Doing your best in school has always been the golden rule. Now a teacher has come up with 55 of them. In his book, “The Essential 55,” award winning educator Ron Clark shares his own set of rules that he says brings out the best in children. Read an excerpt below.
HER NAME WAS Mudder. She loved Guiding Light, collards, and snuff, and she was my grandmother. Mudder stood right at five feet, but when she placed her hands on her hips, she was the tallest person in the room. She was definitely a lady who didn’t put up with any nonsense, and she was respected by everyone around her; poor be the person who had to learn that the hard way. As I grew up, she lived with my family and had a strong impact on who I am today. She’s one of the reasons that I feel so strongly about these fifty-five expectations I have of my students, as well as all people. She, along with my parents, gave me a true southern upbringing, which included respect, manners, and an appreciation of others. In addition to those ideals, I was shown how to enjoy life, take advantage of opportunities, and live every moment to the fullest. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by family members who were excellent examples of how life should be lived and not taken for granted.
Once I became a teacher, it became evident to me that many children aren’t exposed to the type of guidance and opportunities that I had when I was growing up. I have tried to set an example for my students and be a role model like my family members were for me. In my attempt to give them an outline or a guide to how life should be lived and appreciated, I compiled this list of lessons.
Over the years of working with kids and watching this list grow from five rules to a handbook of life’s lessons, I have seen a remarkable difference in the way my students have held themselves, performed in school, and had respect for others.
I have used these lessons with much success with my students, but they are not only for children; most of the fifty-five items listed here can apply to anyone, young and old, from the housewife to the doctor, the politician to the waiter, and everyone in between. These lessons are about how we live, interact with others, and appreciate life, and, therefore, they speak to everyone.
I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with children firsthand and develop the list of fifty-five rules into what it is today. It is an extension of my upbringing mixed with lessons I have learned about life, along with some rules that I have felt the need to adopt in order to maintain order with my students and get them to achieve their potential. However, the rules are more than about getting kids to behave; they’re about preparing kids for what awaits them after they leave my classroom. It is about preparing them to handle any situation they may encounter and giving them the confidence to do so. In some ways, it is a fifty-five-step plan. The steps, however, are not sequential; they are all explained, practiced, and enforced from day one in the classroom. At the end of the year, I like to say that my students are “polished.” I know I can take them anywhere, put them in any situation, and present them with any lesson, because they are at a point where they are receptive to learning and eager to experience life.
The time I have spent with children and teaching them these lessons has been wonderful, and I can’t imagine doing anything other than teaching. That is ironic, however, because when I was growing up, being a teacher was the last thing I would have wanted to do. Going through school, I can remember having aspirations of discovering ancient tombs in Egypt, flying around the world as a field journalist, or going undercover as a spy in foreign countries. The thought of entering such a dull, unchallenging, and mind-
numbing profession as education never crossed my mind.
When I was a senior in high school, I sat down with my parents and discussed my options for college. Both of my parents were very hard workers, but it was still going to be a strain for them to come up with the funding necessary to send me to school. I can remember my father saying to me, “Ron, that’s not for you to worry about. That is our responsibility. You just concentrate on your grades.” I loved them for the sacrifices they were willing to make for me, but I didn’t want to put them in a situation where they would struggle to make ends meet. Around that time, I heard of a program called the Teaching Fellows Scholarship. Recipients of the award have all of their college expenses taken care of if they agree to teach in North Carolina for four years after graduating. I had no desire whatsoever to become a teacher, but I knew that taking the scholarship would make things much easier for my family financially. I decided I would use the funding to pay for my education, but after graduating I would not become a teacher. I would enter another profession that would allow me to make enough money to pay back the scholarship. It was not a plan I am proud of, but it made sense at the time.
Throughout college, I found that my one true love in life is adventure. I was up for any type of challenge that came my way, and that certainly led me to my share of wild moments. I once ran across the field of a nationally televised football game with my friend Bri, wearing only boxers and painted purple from head to toe, as we were chased by a gaggle of police officers in hot pursuit. While working at Dunkin’ Donuts, and during a game of hide-and-seek, I hid in a warm, locked oven that was turned on, and because I had accidentally locked my coworker out of the building, I was almost cooked to death. Also, even though I am terrified of heights, I have bungee-jumped, climbed mountains, rappelled off cliffs, and parasailed behind a boat off the Atlantic coast. When I graduated from college, I realized I definitely did not want to teach. Actually, I didn’t want to work at all. Therefore, in search of more adventures, I moved to London and worked as a singing and dancing waiter. After six months of using my southern accent as a British tourist attraction, I left England and backpacked across Europe, finally ending up in Romania, where I stayed with gypsies who fed me rat, which made me so sick that I had to be flown home. My adventures certainly had their share of highs and lows, but even when I ended up sick, almost cooked, or in trouble with the law, the experiences were worth the costs, because I always walked away a stronger, wiser, and better person.
After I arrived home from Romania, my parents were extremely happy to see me, but I had no intention of remaining home for long. My friend Bri was going to live on the beach in California, and I couldn’t wait to move out there next. My mother, however, was willing to do whatever it took to get me to stay put. She told me of a fifth-grade teacher in our area who had recently passed away. It was a sudden illness, and her students, the faculty, and the entire community were affected by her loss. Now let me tell you, we live in the country, and the population of the town, Aurora, is about 600. You have to drive twenty minutes to get to a stoplight, and it is difficult to entice teachers to the school because of the travel it would require each day. Mom told me that substitute teachers had taken over the vacant teaching position for a month, and that the class had become very unruly. The school was about 75 percent minority and most of the kids were on free or reduced-price lunch. I felt sorry for the students, but I was not interested in taking over this class of demanding, high-energy fifth graders, many of whom had behavior problems and learning disabilities.
I told my mother there was no way in this world that I was going to teach at that school. She told me in return that if I didn’t at least talk to the principal, she and my father would be forced to stop lending me money to fund my adventures. The next day, I was the first person to arrive at Snowden Elementary School.
Even though I agreed to meet with the principal, I still had no intention of taking the job. My Aunt Carolyn worked there as a secretary, so I figured it would give me the opportunity to see her before flying off to California. Upon arrival, I visited with my aunt, and then the principal, Andrea Roberson, gave me a tour of the school and told me about the group of students I would teach if I accepted the position. She told me about how demanding the students were, of several with learning disabilities, and how I had to raise those test scores no matter what. I remember thinking to myself, “And this lady is actually trying to convince me to work here.” I did act interested, but my heart wasn’t in it. She then escorted me to the room that held the fifth-grade class. We walked in and there was a little boy, named Rayquan, sitting just a few feet from the door. He looked up at me with his huge, brown, round eyes and said, “Is you gonna be our new teacher?” I can’t explain the feeling that came over me; it was like an epiphany. The instant trust in his voice, the excitement all over his face, and his evident longing for stability called out to me. I knew that was where I was supposed to be. I looked back at Rayquan and said, “I think so.”
Before taking over the class myself, the principal wanted me to observe the substitute teacher. She didn’t want to just throw me in the class with no idea about what to expect from the group. The substitute in question, Mrs. Waddle, was an eccentric lady who always had a sandwich in one hand and whose matted wigs always seemed to lean to one side. On the first day I observed her, she became upset with a student who didn’t know the answer to a question. She proceeded to draw three small circles in a row on the blackboard. She then instructed the young man to place his nose in the middle circle and one finger from each hand in the outside circles. She left him there and turned back to the class and asked the question again. The next student got the question right, and she threw her hands in the air and proclaimed that she felt the Holy Spirit. She then sang an entire verse of “Amazing Grace.” Sitting there and watching this teacher for a week solidified more and more each day my desire to work with those students. They needed me more than I could have ever imagined. Before turning the class over to me, the substitute left me with one bit of “wisdom.” She looked at me and said, “You know, Mr. Clark, you’ll do fine. As long as you can affect the life of one child, you’ve been a success.”
To this day I do not like that quote. I feel we have to approach education with the determination to affect each and every one of our students. The mentality of achieving “success” after reaching one child isn’t enough. I approach each year with the knowledge that I have only one year to make a life’s worth of difference in each child in that classroom, and I give it everything I’ve got. I didn’t know much when I first entered the classroom and took over that class from Mrs. Waddle, but I did know my life was going to be different, because I was determined to give my students a different life, a better life. My time as a teacher had begun.
Over the next seven years in the classroom, my experiences were like a roller-coaster ride, with invitations to the White House, 911 calls, trips around the country with students, projects that garnered worldwide attention, and a major move from teaching in rural North Carolina to Harlem in New York City. Those events highlight my time spent working with children and my efforts to teach them these fifty-five rules. I have recounted many of the stories here. They show the highs and lows, successes and disappointments, and lessons learned along the way.
As you go through the list, there are some rules you may like and decide to use with students and children in your life, and there may be some that don’t inspire you. We all have different levels of tolerance when it comes to the behavior of children, and we all have different levels of expectations for ourselves and others. I offer these rules as suggestions, as tried-and-true methods that have served my students well. I hope you find them useful.
Excerpted from “The Essential 55: An Award-Winning Educator’s Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child”
by Ron Clark. Copyright © 2003 by Ron Clark. Published by Hyperion. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.