The Contra Costa Teacher of the Year Program goes to great lengths to select the two representatives who advance to state competition. Candidates must be nominated by their school district. Then they must answer essay questions and submit letters of recommendation. Next, a panel of judges conducts classroom evaluations and interviews to narrow the field to four finalists, who, finally, are assigned a topic on which they must deliver a speech critiqued for substance and presentation.

If we were this careful electing politicians, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in.

This year, teachers were asked to expound not on what they'd taught their students but what they'd learned from them. Their presentations last week at the county Office of Education restored a guy's faith in public education.

Michael Kleiman, speech and theater arts teacher at Freedom High in Oakley, told of an insecure student who at first had a fear of performing on stage. Repeatedly challenged to "think big" and to ignore failures, she slowly gained the confidence to audition at a theater arts university, even though she had little hope for selection.

She summarized what she learned in a thank-you note to Kleiman: "I know now that the answer 'no' will only make me work harder to cherish that next 'yes.'" Kleiman learned the measure of a teacher's success is the difference he makes in the life of a student.


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Brian Wheeler, an automotive technology teacher at Alhambra High in Martinez, recounted an act-it-out classroom exercise in which he asked volunteers to play the parts of pistons inside a six-cylinder engine. They were instructed to inhale, squat, suddenly stand up and shout "boom" in a simulated firing sequence.

Those who volunteered were his less serious, more rambunctious students who were always eager to act up. When he asked his better-performing students to replicate the exercise, they declined.

"The students were clearly teaching me that they don't all learn the same way," he said. "What one group of students saw as engaging, fun and rewarding was the bane of others. I just have to be a good teacher to unlock the learning."

Karen Young, who teaches transitional kindergarten at Coyote Creek Elementary School in San Ramon, told of a 5-year-old student who broke into tears and said, "I failed," after attaching plastic eyes to the wrong side of paper plate during a crafts project. Too many young minds live in fear of failure, she said. What she learned is they need to be reassured after stumbles and taught to shrug off mistakes.

Once the tears were daubed, her young student attached two more eyes to the other side of his plate and created a two-sided creature that brought a smile to his face.

English teacher Elizabeth Lanfranki, of Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High in Pittsburg, heard complaints when she announced there would be a grammar test, so she decided to make it into a game. She persuaded the school's resource officer to take the same test, graded his paper, posted his score and challenged students to beat it.

"I've never seen students so excited to take a test, and I've never seen such high test scores," she said of the lesson learned. "Working hard on something you dislike is called stress. Working hard on something you want is called passion. My students taught me you have to bring the fun back into learning."

Maybe they all should be Teacher of the Year.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.