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Lessons From the Classroom Apply to Congress

Courtesy Rep. Mike Honda
Rep. Mike Honda, seen here at the first elementary school where he served as principal, has taken what he learned as an educator and applied it to his political career.

Rep. Mike Honda’s road to Congress began in front of an audience of 30. And they weren’t even old enough to vote.

But as a high school science teacher in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1970s, he also targeted an older set.

“I visited every parent’s [home],” the California Democrat told Roll Call. “When you know the parents before school starts, you get a jump on the kids.”

Not much different than Congress, really.

“Every day there was politics in education,” he said. “[Because] teaching is an understanding of human dynamics.”

The realities of being a teacher can be perplexing for any aspiring educator, from presiding over a roomful of unruly adolescents to late nights grading papers.

But for Honda, being a teacher was a chapter in the narrative of his life.

“Being a teacher was not just a thing I decided to become, it was a [personal] process,” he said.

A California native, Honda attended San Jose State University, majoring in biological sciences. One unit short of graduating, at age 24, Honda decided to leave school and join the Peace Corps in 1965.

Spending two years building schools in El Salvador, Honda learned Spanish and began to evaluate the wider world. 

“I had to understand myself, my experience, my family, and ultimately I had to understand this country,” he said.

After completing his service with the Peace Corps, Honda said, he began to process what teaching and learning were all about and where he would fit in.

“On a macro picture, I was an Asian-American that spoke Spanish, and there weren’t that many of us,” he recalled.

When he was 27, Honda returned to San Jose to complete his degree and was introduced to politics after joining the Chicano student movement on campus. As an English tutor, he designed a language program and trained tutors to teach Spanish-speaking students how to improve their English.  

“You learn that people learn certain things through everyday language,” he said.

As a tutor, Honda was presented with the task of communicating with students from diverse backgrounds, developing the politics of being personable.  

“I started to learn [that] analyzing each person was very important,” Honda said. “Each person came in with certain issues, and we had to understand what those issues were.”

With a taste of teaching from being a tutor, Honda wanted to try working in a classroom. 

He finished his science degree, along with a degree in Spanish, and completed a master’s program within a year. 

“I decided I wanted to affect a lot of kids,” he said.  “You can make more decisions in one day than a CEO makes in a week.”

As a teacher, the schoolyard became a political training ground for problem solving.

“There was a fight brewing in the quad between the Black Student Union and the Chicano Student Union,” he said.  

Both groups were opposed to American involvement in the Vietnam War — the dispute was over one club’s lack of respect for returning troops. 

Honda focused on what brought them together rather than what separated them.

“Why do you want to fight over something you agree upon?” he asked them. “You [both] agree that we shouldn’t be there, so let’s agree on that and leave the rest alone.” 

Honda soon moved up the administrative ladder to vice principal, then principal, but he continued to stress personal involvement, walking the streets and talking with people.

“It [was] about knowing each family and, more importantly, them knowing who I am,” Honda said.

Those connections led him to politics. He was elected to the San Jose School Board in 1981 and subsequently to the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly.

“Politics was merging my skills as a teacher, principal and school board member into one,” he said. 

He applies the mathematics of teaching to politics as well. 

Typically re-elected with about
70 percent of the vote, Honda focuses on what he’s missing with the rest.

“If a student gets an 80 percent on something, we had to question what happened to the other 20 percent,” he said.

 Similarly, if he wins re-election with
72 percent of the vote, “I’m missing the other 28 percent of my constituents. It tells me I have some work to do to hit perfection.”

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