Oprah talks with Ron Clark, the 2000 Outstanding Teacher of the Year and O, The Oprah Magazine’s first “Phenomenal Man.”
I met Ron Clark, the 2000 Outstanding Teacher of the Year, last fall at Disney’s American Teacher Awards. He’d not only traveled from East Harlem to Los Angeles to receive his award but he’d raised more than $25,000 to bring his entire class with him. As I watched the video about Ron’s life and his decision to relocate from North Carolina to one of the toughest areas of Harlem, I was moved to tears. What I saw in Ron that day left me humbled and inspired-I could literally feel his deep sense of love for and connection with his students.
OPRAH: Was it always your desire to be a teacher?
RON CLARK: I never wanted to teach; all I wanted was a life filled with adventure. After college I became a dancing and singing waiter in London. I went to Greece and got stranded on a desert island for four days. Then I went to Romania and stayed with gypsies in Transylvania-they fed me rats and I got really sick, so I had to come home. I lived with my mom in Belhaven, North Carolina. She told me a teacher in her area had passed away and asked me if I’d be willing to finish out the school year for that teacher. I wasn’t interested … but I figured I’d just go down to the school. I was hooked! The next day I started teaching fifth grade. From then on it was like magic-I fell in love with teaching.
Five years later, I saw a program about a school in Harlem. It showed these students who although they were intelligent had extremely low test-scores because the school couldn’t attract good teachers. And at that moment I had a feeling… it was like a calling. The next day I told my co-teacher, “I’m going to teach in Harlem.” I packed up my car, drove up to New York, and stayed at the YMCA. Every day, I went from school to school in Harlem trying to find a school like the one I’d seen on TV.
O: You’re kidding.
RC: I’m serious! It was hard. I knew the calling I’d felt was strong enough that when I came to the right school I’d know it.
O: That’s not a calling, Ron-that’s a siren!
O: How do you motivate your students?
RC: The main motivator, whether in rural North Carolina or Harlem, is letting the kids know that you care about them and that you’re interested in their success. Sometimes it takes other motivators, like jumping rope with them. When I first got to Harlem, jumping rope was the thing-all the kids were out there doing Double Dutch. So I tried it-I knew that if I could learn to do it, it would earn me points with them.
O: And a connection.
RC: Yes. It became a bonding experience because every day at lunch, when the other teachers would go to the teachers lounge, I would spend my time with the students and practice Double Dutch. And when I finally got [Double Dutch], it was a success for me and for the kids.
O: So your curriculum was based on what was happening in their lives?
RC: Exactly. Through my curriculum I tried to help them become complete individuals and to love life. Using things they were already interested in made my job a lot easier.
O: How do you encourage students to be lifelong learners?
RC: I model the behavior that I expect from them. For example, whenever I teach anything, whether it’s math, science, or geography, I am excited about it! When the kids look at my face, they can tell I’m excited about it. Sometimes I may not be that ecstatic, but it’s important to show them the excitement you can have from learning.
O: Why does your philosophy work?
RC: I’m sincere-my students know I mean what I say. They know everything I do is for them and that I’m giving it everything I’ve got. Some people say I’m crazy because I put so much effort into dealing with the kids. But when the kids see my effort, it makes them put forth more effort. They know I have high expectations for them.
O: Do you think of yourself as creative?
RC: If I had to name three of my characteristics, one of the top three would be creative. You have to be creative to be a good teacher because you can’t do the same thing day after day.
O: If you can make long division exciting, you are one creative person!