and comfortably use the Help Menu. On computers or off, we need to teach students to solve problems for themselves.

It’s one of those teach-a-man-to-fish things. Five years from now that young person is going to be in a job with a new device in hand that has a different interface and an unfamiliar computer application. Margaret Mead said it well:  “The time has come when we must teach our children what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet.”

Beyond that, what are the skills that employers need? And is it possible for high schools to help students develop those skills? (Coming up soon)

Granting tenure is just about automatic. After three years at a school (or two years depending on the school district) the vast majority of teachers receive tenure — meaning that their school/district must go through due process to remove them.

The reason teachers almost always receive tenure is simple —  it’s not like there are another 50 teachers out there vying for the job. If a new teacher is at all competent, is the principal going to risk having a job opening and perhaps getting someone worse? This is especially true if it’s a math, science or special ed teacher. There’s always a shortage in those areas. Lose a math teacher and the school may not be able to find another qualified credentialed teacher to cover those classes.

Unless you acknowledge this reality, you can’t make sense of the real issues around teacher tenure and benefits.

In an earlier post I raised a fundamental question: If you could fire 100,000 California teachers tomorrow, who would you get to watch all those classrooms day after tomorrow? Some politicians would have us believe there are swarms of highly skilled first year teachers out there begging for jobs.

Maybe there’s arrogance on the part of the anti-teacher forces because current budget cutbacks mean teacher layoffs. But the recent attacks have made teaching less attractive as a career choice (2003 = 90,000 people in California teacher education programs; 2011 = 45,000). This means fewer trained teachers in the future. And unless you foresee 200-plus students per classroom there will be a need for more teachers. We all agree on the importance of great teachers. But unless you have a pool of enough qualified teachers, how picky can schools be?

With current attacks on tenure, benefits and pensions, why would an energetic, ambitious young person in college today choose teaching as a career? That isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s one that needs to be answered.

So here’s the next question for politicians who say they want to improve our schools: How will you make teaching an attractive career choice for bright, capable people?

When things are going great, it can’t stay that way forever. I feel like there must be a physics equation explaining that.

So my once-failing high school got a dynamic principal, Mrs. C, who turned things around and made teachers feel valued and supported. A few years later Mrs. C was promoted to a higher post in the district and our assistant principal, Ms. V, followed as the new principal. Everyone agreed we had gotten lucky twice — Ms. V was a terrific administrator to work with.

But nothing lasts forever.

Mrs. C began documenting complaints to get rid of weak teachers. (In spite of what politicians say, it’s not an impossibility.) I never heard any dissension from the staff about any of these departures. There was uniform agreement that the school was better off without certain faculty members.

If anything, Ms. V was friendlier than her predecessor, easier to approach, always quick with a smile. But in recent years there appeared to be a vendetta against Mr. X — the principal just didn’t like the job he was doing. I don’t know the details. but I’ll acknowledge that Mr. X has a rough personal style.

This year Mr. X was dismissed from his job at our school. He brought a lawsuit. I understand that the California teachers’ union will generally take less than a dozen cases per year, rare instances where they’re willing to pay for legal fees through prolonged court proceedings. So they don’t give this legal help to just anyone. But Mr. X’s case is being supported by lawyers from the teachers’ union. Somebody must feel he has a good case.

Outside of the courtroom there are rumblings at school. Some people liked the way Mr. X was doing his job. Some people may not have liked him, but feel he was doing a good job. Some people are glad he’s gone. One longtime teacher remarked that the situation made her “lose all respect for Ms. V.”

Meanwhile, for the last two years, we’ve had a new assistant principal. She’s young, highly educated and her manner comes across as arrogant. Whether or not she believes she is better and smarter than the teachers at our school, that’s the impression that exists.

Many of us feel the positive spirit at the school has been dissipating. Certainly there are cracks in our perfect world.

The Latest: Ms. V has announced her retirement. She has explained that the current court case over Mr. X has nothing to do with her decision. Who am I to question that? The good news is that the callow assistant principal has taken a job in another city, so she’ll also be leaving.

So we look to the future with a big unknown — a new principal. Where will things stand one year from now? Will we feel positive about our school? Will we be eager to put in extra effort knowing that we’ll be supported and appreciated? We hope for the best.

I teach technology-based classes. Given the speed of tech changes, it’s a drawback that  I’ve been in a classroom for the past ten years. I brought my own industry experience to my curriculum, but I’ve been disconnected from that world for ten years.

So last summer I applied for a teacher scholarship to take classes at a highly-regarded art institute (at other times I’ve paid for my own classes). Their courses are rigorous and I had very little free time given all the homework I had to complete. My final day of summer school class was the day before I had to report to my workplace for fall semester.

In one of the classes I took last summer I gained a notebook full of pointers to bring to my advanced students (“Ah, so that’s how to use this feature correctly!”  “Oh, so that’s the proper setting…”). In my other class I got a whole new (and improved) structure for my freshmen curriculum.

If I had to worry about keeping my job I would’ve spent the summer working on my resume, networking with people in related industries and on the lookout for job opportunities.  I wouldn’t have had the luxury of spending a summer taking classes.

Whether teaching summer school or visiting family, I always work on curriculum during the summer. During the school year there’s never enough time to focus on the big picture or to really plan out a new student project.

This is what teacher tenure means to me.

What kind of fool would I have to be to spend summer preparing for a job that might not be mine in the fall? Only a worse fool would spend his own money and free time taking classes for a job that could be pulled out from under him at the whim of a capricious administrator.

Lively debate about how to improve public schools is a good thing. And almost everyone should be heard in the debate. But what about those who would destroy public schools?

Does it seem like an outrageous statement if I say some people want to destroy public education? Consider the experience in one suburban community.

College friends of mine raised two children in a certain suburban town. Both of their children went through the town’s one high school — the son as a football player, the daughter as a prom queen. Some years back members of an Orthodox Jewish sect moved into their town. More followed. The shopping center has changed, not just with Kosher food but also with modest dresses, women’s hats, and religious books. (It could’ve been a similar scenario with Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims.)

All these families send their children to religious schools. Meanwhile the members of this community have become a powerful force at election time. They vote as a bloc, and they all come out to vote. A decade ago this group became the majority on the town’s school board.

Got that? They all send their children to religious schools. But they now control the school board that oversees all the town’s public schools.

Years before the current frenzy to cut budgets, the school board in this town voted to do away with high school sports. No football team, no baseball, no basketball, volleyball, wrestling or swimming. This town had been a mainstay in county league competition. Students who defined themselves by their participation in football (as an example) were suddenly out in the cold.

High school sports programs provide a physical outlet for overactive teens (especially boys); they build student skills at teamwork and leadership; they give students a sense of community and school pride. Sure, we could debate the merits and debate how much money schools should devote to sports. But that wasn’t what happened in this town.

The decision by this town’s school board wasn’t based on what would be best for the school or the kids. It was people with power cutting things they didn’t care about. “Why should we pay if our own children aren’t making use of school sports?”

Extrapolate that slightly and it’s “I don’t have school age children. Why should I pay for schools?”

Simple answer: Because you have to live in the world with these young people. Soon enough they’ll be the adults who share your streets, share your roads, share your workplaces. How can we help as many as possible become educated adults who can function well (and maybe even contribute to) the world?

If the discussion is about improving public schools, those who would rather see public schools collapse have no place at the table.