Wealthy business executive becomes a school teacher

Mount Pleasant: My Journey from Creating a Billion-Dollar Company to Teaching at a Struggling Public High School by Steve Poizner, Portfolio, Penguin Group, 2010

By Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO — Steve Poizner describes himself as the quintessential nerd – and proud of it.  Taught by his Jewish parents to dedicate himself to the constant pursuit of education and excellence, he spent his youth focused on academic success; finishing high school in three years.  He continued on to a degree in electrical engineering, graduating at the top of his class at the University of Texas and an MBA with honors from Stanford.  He spent the next twenty years founding and managing cutting edge technical companies in the Silicon Valley with a year off as a White House Fellow serving on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.

In the mid 1990’s digital mapping was capturing attention, eventually evolving into the GPS (Global Positioning System) we know today.  The problem at that time was what to do with this newly available technology.  Poizner and his company came up with the idea of incorporating it into mobile phones – itself a hugely popular technology.  It was a perfect marriage.  But, Poizner wanted to move on and he ended this part of his career by selling his company (SnapTrack) for a billion dollars to Qualcomm.

Another area of great interest to Poizner was public education.  Living in California he had witnessed the decline of a large public educational system from one of the country’s best to one of the country’s worst.  He wanted to explore why this was so and how it might be remedied.  He thought that his experiences and success in business as an entrepreneur, innovator, and his knowledge in the management of people and resources might be of use in a classroom; a step beyond teaching from a textbook.

He found the first challenge to be just getting into the front door; overcoming obstacles both institutional as well as the entrenched defensive attitudes of administration and faculty. He began by calling the principals of all the high schools in his area and received only two calls back.  The first was from a principal who bluntly told him he had no business to even consider teaching and then turned her back on him and walked out of the room.  The other principal who returned his call sounded a bit more interested.

Anyone who has stood in front of a classroom of unappreciative teenagers determined not to be engaged in any overt display of cooperation in their own education, will understand the challenges Poizner undertook when he volunteered to teach in a struggling high school.  He described Mount Pleasant High School as being located in a compromised neighborhood of San Jose, California.

The teacher’s lounge proved to be a place of very mixed attitudes.  At times experienced teachers were willing to share with him the skills they had acquired over the years.  However, just as often he encountered implacable unreasoning animosity.  The lounge was also a dismal place; the floor littered with buckets to catch water from a leaking roof.  The one copy machine was broken.

He didn’t fit in on many levels.  He was a Republican.  He was wealthy.  He could call on many outside resources and contacts to enhance his classroom.  He was there voluntarily and he could always leave.  Several teachers highly resented his presence and one especially constantly baited and derided his politics, motives and past successes.

Poizner spent one semester in front of a class of seniors representing all the risks and family hardships which often hindered the goal of attaining a high school diploma.  How the author handled these challenges and what he learned makes for a very interesting ride through the often bizarre and at times counter intuitive bureaucracy of public education.

After writing the book, Poizner ran for political office (gubernatorial race/California, 2010) and some critics have claimed that the book was written to enhance his political résumé.  Whether this was his purpose or not, is a separate issue.  Taking that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, anything a candidate for future political office does could be condemned as having an ulterior motive.  I can think of a lot of ways to enhance a resumé other than investing this amount of time and effort.

Another critique of the book – and the object of protest from the school and neighborhood, is that the author exaggerated the neighborhood crime rate, the negative aspects of the school such as a declining rate of graduating students and poor condition of the physical building.  In retaliation, the school principal (not the same one for whom he worked) cancelled a planned returned visit to the school by Poizner as well as organizing students to protest at a book signing.   It seems to me, that a better way would have been to encourage the author to visit and then have the students discuss the book with him.  It was a good teaching opportunity that was missed by the principal and faculty.

As for the condition of the neighborhood – a quick trip via Google Earth, shows wide clean streets lined with mid-size homes with mostly well kept front yards – to be found anywhere across America.  It also looks like the school has had a fairly recent physical upgrade.

The summary of Poizner’s experiences, his opinions on charter schools and suggestions for improving public education, such as giving teachers more latitude, are worth the read.

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Orysiek is a freelance writer who specializes in the arts and literature.  She may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)

 

 

 

 

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