APRIL 26 –After Ron Clark finished his talk about the importance of passion and innovation in teaching, Donna Nolte and Rachelle Thomas lined up for an autograph and a hug.
“We are Ron Clark groupies,” said Nolte of the 2000 Disney American Teacher of the Year. “He is definitely our hero.”
Nolte and Thomas teach first grade at Old Richmond. Thomas said that when she’s not sure of the best approach to take with students, she may ask herself, “What would Ron do?”
And what is the answer likely to be?
“Step it up!” said Thomas.
Thomas and Nolte were among several hundred educators from Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and other school systems who gathered at Glenn High School last night to hear Clark, known nationally for his creative - and, sometimes, offbeat - approaches to teaching. He jumps on top of desks. He has blown up balloons and invited students who successfully solve an equation to sit on a balloon and pop it.
Clark grew up in Beaufort County and went to East Carolina University on a N.C. Teaching Fellows scholarship. After teaching in North Carolina, he taught in Harlem. His first book, The Essential 55, became a best seller after Oprah Winfrey endorsed it on her show. He went on to found the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, and he flew up from Atlanta for the talk.
Clark is an energetic talker who uses his hands expressively. His presentation combined elements of a stand-up comedy routine and an inspirational sermon. One moment, he would have people laughing at his impressions of his mother’s dismay at his choices in life or the way the “crabapple” teacher across the hall responded to his classroom’s decorated door. The next moment, he would have audience members responding to a point by clapping or calling out, “That’s right!”
The three pillars of Clark’s message are passion, expectations and manners. He encourages teachers to remember that teaching is a mission and not a job. He thinks it’s important to teach to the smartest student in the class because doing so serves all the students. And he thinks teaching students proper behavior is essential.
On his way to making those points, he said such things as:
“It’s not a profession; it’s a mission what we’re doing with the kids.”
“We have teachers who want to go above and beyond. Others want to pull them down.”
“You have to be a force for good.”
“The more you expect, the more you are going to get.”
“You have to constantly mix it up as a teacher….You have got to do something different almost every day.”
Before ending his talk, Clark took some time to talk about the importance of being willing to acknowledge that racism still exists and that the world is different for people of different backgrounds.
“You have to see color because if you don’t see color, you don’t see culture,” he said. “There is so much discrimination and prejudice in this country. At our school, we talk about racism all the time. When you talk about it, you take away its power.”
Monique Curry, an assistant principal at Glenn, organized the event, which was made possible by GEAR UP North Carolina, the state arm of a national program paid for by the U.S. Department of Education. GEAR UP stands for “Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs,” and, through it, Glenn and other schools offer programs designed to ensure that students graduate from high school and are ready for postsecondary education.
Before the talk, Clark visited for a few minutes with a smaller group of educators, parents and Glenn students who participate in the GEAR UP program. Five of the students – Tyler Bean, Micheal Curry II, Alyvia Williams, Justin Scism and Kristen Maiko – appeared on a panel to talk about their experiences in the program.
Earlier, Williams said that participating in the event would mean a late night of studying but that it was worth it.
“I definitely wanted to be here,” she said. Being a teacher is on her list of career possibilities. “I believe he will give me a little insight.”
Parent Kecia Long said that she appreciates what the program has done for her son, Daylen. “I saw an immediate change as far as leadership,” Long said. “It has helped him mature.”
Carol Montague-Davis, the assistant superintendent for secondary education, said that Clark is an inspiration. “He really does have a way with bringing out the best in children,” she said.
And he is not alone in doing that, she said. “You can find some Ron Clarks in our schools today.”