By Barbara Grimm
Everyday Education 

Possibilities, Expectations And Inspiration


Last updated 5/16/2016 at 6:15pm

The other evening I was scanning for something to watch on TV and came across “The Ron Clark Story.” It’s that time of year when I need just a small dose of inspiration to get through the end of May, so I grabbed some popcorn and settled in to watch. As you can imagine, one of my favorite things to do is to watch “feel-good” teacher movies. I love stories like this. It reminds me of all the wonderful reasons why I became a teacher.

Many educators know Ron Clark from his books “The Essential 55” and (the revised) “The Essential 11.” (I guess he realized that teachers don’t have time or energy for that many “Essentials.”)

For those unfamiliar with him, Clark taught for four years in Aurora, N.C., where he met with great success. Relying on his experience and desiring a different challenge, Clark decided to try his hand at teaching in New York City’s Harlem. Not exactly the leap that I would have made, but certainly an admirable one. Amazingly, his students in both places performed well above and beyond their initial expectations. These were students from very diverse backgrounds, from rural North Carolina to Harlem, N.Y. So how did he get the same results?

Ron Clark seems to have one thing that many of us don’t have - the ability to get past the educational rhetoric, bureaucracy, and platitudes and believe that buried within every child is the possibility of greatness. Sometimes it’s buried deep within, covered up by life’s circumstances and the reactions to them, but it’s there. And he knows how to find it. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t leave. He doesn’t wash his hands of the whole affair. He has figured out a way to reach the most difficult kids. He inspires teachers to remember that every child has potential and that any teacher could be the one that makes the difference. He sees potential and possibility in every student with whom he has worked.

I was blessed to have an uncle like that. Uncle Ed saw potential in everyone. During the Civil Rights Movement, he started a school for African American students in inner city Columbia, S.C. Yet, like Clark, my uncle never lowered his expectations to meet the abilities of the students. He maintained the standards and expected his students to strive to reach or exceed them. They both worked from the premise that educators do students no favors when expectations are lowered so that more students can meet them without much effort. Clark worked tirelessly while in Harlem to meet the educational needs of every student he taught, reminding his students every day that success was possible. His desire to have his students meet the higher expectations never flagged as he stressed rule-following, homework and classwork completion and correction, journaling, and test preparation.

Clark’s passion for his students has led him to go the extra mile in after school tutorials, meeting students in their homes or for lunch at coffee shops, working with parents to encourage the students at home, and advocating for the “hard cases” with his principal and/or superintendent. His doing so took great energy, “out of the box” thinking, and expenditures of his personal time and resources.

While I know it’s neither feasible nor reasonable for every teacher to be able to invest that much money, time and energy due to having our own personal lives and families, I wonder whether we are always utilizing the time in which we do have our students in the most effective manner. Are we truly determined to reach all students who sit under our tutelage?

As Barbara Blackburn states in her article “Do we really have high expectations of all?”, “We have to match our beliefs about expectations to our daily actions in the classroom… It’s critical that we examine our beliefs to ensure that they do represent a view of success for our struggling students. Then we must examine our behaviors closely…to determine whether we are putting our beliefs into action. By making our positive actions match our high expectations, we not only motivate our struggling learners, we help them achieve at higher levels.”

When we purpose ourselves as educators to do everything feasible to reach every student, regardless of the difficulty involved, then we are all winners.

As with all students as required by the school systems, Clark’s charges were subject to standardized tests in order to assess their progress. But he was never driven to the point of “teaching to the test.” While most educators will agree that testing has its place, very few would voluntarily subject their students to so many standardized tests that crucial instructional time is lost. If students are not meaningfully and effectively exposed to the material over which they will be tested, then very little will be retained beyond the day of the test. That’s not education by even the worst stretch of the definition.

When we help students in developing a love for learning, in seeing a purpose in what they are learning, and in meeting or exceeding the level of standards required of them, then we have been successful as educators.

Clark has never been satisfied with status quo. He has spent his days inspiring kids to greatness through hard work and perseverance through their situations. For educators, there’s no greater feeling than when a student finally grasps a difficult concept after much encouragement has been given. It’s as if the light bulb visibly appears above the student’s head. That’s education. It may not be measurable. It may not be “on the test.” But, at the end of the day, children are not a test score and schools are not a letter grade.

If you want to see a “feel good” teacher movie where the underdogs win, pop some popcorn and sit back for “The Ron Clark Story.”

(Grimm is the director of Brevard Academy: A Challenge Foundation Academy.)


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