CULVER CITY — There is that saying: “Those who can, do; Those who can’t, teach.”

It is insulting. The prestige is still there. Teaching is a very serious pursuit that starts with a calling and lives it as a purpose. People who think and believe teaching is a mediocre choice of profession do a deal of damage to those who make a school room an oasis every single day.

Living within the cellular environment of a classroom, there are no rewards for collegial relativity or for discourse. While teaching is a very autonomous experience, the flip side of autonomy is that teachers tend to experience loneliness and isolation. They miss out on other adult company, colleagueship, camaraderie and  intellectual stimulation. They also yearn for time and space in school days to come together to develop plans and to respond critically to one another.

Teachers come in all forms and express themselves differently. What they have in common is that they are the thinkers,  existing in a world of ideas, be it a nursery teacher or a professor in the most distinguished university. Their currencies are ideas that are conveyed through relationship and interaction.

Last Wednesday, at an event where educators abound, the closest we could come to interviewing one sterling teacher was arranged by my friend Van Van Dichoso with Mr. Marshall Tuck, who is running for State Superintendent,  the state’s top education position. Our conversation flourished after our first question.

Mr. Tuck, there is a general lament in the country that the schools are not meeting our great expectations. They are not producing literate populations or mending inequalities or encouraging innovations and creativity. Do you share the view that our schools are in crisis?

I agree with that perception, to a certain extent. We’ve had very high aspirations for schools, ever expecting too much of schools, asking them to solve all of our cultural, social and economic crisis and what we need is to make it more cohesive and healthy. There is a broad ecology of education [and] there are other institutions that educate. We have to develop a more realistic view of the role that schools can play.

And how would you address it?

Focus on teaching and learning, on its essence, rather than on how to reconstruct the institution. Focus how to attract good people back into this profession, and how we can continue to support them; it is very much part of their responsibility. Other institutions have to participate, where the teachers themselves would be learning from one another, in a re-learning process. Education is integration of knowledge…somehow we have the paramount duty to provide that.

As a teacher, what do you think of policies in education?

I saw firsthand the power and the promise of public school. But too often, I also saw how Sacramento’s bureaucracy stifles innovations, blocking progress, instead of leading the way. With what is perceived as a culture of regulations and resistance to change, this makes it hard for principals and teachers to do the job effectively. In California, we embrace innovation everywhere except in public schools.   I am running for  State Superintendent because I know we can give our kids the education they need to succeed and I refuse to make them wait any longer. In the educational process, we have to move realistically, and appraise what is it that schools can do.

For what should school be held accountable for?

Anyone, after graduating from high school, should be able to reason, to think analytically. For me, that is the very basic accountability that we must hold schools to. Schools can not be held accountable  for all the students feeling good about themselves. It is a learning going on all the time.

You mean those responsibilities broader in scope — like making sure, they don’t smoke, do drugs, don’t get pregnant. We had good schools, but mention “high school” and the reflection is truancy, drop outs, illiteracy, racial conflict, violence and alcohol and drug addicts. Why the image of schools today in the minds of the public negative?

Some of the imagery is correct.  There are too many schools that looks like what you are describing. But there are more good schools and good teachers than we can imagine. We try to find examples of education at its best and begin to document it, so that others might feel inspired to do the same things.

Sir, do you find a lot of burnt out teachers today? Or is that cliché?

It is hardly the word to use. I’d say what they need  appreciation, respect, dignity and recognition for that, their calling is tremendously tedious roles, and socially a very precious work. When teachers burn out, they are not saying it’s a thankless job of working too hard, but it’s not having an opportunity to participate fully in this enterprise. About the politics of a teacher’s voice, they know their voice is knowledge and insight and control—if not power.  They have many things to say, if they’d only listen.

Teachers feel excluded from the critical decisions on school policy, as front-row spectators in what could be a reform movement, but in which the signals are being called by governors, legislators, state educator figures— everybody but the teachers on the ground. That must be a piece of the burnout.

You see, Mrs. De Leon, school systems as highly bureaucratic, far away from the actions:  making the decisions about what should go on, and the people at the bottom engage in the enterprise, ignored through which those decisions get transmitted. When I talk to teachers about this,  I can hear the moans of recognition and sadness in the room because that is how they felt. When you’re not participating in making decisions about what is it that you do everyday, you feel powerless, but those who are doing extraordinary works are given visibility, too — recognition for  their tremendously important role in society and for their precious mission.

In a lot of schools where kids are very poor, predominantly minorities or speak another language, they look around and see devastation and poverty with few opportunities and few rewards, so they think there is not much ahead of them.

It is terribly important they are made aware there is a culture throbbing alive in a school, with character, color and vitality, wherein teachers and student [are] engaged in a life and future they care about. We have to find ways of engaging not only parents but caretakers in school [to] build bridges between families and schools.

But sir, how do you teach a teacher to go into a classroom and compensate for broken homes, for alcoholic parents, or for social structures perceived to have collapsed?

It takes a lot of determination, you have to believe that this is possible.  I don’t think there’s any way you could be in this business and not have an optimistic spirit,  teachers need a very broad outlook on what they are doing. Part of what  I do with teachers is to frame out the landscape within which they are working. I talked about the origins of the deterioration they’re experiencing within the school the community and to understand better what it is [that] might get people to understand more comprehensively how to look at the school culture and to be more effective in what they do.

Mr. Tuck, a rather brutal question, you don’t have to answer it. What do you do with bad teachers?

There is something very wrong with a system that allows that.  We need to come up with a system to re-evaluate teachers and to support them in doing a great job. The way to better schools is to choose teachers, treat them [well], relate, identify and inspire them, by speaking to their head and heart.

Thank you, Mr. Tuck for taking the time to be interviewed!

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