Eighteen-year veteran teacher Ron Clark is on a mission to rid America of “Molasses Classes,” those bleak and depressing classrooms where teachers are simply going through the motions and kids are struggling to stay awake. His unorthodox teaching methods (jumping on the desk, double-dutch, disco lights) convinced Disney to name him the “American Teacher of the Year,” and prompted Oprah to dub him her first “Phenomenal Man.”
His Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta now helps thousands of educators learn new tips to get their classes “unstuck”—while inviting them to take a two-story plunge down an indoor slide in the middle of the lobby. And Clark’s new book, The End of Molasses Classes, features 101 tips for parents, teachers and students to liven up every classroom and inspire a new generation of students to achieve their best results.
Clark spoke with TakePart about his tips for teachers.
TakePart: What should young teachers keep in mind when facing their first frustrations in the classroom?
Learn to close your door. That was a very valuable lesson I learned when I first started teaching. There’s all kinds of drama going on in schools: lots of bureaucracy, negative teachers, and issues with parents. But the most magical thing can happen when you go into your classroom, close your door, and focus on your kids. Don’t feel like you have to change the world or you have the pressure of everything on your shoulders. Look at the kids, focus on getting them excited about learning, smile at them and you’ll feel better.
TakePart: What do you say to teachers who don’t think their schools have the right resources, or are in the same circumstances, to replicate what you’ve done?
That’s the beauty of the book. The End of Molasses Classes lists 101 ways that every teacher, in every circumstance, can get his or her kids to feel excited and passionate about learning. When I was teaching in public schools in North Carolina, and then New York City, I taught the same way I teach now, with the same amount of success. In the book there are some very simple things that everyone can do.
For example, I’ve been to all 50 states watching teachers teach in classrooms, and I can tell instantly when I’ve found a really great teacher because she spends about 80 percent of her time looking into the eyes of her students. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers look at the overhead projector or the board; they’re focused on teaching a lesson and not teaching the kids. You want to bond with the kids. Look into their eyes, especially the kids in the corner, and let them know that you care about them and that it’s more than just teaching content; you’re trying to relate and develop an academic relationship with the class.
We’ve surveyed 1000 students to find out what is the number one quality they look for in a teacher. Was it creativity? Wisdom? In fact, they want a teacher who is happy. They want a teacher who is smiling or a teacher that is in a good mood.
TakePart: Let’s go through some of the individual tips you share in the book. You write: “Not every kid deserves a cookie.” Aren’t we supposed to praise kids?
That story came about because years ago I baked cookies for my class and only gave them to kids who were working hard. Not only the straight-A students, but the kids who were putting forth a lot of effort. Well, this one mother called me, and she was furious. She said, “Mr. Clark, why are you picking on my child?” I said, “I’m not picking on your child.” She said, “Well, my daughter said you gave everyone a cookie and she didn’t get one. I called the other parents and they said her story was correct.” I said, “I only give cookies to kids who were really working hard, and your daughter hasn’t been working hard enough.” She said, “Mr. Clark, you have damaged her self-esteem and if you’re not going to give a cookie to everyone, you shouldn’t bake cookies for the students.”
That is kind of typical of what we see from a lot of parents in our country. Parents say they want everyone to be patted on the back if they try hard, and they’re focused more on the self-esteem of children than on academic excellence. Kids learn they don’t have to try very hard and they’ll still get the cookie. What we do at our school is we’re flat honest with kids. When they do a great job we tell them. When they do a job that’s not great, we let them know and we give them ways they can improve. We don’t just pat everyone on the back when they try hard; we pat them on the back when they try hard and have success.
TakePart: You also write: “Don’t give children a second chance on tests and projects.”
When I started teaching, everyone was giving second chances, so I started doing it as well. What I started to realize is that the kids really wouldn’t study anymore for tests and they didn’t take it seriously. The first time they turned in a project it was almost always an F because they realized “I’ll just do it again later. ”
Sometimes I would give a test and then the principal would tell me to give the test again. And I would say, “But the child has already seen the test.” And she would say, “Well, you’ve got to give them another chance.” I thought, good grief! The world doesn’t give you that many chances. When you go get a job, you’ve got learn to work hard, you don’t get multiple chances at your job.
So I decided I would start telling my kids you’re not getting a second chance; you have one test and that’s it. One day to turn in the project and that’s all. The kids had this urgency suddenly. They were really excited about studying. They put forth effort and then they did well. Other teachers at the school decided not to give second chances either. What we saw was that the climate completely changed from kids who were lethargic and kind of relaxed about academics, to kids who realized there’s an urgency to this—“I’ve got to try hard because I only get one chance.”
TakePart: You also tell teachers: “Give all you have to your children, even though you may get nothing in return.” How is that supposed to motivate teachers who are already in what’s considered a pretty trying profession?
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not in the nature of a child—whether he’s five or 18—to give appropriate praise. Sometimes, we teachers are going above and beyond, spending countless hours with these kids and we just don’t get the appreciation that you would normally expect. What I’ve learned is to realize that kids, at that age, just don’t know how to show it. It doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate you, it doesn’t mean they don’t love us and care about us. It just means they don’t know how to verbalize it. We just need to keep reminding ourselves as teachers that just because they don’t show it, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. The reason were helping them isn’t to receive praise or rewards.
Takepart: You say, “Love what your students love, whether its iCarly, Twilight or the NFL.” Why is that important for adults to understand?
Because you want to be able to relate to your students. You want them to know that you care about things they care about it. When I was in Harlem, my students loved to double-dutch with the two ropes, so then I had to double-dutch. I decided to use double-dutch in my science class to teach about velocity, and the kids loved it.
If they love video games, pull those video games into your math lesson. If they love a certain NFL player or certain NFL team, you’ve got to watch that game and talk about the game on Monday morning. You have to show these kids that you’ve seen iCarly and that you’ve read the Twilight books, and in literature class you can relate Shakespeare to Twilight. When you can build that type of relationship the child is going to want to be around you more and will be able to listen to you and respect you as you teach.
TakePart: Not every school can have a two-story slide. How do you re-create the energy of your school, which has a slide and a bungee jump in the lobby, without calling in a contractor and doing major construction?
As a teacher you’ve got to constantly come up with new and exciting ways to get kids excited. And some things, like the list at the end of Molasses Classes, are very simple.
For example, when kids come into my algebra class, they have balloons with algebra problems written on them and magic markers on their desks. They have to run in, get the balloon, work out the math problem on the balloon, and pop it…and they have to do it in two minutes. You’ve got to find ways to make it different for kids.