The pulse of the drums and enthusiastic clapping matched my beating heart as we waited in line at the Ron Clark Academy. We were approaching our red carpet welcome and I knew without a doubt that the next two days would re-ignite a passion for my profession. Not only did it light the fire in my educator heart, but it reminded me what was possible when a group of dedicated and innovative teachers join forces to create a magical and electric school culture….and being slide certified was just as incredible as I thought it would be
The RCA experience is not one you can explain. It must be experienced. These are the lessons I will take back to my own school:
1) Incorporate your own passions and interests into the classroom and they will serve you well. Ron Clark and Kim Bearden did a phenomenal job of hiring educators who “do their thing” in their own rooms and make it count. It’s the RCA version of “you do YOU”. Mr. King loves music and teaches his class with a guitar around his neck at the ready. Ms.Barnes speaks in poetry and empowers her students to live their art and own their stories. Mr. Clark uses storytelling and dancing to keep his students (literally) on the edge of their seats (or desks—thankfully, there’s a lot of desk dancing). Each and every teacher taps into their superpower, interests and story to bring excellence and authenticity to their lessons. I could see their students value and appreciate the unique teaching style of each and every one.
2) Consistency in your classroom and across school staff is key to successful implementation of procedures and expectations. The high expectations and rituals at RCA are felt in every corner of their school. The students thrive on knowing (and then executing) what is expected of them. Every teacher supports this culture by their own consistency and support in their rooms and into the hallways beyond. Even though individual teachers had their particular teaching style, they followed through on the Essential 55 rules that are the foundation of the school, as well as procedures that have been shaped since the school opened (i.e., drum playing protocol in classrooms and detention follow-through).
3) If you build a strong enough relationship with students, you create a safe environment for constructive criticism. Their kids feel loved, so when reprimanded, course corrected or even “broken down” a little, they don’t feel crushed. These students can accept it with grace and move forward to better themselves. The affection, care and support RCA children feel is evident whether they’re being praised for a job well done or they’re receiving silent lunch for not following the rules. Every child knows the expectations and the consequences for not reaching them, but they also know they will be completely supported in their effort to rise from their mistakes.
4) Asking for help is not a weakness. It’s a strength and when executed well, magic can appear in a classroom or school. When building an arctic environment (complete with milk bottle igloo compliments of Mrs. Bearden and Mrs. King), no man is an island—there are people who are willing to assist and it is imperative to let them, be them colleagues or parents of students. When creating a new system or procedure in a school, a team effort will always trump going it alone. At RCA the power comes from everyone meeting in the middle with their gifts and talents to provide the pieces to complete the puzzle.
5) Do not let the frustrations or misconceptions of parents creep into your teacher heart and wear it down. Before making a defense, attempt to see parents’ hearts and fears, and demonstrate empathy for their experience. So many conflicts can be diffused with love, kindness and compassion. Show empathy to receive empathy. Everyone just wants to feel they are appreciated and understood….especially when offspring are concerned.
6) Children need to move and “feel” the academic content. Sedentary environments breed disruption, apathy and frustration. RCA teachers explore every inch of classroom space and allow students to construct their own learning by doing the same. They are empowered to take ownership of knowledge acquisition and light a fire underneath it through song, chants, dancing and speaking. It was unbelievable to watch such confident middle schoolers stand on the desks and own the floor when they had something to say. I felt excited for the incredible futures that await such confident and well-spoken kids.
7) The design of an environment matters and can shape a school’s culture. Each RCA classroom reflected the interests of its teacher. The creativity and innovation put into each room around a content area was mind-blowing. Students see the effort put into the school’s design (complete with wall to wall student photos in hallways) and feel the love their staff has for them. It’s all done to enhance engagement and enthusiasm and it WORKS. I also realize that enlisting parents and community leaders to help in this endeavor is essential to getting done. We can’t all have a steel mascot constructed in the foyer or a twirly slide in the lobby, but we can all create murals, assemble photo collages and construct themes in classrooms. Elbow grease and parent volunteers can move mountains.
8) Working hours beyond the school day is imperative to cultivating excellence in teaching…and complaining about it doesn’t help move the bus. We don’t do this for the money. Teaching is a calling and privilege. It will involve extra hours of work if the building or class is to be deemed exceptional. Memorable learning experiences come from hours spent even before students arrive. It’s reality and the sooner we accept this, the sooner we will reap the benefits on the other side. The effort is worth it and will shine like a spotlight on the electric pockets in a school building. The beautiful thing is, once specific rock star classroom lessons are created, they can be repeated the following year without hours of planning.
9) Tell your colleagues what you appreciate about them, love on all staff in your building and avoid gossip. These three steps will rocket you to a place of respect and good standing.
10) Know that sometimes when you’re a “running” teacher, you will make mistakes, but you should not let them define you. There is incredible learning that can come out of blunders and mishaps. First, take responsibility for messing up and then figure out how you will let it better you as a person and educator. Growth comes in all forms, and frequently it will arrive when you don’t reach your mark. Be quick to regroup, pull up those bootstraps, and get on with it. Kids are counting on you.
**There were people at our conference who had visited RCA 3-5 times. I can see the value in that because there were teachers I didn’t get to see and I know things were missed because I was in awe of everything. If you go, I recommend not taking notes (thank you, Jen Jones—good tip). Just sit there and take it all in, making eye contact with each instructor. The brilliant RCA app has tons of resources, so note-taking isn’t necessary. I can’t do a big enough PSA to teachers about attending this workshop. In a perfect world, your whole staff should go because it is so difficult to explain…it has to be felt. Thank you, Mr. Clark and family—you put the spark back into this girl.**
Your friend on this amazing teacher journey,
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