A Conversation with Ron Clark

When education reform advocates talk about attracting the best and brightest to the classroom, they have in mind teachers like Ron Clark. A recipient of Disney's Teacher of the Year award, Clark is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller, The Essential 55: An Award Winning Educator's Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child.

Clark began his teaching career in rural North Carolina. After five years there he says he felt "called" to move to Harlem to teach after watching a program about the inability of an inner-city school to attract good teachers.
In a recent telephone interview with the editor of Education Oasis, Clark discussed his experiences as a teacher, his views on education, and his hopes for the future.

EO: What inspired you to write the book?

RC: When I started teaching there were so many discipline problems in the classroom that I couldn't get the kids' attention. They didn't respect me, they didn't respect each other, nor the other teachers in the school.

I think sometimes we take things for granted when we're dealing with kids. We're constantly telling them to behave or be respectful but we're not taking the time as parents or teachers to show them exactly what we expect step by step. I wanted to come up with a list of rules to show the kids exactly how they should behave.

I also wanted to give my kids pride. In the areas where I taught, the kids didn't have self-esteem, they didn't feel confident. I figured that if I could teach them skills, the skills would lead to confidence, and confidence would lead to pride and self-esteem. So I came up with this list of 55 rules that would not only teach them how to behave in school but also in life: How to give a firm handshake, for example, how to go on an interview, how to eat with proper etiquette, how to be humble and not arrogant.

I began teaching these skills to the kids and it started working. It worked with kids who weren't on grade level, kids who had disciplinary problems, kids who had learning disabilities. They began to turn themselves around. They became more polite to me, began to work harder, became better students, and began treating their parents better. It worked in North Carolina and it worked in Harlem.

It was amazing to see those kids [in Harlem]. When I started teaching there, the people at the school said it was the worst class they had seen in thirty years. It didn't happen overnight, but by November the kids really started to turn around, they began to adhere to the rules. Other teachers started borrowing the rules. Parents started borrowing the rules. So I decided to put it into book form. Of course I had no idea it was going to take off like this and so many people would buy the book.

EO: Was there initial resistance from the students? If so, how did you overcome it?

RC: The first day of every school year they're a little shocked when I give them the list and tell them that I have 55 rules. It usually takes a few weeks of constant reminders. However, while I am strict and have these expectations, at the same time I'm "rapping" my lessons, doing double-dutch, dressing up as different characters, treating them with respect, being positive, never negative. That makes them more willing to adhere to the rules.

I tell this to everybody, especially to first-year teachers: If you're going to be strict and have high expectations for your students, then you also have to make sure they want to be in the classroom, that they enjoy being around you, they respect you, and they're having fun in there. If you are too strict, the kids will rebel. And if you try too hard to get them to like you, they're going to walk all over you. There has to be balance.

EO: It sounds as if you immersed yourself in your students' worlds. Do you think that is something teachers need to do to be successful?

RC: On some levels. It depends on the kids you're teaching. When I taught in Harlem I had to find a way to get the kids to relate to me. For many of them I was of a different race. I was a male teacher. I was from the south. They said I talked funny. So, for example, I learned how to play Game Boy. During my math lessons I would do math problems on the board that had characters from the Game Boy games. The kids would ask, "Oh Mr. Clark, do you play that?" And I said, "Sure!"

I gave them surveys to find out their favorite television shows and then I would watch those shows. When we read novels I would say, "You know, this story reminds me of something I saw on my favorite T.V. show the other night." And the kids would say, "Oh Mr. Clark, you watch that show? That's my favorite T.V. show too."

I did those things because I had to in order to get the kids to relate to me. Sometimes kids see their teacher as an ancient being, as someone they have nothing in common with. Anytime the kids can relate to the teacher they're going to have a stronger bond. The kids are going to have more respect for the teacher.

EO: In some areas of the country, there are severe teacher shortages. Why do you think this is occurring?

RC: I think there are two reasons. One: There is not enough respect for the profession. Second: Teacher pay. I know some people may disagree with that. However, when I was in college I had so many friends, especially male friends, who wanted to teach, but they decided not to enter the profession because they wanted to be able to afford a nice home for their families, be the "breadwinners," or have several children and live comfortably.

Also, when I became a teacher, I saw many of my friends who were outstanding teachers leave the profession because they knew they could make more money in the business world, and they were tired of having to work night jobs and during the summer in order to survive on a teacher's salary. When I was teaching in Harlem and named the American Teacher of the Year, I was waiting tables at night. So teacher pay is an issue. And it's not because teachers want to be rich. Teachers are in the profession because their hearts are there. However, it would be nice to be comfortable.

As I traveled across the country this year I visited 43 states. I've seen big schools and small schools. I've seen wealthy areas and poor areas; schools with huge libraries and schools with none. With everything I've seen, I think I've come up with the key to successful education in America. It has nothing to do with "No Child Left Behind," nothing to do with big libraries nor big schools. It hasn't anything to do with the money that is in that area, nor textbooks and supplies. It has everything to do with teachers. I've visited some poor areas where they didn't even have an overhead projector and their scores where phenomenal because the teachers were phenomenal. They were intelligent, they were dedicated, and they had enthusiasm.

If we want to improve education in America, if we are really serious about doing that, then we have got to do whatever it takes to recruit the best and the brightest teachers into our classrooms. It's all about individual teachers. If all of our educators were enthusiastic, intelligent, knowledgeable about the curriculum and passionate about making a difference in the lives of children, there would be no need to focus so much on test scores, because they would naturally be higher. The students would enjoy school more, have more respect for their teachers, and truly want to succeed.

EO: You mentioned that in your travels you met with college students pursuing education degrees. Did you find anything surprising when you talked with them? What is our state of readiness, so to speak, with regard to our future teachers?

RC: I've been all over the country talking with education majors. They seem to be prepared pedagogically. They know how to write a lesson plan. They know the educational lingo. But they aren't being prepared in terms of classroom discipline. Many beginning teachers email me, telling me that their first year in the classroom was a disaster. They go in with all these ideas and creative lessons but then it just falls apart. They don't have the classroom management skills needed to get those lessons across to the kids. That's one thing I think we can improve on in terms of our universities and colleges in preparing our teachers.

When those first-year teachers enter the profession we really do them a disservice by giving them the lowest level classes or the classes with the most discipline problems. That is one of the main complaints I heard from first-year teachers across the country. I would implore all veteran teachers across America to do all they can to help those first-year teachers. Work with them in terms of discipline problems. Help them get their feet wet. Hold their hands along the way. And please, don't put them on every committee in the school.

EO: On your Web site you talk about wanting to create a school for disadvantaged children. How is your dream progressing?

RC: I originally hoped the school would be ready to open in the fall of 2004, starting a school is not an easy task. It appears that it might not become a reality until the fall of 2005.

EO: How will this school differ from other schools? What will be your mission?

RC: I want to teach kids through experiences. The curriculum will be integrated into the field trips we're going to take, the sites we're going to see across the country and also in other countries. I want to put them into situations in the business world. We'll volunteer. We'll go to "fancy" dinners and use proper etiquette. We'll visit colleges, go to places we've learned about in the classroom.

I not only want to teach them through experiences but also through manners and respect. I want to start with the kids in 5th grade---kids who have had disciplinary problems or learning disabilities. I want to work with these kids from 5th to 8th grade and over that four-year period give them everything that life has to offer. After that 8th grade year, when they go to high school, hopefully they'll be organized and prepared. They'll have the needed skills, be good students, and be confident. They'll get through high school and then go on to good colleges.

One of the main things I want to do at this school is keep in contact with the kids even after 8th grade. We'll visit their schools, help them write scholarship applications, send them packets when they're in college, help them find a job, prepare for interviews. [Editor's note: Clark does this now with his former 5th grade students. He maintains contact with them, taking them to colleges and introducing them to the application process, then helping them apply

EO: In your book's dedication you thank your students for teaching you more about life than you could ever teach them. What have they taught you?

RC: They've taught me laughter. They taught me how to have fun, to laugh at my mistakes, to just be silly sometimes. When we get older we tend to get more serious, but when I'm around my kids it's a laugh a minute. They taught me to keep good attitude about life.

Even more importantly though, they taught me the meaning of life: helping other people. All of my life I was so concerned with having adventures and traveling. I was concerned only about my happiness. Once I got in the classroom, I found out how wonderful it is to help students. When you can truly make a difference in the life of another human being, you know, that's a powerful thing, and to me, that is what teaching is about.

©2003 Education Oasis http://www.educationoasis.com