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The Essential 55The Excellent 11
Ron Clark

e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson

(August, 2004)

Celebrity teacher Ron Clark inspired students in rural North Carolina and in inner-city Harlem before, and while, writing two books - The Essential 55 and The Excellent 11.

In the former, the author shares a handbook of life lessons, incorporating discipline tempered by empathy, about 'how we live, interact with others, and appreciate life'. The latter covers eleven 'special qualities' shared by the best teachers and parents - Enthusiasm, Adventure, Creativity, Reflection, Balance, Compassion, Confidence, Humor, Common Sense, Appreciation, and Resilience.

Mr. Clark, 'America's Educator', has visited the White House, been named Disney's American Teacher of the Year, and appeared on both the Today Show and the Oprah Winfrey Show. I felt honored to have the opportunity to question Ron Clark about his life work.

Q: If we all lived by your Essential 55 rules, life would be more pleasant for everyone. Why do you think our society has lost so many of the trappings of politeness and respect?

A: I think it has a lot to do with our society in general. Americans are very focused on production and how much can be made, sold and gained. We have less vacation time than any country in the world, and in the eyes of others, our occupations tend to dictate who we are as individuals. In most homes, both parents are working full-time jobs, and in single parent homes most individuals find it necessary to work two jobs. There isn't much time to spend raising our children, relaxing, and taking the opportunity to teach the importance of respect, manners and appreciation of others. The time that used to be spent as a family at the dinner table has been replaced with quick hello's, instant messages, voice mail, and fast food.

Q: In that first book, you mention your grandmother as a strong influence. I also grew up close to an extended family, but my children have not. Do you think we've lost a lot in not typically having an extended family raising kids?

A: The more adults that children have supporting them and cheering them on, the better. Unfortunately, children seem to be spending less time with extended family members. The Television, video games and computers are their main companions, and they are growing up without feeling a part of something special. That is why so many children end up in groups of friends who are bad influences, often joining gangs and spending time on the streets. They are so desperate to feel a part of something that they'll settle for anyone who seems to accept them.

Q: When I read The Essential 55, I noted that empathy often tempered your disciplinary approaches, which I think is a key to their success. Some people just don't have strong empathy. Do you think your rules would work for them?

A: One of the keys to teaching and raising children is being able to put oneself in their situation and understand their actions and emotions. If you can't relate to kids and meet them where they are, then you are going to have a tough time getting them to respect you or follow your guidance. I think teachers or parents who don't have empathy would find my rules a bit unusual, but if they were willing to give them a shot and do their best to encourage and lift up the children in their lives then I think the rules would work for them as well.

Q: I just read The Excellent 11 (which I believe applies to a business environment as much as to schools). I've always felt that teachers were undervalued (at least in terms of salary scales) by society. Do you see any signs of this changing?

A: Teachers in general teach because they love it and not because of a paycheck. Because of that mentality, teachers tend to not stand up for their rights and voice their desire for increased teacher pay. It seems they feel that if they were paid more it would take away from the resources for the students. One of the main reasons we are having so many struggles with education in America today is that teacher salaries do not meet the demands of the job. If we want to recruit the best possible individuals into our classrooms to educate our children, we must be willing to compensate them for the job they will have to do. I had many friends in college who had a desire to teach, but they chose to enter the business world because they wanted to be able to support their families comfortably. I have seen excellent teachers leave the profession because they could make twice as much at a desk job. When I was named American Teacher of the Year, I was having to wait tables at night just to pay for my bills. It is a crime, and if we want it to change, teachers need to be willing to stand up and voice a need for higher pay, not only for them, but also for individuals who are considering entering the profession.

Q: What is the most important thing that schools can do to attract and retain the best teachers?

A: The best way to attract a good teacher is to have a good principal. If the administration at the school is enthusiastic, supportive and focused on the students, then great teachers will naturally flock to that environment. When teachers come to interview at a school, it is crucial that all of the teachers at the school welcome them with open arms and show them that it is a place where they would want to teach. Put out a welcome table with flowers and lemonade. Take them on a tour of the school. Tell them the best things about working there, and no matter what, avoid being negative.

There are three key ways to retain good teachers at a school.

#1. Don't overload them. Most new teachers are willing to accept extra responsibilities, but don't put them on every committee and expect so much of them. They may be willing to accept it, but they are going to burn out quickly and leave after four years.

#2. Don't give them the most difficult classes. Veteran teachers are bad for arranging the classes so that they get the most desirable students. By doing that, new teachers, who are the least experienced, are given the task of dealing with the students who are the hardest to reach.

#3. Everyone should be a mentor. Every teacher and faculty member should make new teachers feel welcomed. Place kind notes on their desks, bake them lunch, offer them some of your supplies, give them pointers and share your lessons. Don't leave new teachers to find out all the tricks of the trade on their own; take them by the hand and make the transition into your school an easy one.

Q: I love the notion of instilling Adventure and Creativity in the classroom, as in your quest around The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Are teachers able to share this kind of creativity through the Internet or does information overload prevent that?

A: I have never had a problem with information overload on the Internet. The key is that you have to know how to do a proper search. One thing that most people don't realize is that you can narrow your search by using quotation marks. For example, if you want to find information on the Battle of Bull Run, you can put it in quotes: "The Battle of Bull Run." That way you are only getting results for that exact battle, and you will avoid results that deal with bulls or running or other battles.

To make sharing and accessing information easier, I have created a message board for sharing lessons and ideas. It can be found at and is a free service.

Q: I think that one of the most best things that teachers can do for students is to support their self-confidence (and one of the worst is to denigrate it). Boosting confidence comes up often in your Excellent 11. Do you think schools in general do a good job in this area?

A: Schools do a great job of lifting up those who are high achievers. There are numerous awards for academics, good behavior and perfect attendance. What we have to do, however, is find a way to place confidence in all children and lift them all up. It is the job of all great teachers and principals to find a way to show every child his or her potential and put them all in situations where they feel successful, regardless of their academics, behavior problems or other factors.

Q: School can be a very happy experience, but for many it is not -- those who are different, the over-and underachievers, who tend to be on the sidelines. Do you find that students who live by your rules are more accepting of all their peers, or do they still keep them at a distance (albeit a respectful one)?

A: At the beginning of the school year, I often had many disagreements in my classes. It was obvious the students didn't like each other and there was a lot of hostility. I would always use the 55 rules and work hard to build the class as a family. Eventually, usually by November, everyone had bought into the program and the class was a totally different environment. There was no bullying, no saving seats in the lunchroom and no name calling. A mutual respect was formed between all of the students.

Q: What is your greatest regret (looking back on your teaching career to date)?

A: There was one student whom I couldn't reach no matter what I tried. He had experienced so much pain in his life that he just turned his back on everyone. I got him to a point where he would do his work and pay attention, but I knew he needed more than I could ever give him. I asked the principal if I could teach him again the next year, and she agreed, but he moved away that summer and I never saw him again. It killed me, because I knew that he left my class still in so much pain and full of anger at the world and I would never have a chance to affect his life again. That experience taught me to work even harder with students like him and to remember that I only have one year to make a life's worth of difference in each child.

Q: What achievement means the most to you?

A: I just returned from South Africa with a group of my students from North Carolina and Harlem, and that is almost my answer ... but actually it would have to be taking my students from NC to NYC to see Phantom of the Opera about seven years ago. I wanted to get front row seats, because the students were from a low wealth area and I wanted them to feel special and like the performance was for them. Getting those seats was a nightmare, and we had to sit at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and sell Krispy Kreme donuts for six weeks! I thought I had made a huge mistake because it was taking up all of my time to raise the money. Then, that night when we arrived at the Majestic Theater in NYC, everyone looked at my sixty students like we didn't belong there, and we walked right on past them down to the front rows. My students were ultra-prepared, because we had read the book, learned the songs, and studied the history of the show. The curtains opened and it was like POW! It was dramatic and wonderful and I said to myself, "Lord, when I look over at these students ... please don't let them be asleep. Even worse, please don't let them be singing and dancing either." I looked over, and they were all spellbound, just watching, not moving or making a sound. That moment was powerful for me because I realized that no matter where those students go in life, they will take that moment with them. That performance was for them; they all felt special, and they were all lifted up.

Q: I enjoyed your Today Show and Oprah Winfrey Show videos on your website. Were your students thrilled to see you with Oprah? Were you nervous?

A: My students really didn't really mention it. They were a little disappointed because they asked me to do the Harlem Shake dance on the Oprah Show as a way of saying hello to them. I didn't get the chance, but I made up for it on the Wayne Brady Show, where I really got down with it, and the kids loved it.

I wasn't nervous to be on any TV show. When you talk about something you love and feel passionate about, it comes easy.

Q: We all remember one (more if we're lucky) teachers who inspired us - whether in their passion for a specific subject matter or by their philosophy of life. What drives them?

A: If there is one common thing all exceptional teachers share it's that they want to make a difference in the lives of their students, and they are willing to use whatever means necessary to make that impact.

Q: Your website mentions your plan to start your own school. Do you have a time frame for it and how is it progressing?

A: It is progressing slow. I just finished recording a rap cd that contains the educational raps and lesson plans I used in my classroom. That took up a great deal of my time, along with the trip with my students to South Africa and the promotion for the new book. My plate is full right now, and we decided to put off the planning of the school until November. We are all going to meet again in NYC at that time to begin moving forward. I don't see the school opening until the fall of 2006.

Q: Are there any more books in the works, and if so will the titles continue to include a multiple of 11 (had to get that in, my background is in mathematics :-))?

A: Ha, the multiples of eleven thing just happened; I didn't mean it. I would like to write one more book before I go back to the classroom. The idea I am toying with now is centered around building communities into learning environments.
Find out more about Ron Clark, check out his Teacher Resources and Message Board, and watch clips of his Oprah and Today Show appearances at
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