I was skeptical when I first heard about Ron Clark. He started his career as a teacher in rural North Carolina and then moved to Harlem to teach at a high-poverty, low-performing elementary school. He turned a classroom around and people noticed. We’ve all seen the movies. Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, The Freedom Writers – they all follow a similar teacher/savior archetype that can inspire. Although I find value in them, I am also tired of seeing the same story relived with more and more glamor and glitz. If it can make me cry, I’m suspect.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good uplifting story. I guess I take it so seriously because I have some connection to the stories being told. Every teacher wants to feel successful with their students, but success rarely looks like Michelle Pfipher. It looks like the daily grind, it takes years and a career of many failures and few successes to find. Teaching is not really glamorous at all, and it isn’t necessarily uplifting. Since the other success stories are never told in Hollywood, we all get this idea in our head that teachers must teach at the hardest schools, sacrifice their family or social life, and inspire their students with innovative lessons and exercises. And if they don’t love you and score high on tests by the end of it, we won’t make a movie about you.
Back to Ron Clark. He was this kind of teacher. His Harlem student’s scored the highest in his school after his first year, and he went on to be recognized as the Disney Teacher of Year. After a call from Oprah, he wrote a New York Times best-selling book and recently opened his own school in Atlanta. None of this happened overnight, but you wouldn’t know that from his made-for-tv movie “The Ron Clark Story,” starring Matthew Perry. I hope you can understand why I was curious and ready to test this man. It also didn’t help that he named his school after himself – the Ron Clarke Academy – even though he still teaches there. I found it all a bit strange.
Lucky me – my school arranged him to speak at our school’s teacher development this past week. We watched the film and received a key note in the afternoon. He won me over for two reasons. First, he is still a teacher. Instead of taking his royalties and becoming a principal or CEO, he opened a school and still teaches 3 classes a day. Secondly, as a person, he was completely genuine in his commitment to work for his students. There was nothing pretentious or holier-than-thou despite the fact that his recognition offered him that stature. He just never lived up to the assumptions I had before meeting him. He convinced me of one thing for sure – great things can happen if you try.
I don’t regret my skepticism because I think it’s healthy to exert every now and then. And if he wasn’t the real thing, I wouldn’t have been so disillusioned. But he was, so I guess I was kind of inspired.
Matthew Perry and the real Ron Clark
P.S. And yes, I bought one of his books and got it autographed. And yes, I cried during the movie. And yes, if Oprah tells me to like someone, I probably will.