Lessons From Ron Clark

For anyone who works with children, we often are made aware of the burdens they have to bear, but in many instances we will never know. We will never have an awareness of the pain they are feeling and the struggles they have to endure. What we can do, however, is love them and see them as individuals we care about and respect. I often stop to ask myself, “How would I want another teacher to handle this situation if she were dealing with my own child?                                                                                                                                               — Ron Clark

PictureImage from http://www.ronclarkacademy.com

I recently finished reading The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark, and in all honesty, I wept like a child. This book not only contains wonderful tips and suggestions for teachers, parents, and schools, but Ron also shares many inspiring stories with readers about his struggles and successes as a teacher. I have to give it to him — this guy is bold. The enthusiasm and energy he brings to his classroom are way beyond my expectations for the ideal teacher. The best part about reading his book was that even though several of the solutions he proposes may seem otherworldly and unrealistic within the public school system (due to financial costs, or lack of teacher collaboration), the philosophy behind each one of them is one and the same — love your students and love what you do. Moreover, he offers less extravagant alternatives that allows teachers to obtain the same results. Below, I have paraphrased the top ten tips that resonated most with me. 

1. Wait. “…if I have called on a student, it becomes that student’s opportunity and that student’s moment” (201). 
     I’ve often noticed during peer presentations or with new teachers, the speaker will usually ask a question, and upon not receiving immediate feedback, they will proceed to answer the question themselves. This is a huge pet peeve of mine because if you are going to take the time to ask your audience a question, you should expect your audience to attempt an answer. Or, how often do we see teachers pick on a student for an answer, and when the student is silent, or answers, “I don’t know,” the teacher will usually move on to another student? As Ron points out, this promotes the wrong message, because you are essentially giving up on that first student. 
     If a student doesn’t have an answer immediately, wait. Don’t let other students come to the rescue. Instead, guide the student and do what you can to help him or her achieve the answer, but DO NOT simply give it to them. 

2. Use class cheers to help students uplift each other. A simple way to do this is to get students to clap for their peers whenever they accomplish a difficult task like giving a great answer to a question, or achieving above 80% on their last test. Your tone of voice should be enough to signal to students when it is appropriate to clap and when it is not. Not only does this help create a positive classroom atmosphere, it gives students an outlet to release any pent up energy. 
     To up this another notch, teachers can also divide the class into “house teams” and get students to come up with their own house cheers when completing group tasks or assignments. Or, teachers can also teach class chants that help motivate them when encountering a difficult problem. For instance, Ron might say, “This question is hard. Have y’all got this?” And students will respond:

We’re doing fine
We’re gonna shine
Now throw your hands up in the sky!
We’re gonna keep trying
Adding those lines
Now throw your hands up in the sky! (206).
[To the tune of “Good Life” by Kanye West] 

3. Turn a difficult lesson into a song. Whether you’re trying to teach students to remember the order of operations, the chronological order of all the prime ministers of Canada, or definitions of difficult words, you can always put it to the tune of a popular song! Students can have fun while learning, and they can even create their own dance moves!

4. Not every child deserves a cookie, but when they do, give them all the praise in the world. Don’t reward mediocre work. If a student produces a wonderful display of all the stages of life of a flowering plant, but say forgets to include labels in their diagram as a part of their assignment, that student should not receive a passing grade. I myself struggle with this idea because as a new teacher, garnering points for “like-ability” seem to be very important. But that’s a selfish goal; I’m there to push students and help them reach their full potential. I recognize that not every child is going to like me, and maybe I’ll get called a “hard-ass” every once in a while. If every child in my classroom likes me 100% of the time than I am probably doing something wrong. 

5. Show parents how to help their child study. Both parents and teachers are on the same team, but more often than not they can seem like competing forces. Parents will argue on behalf of their child, teachers will call parents out for being unreasonable, and quickly the child is forgotten. One way to develop a meaningful relationship with parents is to show them how to help their children prepare for an upcoming test. Ron Clark gives the example of giving parents “paper gold”– practice tests about ten pages long that have questions similar to what will be on the test the following week. He will then give each parent an answer key, “and many of them look as if I just handed them a million dollars,” he writes. Under each problem Ron will write out exactly how he got to the solution, so that “it enables the parents to have the power and knowledge to become their child’s tutor, even if they aren’t good at math or whatever subject that is being tested” (256).

6. Dress professional. This one is important. Look sharp and be professional, because let’s face it — teaching is a professional career!

7. Set the bar high. What about students who are struggling with below grade level work? Personally, I don’t have much expertise in the manner, but I agree that setting expectations to meet the standards of your highest performing students rather than catering to the class average achieves two things: 1) The lower-achieving students benefit from working in a motivated and academically challenging environment, 2) You prevent the higher-achieving students from becoming bored and inattentive. 
8. Expect more from your colleagues too. Share ideas and challenge your colleagues to be innovative with their lessons. If they come to you with an idea, and you think that they are capable of doing better, you should tell them so! A simple “You can do better” can really push teachers to excel, vamp up the energy and quality of work of the entire staff. 

9. Make field trips meaningful. If you’re planning on taking your students to the zoo, hav
e them do research on the types of animals they are going to see. Incorporate this into a math lesson by researching the prices of food and snacks there and have them do worksheets dealing with taxes and percentages. By preparing and planning for trips ahead of time, you can help make learning fun! 

10. See the potential in every child. “When we raise our children, we need to remind ourselves that they will become what they see in them.” (155)
     I’ve always loved to draw, and when I was younger, I had dreams about becoming an artist. I didn’t care about the money I would make or whether people would like my art, I just knew that it made me happy. “You’re going to starve as an artist,” I remember my mom telling me. Lo and behold, I am no longer pursuing my childhood dream. Other examples of this type of behavior we see in parents include comments like, “You keep a messy room!” “Your writing skills are so horrible” “You’re no good at math.” These ideas are subsequently molded into the mindset of children and can quickly become unwanted cases of the self-fulfilling prophecy
     Ron offers us a neat solution, “next time your child exhibits a behavior you’d like to see repeated, such as holding a door for you or offering to help bring in the groceries, say to him, ‘You always make sure to hold the door for me. I can always count on you for that”‘ (156).

Ron, if you’re reading this — thank you. 

Works Cited

Clark, Ron. The End of Molasses Classes: Getting Our Kids Unstuck –101 Extraordinary Solutions. Toronto: Simon & Schuster. 2011. Book. 

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