The Inspired Teacher
To Ron Clark, mentoring his students and teaching them rules of manners and respect are among the keys to their success.
BY: Interview by Sharon Linnéa
Ron Clark has made it his specialty to go into classes filled with the “most difficult” students in the school and turn the class around, both in North Carolina and in the Bronx, New York. Called “America’s Educator” by Oprah Winfrey, Clark is the author of “The 55 Essentials: An Award-winning Educator's Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child,” a national best-seller. Clark, who is 42 years old and has been teaching for 12 years, feels that learning can only happen when the students become a family—which implies acting with respect and manners. He has just started a middle school in Atlanta to implement his philosophy. The dramatic story of his time in the Bronx has become "The Ron Clark Story," a made-for-television movie that debuted recently on TNT.
Can you talk a little about where you grew up and what your journey was? It sounds like you didn’t expect to be a teacher.
I grew up in a small tiny town, in North Carolina, population 400, and all my life I wanted to get out and have adventures. My family never had a lot of money to travel and so I never got an opportunity to scratch that itch. I went to school at ECU, Eastern Carolina. I graduated and went to work at the Dunkin’ Donuts. I saved up $600, I thought I was high on the hog.
I got a one-way ticket to London and flew there, and I became a singing and dancing waiter at a restaurant called The Texas Embassy Cantina. I got my backpack and went all across Europe. I went country to country, and I loved it! For the first time in my life, I felt really alive, and I was seeing what the world was about.
I ended up in Rumania, staying with a family of gypsies. Whatever they fed me, I ate it, 'cause I didn’t want to be disrespectful. One time they fed me something, I wasn’t sure what it was, turns out it was rat. I got really sick, I had food poisoning. I kept getting weaker. So I flew home to North Carolina, and my mama said, “Listen to me, these adventures have got to stop!” And she told me at the local elementary school there was a fifth-grade teacher who passed away. It was a rough school, she said, they had a hard time getting teachers in that area. She said, “If you don’t take that job, that class is going to have substitutes for the rest of the year.”
She said if I didn’t at least go talk to the principal that she was never going to support me financially again. So I said, okay, I’ll at least go talk to this principal. And I went in, the principal was telling me how challenging the class was. I told her I wasn’t interested in teaching. She said, “Well, if you’re not interested, why are you even here?” I said, My mama made me come, I didn’t want to be here!
But she said, “Let me show you the class.” I walked into the classroom, the kids were going crazy. They were loud. The poor substitute teacher’s wig was off to one side. This little boy’s desk was pushed up to the front door. I looked down at this kid. He looked up at me and said, “Is you gwon be our new teacher?”
And I said, “I guess.”
Anyone who knows me would tell you I follow my heart. If I really feel something I know I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t even question myself, I just go for it. In that moment, I had a feeling I was called to go into that classroom. And I said, “Okay, I’ll teach this class.”
When I got in that classroom, I found out these kids didn’t really have what I had growing up. I grew up with a true Southern upbringing; my grandmother lived in the house with us. Manners, respect, discipline. I was taught how you should care for other people. My family just set a great example of the meaning of life, for them, which is to do all you can to make a difference in the lives of others, and to help your friends, your family, your enemies, your neighbors…everyone around you. So I was brought up with that same philosophy.
I really started working hard at developing, not only curriculum, but rules about manners and respect for others, and that’s how the “55 Essential Rules” started. The first year I had a list of 5, and then the next year I went to 8, then 12, then 22, then the next year 28. Then I moved to Harlem to teach and it grew to 55. What I found was that once I taught these kids about life, and about how to respect each other and how to be a family in that classroom, the environment in the classroom totally changed. The kids wanted to be there, they were clapping for each other, lift each other up. At the end of the year, their test scores went through the roof.
And so the program started to spread to other classrooms as well. It’s all about being specific with kids and letting them know your expectations. You don’t have to have 55 rules. You can have 20 or 25. As long as you let them know exactly what you expect in terms of manners, respect, discipline, academics. And then the results will be better. Just like your own kids at your house. The more specific you can be with them about what you expect from them, the better the results are going to be.
People always ask me what inspired me to teach, and what inspired me was once I got in the classroom and discovered that kids were less fortunate than I was and the kids didn’t really have a chance yet of someone lifting them up. That was what motivated me to remain in the classroom. And once I saw the difference that can be made when you put your whole heart and all of your passion into a group of kids, I saw how you can really change their lives. That is what has fueled me to continue teaching and to continue in this field.
You’re also a speaker, right?
I do talk to groups of people and teachers about my ideas. I’m here in Houston, Texas, I just spoke to a school district today. In August, every day I’ve been speaking to a different school district. Which is great, because it gives me a chance to get in front of anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 teachers and share my message and ideas and motivate teachers.
What are the ideas you most hope they’ll come away with?
Overall, just a passion. And when you’re working with kids, especially with kids who drive you crazy, just seeing that those kids have potential. Finding a way to dream big for every child in your classroom, no matter how challenging or difficult the situation may be. You have to look at every child and see potential. I do feel like I’m being used to make a difference. I’m just spreading the message.
During the filming of The Ron Clark Story, you were specific that you wanted to honor the kids and their achievements as much as what you were doing. Are there any kids that still stand out to you in some way?
All of them changed me in some way. The ones in the movie are really powerful stories. Especially Shamika—in real life, her name is Tamera. She’s such a powerful individual, and she’s such a success story. To go from not being on grade level in math or reading to, in fifth grade, she scored perfect scores on her integrated test. When I say perfect scores, I mean she didn’t miss one. Not a single question. That’s a miraculous thing. To watch her go from hating school and being suspended for the majority of the year, now she’s an honor roll student, she’s applying to Spelman in the fall.
Are you still in touch with any of these kids?
I’m in touch with all of my former students. We travel around the world. We’ve been to Japan, Costa Rica, Russia, England, South Africa. I stay in contact with their teachers, I take them on college tour trips in 11th grade. The first group of fifth-graders, I said, I promise you, if you will all stay in school until 11th grade, I will take you on a college tour trip. I’ll take you all across North Carolina. We’ll stay in dorms. So when my first group of fifth-graders got to 11th grade, they called me. “Mr. Clark, how about those trips?” Now every year we go college to college. I teach them about the application process, about financial aid.
I have kids whom I taught in fifth grade twelve years ago, calling, asking, “Mr. Clark, should I take this job?” “Mr. Clark, should I ask for a raise?” It’s all about creating a mentor in their lives.
Is this something you think more teachers can do?
Yes! I think there are hundreds of flaws in the education system in our country, still a lot of things that can be done differently. We’re riding an antiquated system right now. There’s so many issues. But, yeah. I think it’s a shame how, especially these kids in low-income areas, if they form a bond with a teacher over a school year, at the end of the school year, that bond’s broken. That kid moves on to a new teacher. And that teacher has a whole group of new kids to worry about. I think that’s the wrong way to do it. I think if you want education to be successful, you need to be a family, you need continuity, and you need to have kids in schools where every teacher knows their name. It’s a family atmosphere. When you have that, you tend to be more successful.
As you know, these days principals’ jobs and school rankings all rise and fall on test scores. My kids’ teachers have been saying, with some despair, that they can no longer teach creatively and spark imagination in the kids, because they’re forced to "teach to the test."
It’s an embarrassment for teachers. It’s an insult to qualified, intelligent teachers to have to teach to a test and use worksheets. All across America, I’ve been to 49 states, talking to teachers about this problem, and in every state, it’s the same thing: teachers feel frustrated, like their hands are tied, they’re being told what to teach every day, taking the creativity out of the classroom. That’s why teachers are being burned out. That’s why they’re quitting.
And the kids—they’re being taught how to take a test. They’re not being inspired with a love for learning. They’re not going to be lifelong learners. They’re going to be test-takers. When they get into college, they’re not going to have that thirst to learn, that thirst for knowledge. We’re not inspiring them to do great things and to dream big, we’re inspiring them to take a test. It’s a shame.
I do support accountability, but I support finding innovative and creative ways to inspire kids to learn. I don’t teach to the test. I teach my kids content. And I make it as fun and exciting as I can. And every year their test scores go through the roof. It’s because they have that thirst for knowledge, and they want to learn, that they learn at a faster pace.
No Child Left Behind is a nightmare. It’s sucking the education system dry of passion and creativity. You need to focus, not on how high test scores are, but how much progress was made. Any class of students you want to give me right now--three years behind grade level, I couldn’t care less. Give me those students. Have them take a test. At the end of the year, have them take that same test or another test, and show the growth. For that, you can hold me accountable all day long--on how much progress those students have made. But holding a school accountable for how high the scores are? That’s not a fair judgment. What you have to look at is the improvement you’ve made with those students.