SACRAMENTO — The teacher with the business suit and boyish looks is shuttling around the classroom -- penciling out multiplication tables for one student, explaining long division to another, helping a third decipher a vocabulary list.
"What's your name, again?" a student asks.
"You the principal?"
"No. Just helping out. One of the teachers."
Well, not just any teacher.
Jack O'Connell, 52, happens to be California's superintendent of public instruction, the most powerful elected education official in the state. He oversees a staff of 1,450 people at the Department of Education and administers policies for California's 6 million public school students.
But here, at the Florin Technology Education Center in South Sacramento, this former high school social studies teacher and 20-year veteran of the Legislature is almost anonymous as he helps anxious adult students prepare for their high school equivalency exams.
The Monday night classes offer a reality check for O'Connell, whose day job is filled with piles of paperwork, power lunches and endless meetings about education minutia.
"Sometimes I learn more than some of the students. It's good therapy for me," O'Connell, who is up for reelection in November 2006, said of the classes. "It keeps me in touch with the classroom."
This is the third time O'Connell has taught such a summer course; he first did it the year before he was elected.
The class format is fluid. On any given night, O'Connell might lecture about the Civil War to one group of students, review algebraic equations with another group and tutor a student individually in strategies to improve reading comprehension.
O'Connell never knows how many people will show up for the free sessions. His largest class this summer had 10 students. Once no one came, so O'Connell waited about 90 minutes before going home. The students do not get grades, and they come and go as they please as they prepare for the General Educational Development test, a 7 1/2-hour exam of reading, writing, math, science and social studies.
The schools chief, who earns $148,740 a year as superintendent, forgoes the $25 an hour he would ordinarily earn for the classes. He is different from fellow teachers in another respect: He is driven to work and class by an armed California Highway Patrol officer, a perk provided to state constitutional officers, including the governor, attorney general and state treasurer.
O'Connell, who taught social studies at Oxnard High School in the late 1970s before serving in the state Assembly for 12 years and state Senate for eight more, shows a knack for connecting with students as he helps them with their studies.
His boss at the Florin education center, Principal Mary Prather, says she is happy to have him, even though it's sometimes strange to supervise such a powerful figure.
"He's a natural teacher," said Prather, who gets to evaluate O'Connell each summer. "I consider him one of the better teachers."
O'Connell is not the only state schools chief spending time in the classroom.
The education bosses in Rhode Island, Georgia and South Dakota all have taught periodically in the public schools or at the university level.
Closer to home, one of O'Connell's friends, former California Secretary for Education Gary K. Hart, recently finished a two-year teaching stint at Kennedy High School in Sacramento.
Hart's government job was distinct from O'Connell's elected post; Hart was appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis to represent the governor's positions on education matters.
"Sacramento and policymaking can be in the stratosphere," Hart said. "I think it's sure valuable to be down on the ground floor on occasion and meet real students and real teachers in real schools."
O'Connell reported for work on a recent Monday toting a black briefcase in one hand and his charcoal gray suit jacket in the other. The three-hour class was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. O'Connell's students, many of whom work during the day, began trickling in about 5:45.
"Hello. What are you working on tonight?" he asked the first person through the door, a 22-year-old woman named Gurpreet Kaur from India who spoke English tentatively.
Kaur brought a worksheet with multiplication problems, but she had no pencil or paper. So O'Connell dug into a filing cabinet and produced both. Then he drew a multiplication chart for Kaur, who wants to be a dental assistant, and asked her to fill in the answers: 2 times 2, 2 times 3, 2 times 4 and so on all the way up to 10. Finally, he pulled a business card out of his wallet and used it as a makeshift flashcard, writing 9 times 9 on one side and 81 on the other to show how to practice at home.
As O'Connell worked with Kaur, another student piped up.
"I need more help over here," Emilio Carbalia, 45, called out.
Carbalia, a high school dropout who has picked tomatoes, washed dishes and driven trucks over the last 25 years, was struggling with a division problem. He had to find out how many times 1,760 went into 15,840.