By John R. Alston Trotter, EdD, JD
Why did I use this photos? I wanted to. Why not? It really has nothing directly to do with this article. But, ah…, this is what creative people do. A creative teacher would use this photo to go anywhere. Are Lula (sorry, but this is what all Brazilians call him; it would be like all Americans addressing Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama as Billy, Georgie, and Barackie) and President Obama talking about Brazil‘s oil? How did either man get elected to president of their respective countries when the convential wisdom was deadset against both? Are they talking about trade? Futebol/soccer? Or American football? Lula is a fan of one of Sao Paulo‘s teams, the Corinthians. President Obama sticks with his hometown Bears. A good lesson alone could spring from the difference between futebol and football. Or, about our need for oil and Brazil‘s energy independence. But, a rigid, narrow, boring, and test-driven curriculum proscribes (not “prescribes”) any such discussion and meaningful learning from taking place.
[Editor’s Note: By the way, Lula was identified in Newsweek back in 2009 as “the most popular politician in the world.” Here is a link to his Wikipedia profile >>> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luiz_In%C3%A1cio_Lula_da_Silva.]
First of all, I want to tip my hat to Ron Clark. He is undoubtedly an excellent teacher and motivator. His ability to motivate the students may exceed his ability to teach them, but the two go hand-in-hand. As I have stated a zillion times (and even borrowed the articulated concept from one of my old professors at the University of Georgia, Dr. Eugene Boyce), the motivation to learn is a social process/cultural phenomenon.
Without the requisite motivation, learning will not take place, despite the heroic teaching of teachers. I know that I sound like a broken record, but this is the unpopular truth. Again, you cannot have good learning conditions until you first have good teaching conditions. One of the best things that an administrator can do for a teacher is to allow that teacher to freed up to be creative. Unshackle the teachers. Don’t make the teacher to teach in a straight-jacket, adhering to a rigid prescriptive curriculum and stultifying cookie-cutter teaching methods. These are the same concepts that we have been hammering away at since MACE began in 1995. In fact, the first article that I wrote for MACE in the Fall of 1995 in The Teacher’s Advocate! magazine was entitled, “For Kids’ Sake, Let Teachers Teach!” Before 1995, I had been hammering away at these concepts since the 1970s. In 1990, Dr. Glenn Dowell and I co-authored a piece in the Opinion section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Sunday edition of the newspaper. This article dealt with the need for Georgia schools to be freed from the doldrums of standardized testing, etc.; in fact, in the spirit of the times, we called for a “perestroika” in the Georgia schools. In 1995, in MACE‘s initial publication, we called for the quelling of the standardized testing in Georgia. In the Winter Quarter of 1981, I published a research article in a peer-review journal, The Journal of Negro Education, on student motivation and peer pressure perceptions. My thinking as a practicing educator and one who represented (and still does), my thinking was always outside of the box and outside of the norm. Therefore, I have been considered “crazy.” Ha!
One of my interests in the Clayton County Schools was seeing if good, strong, nurturing discipline could be effectively established in an urban school system. (Presently, it doesn’t exist in the United States.) My motives were naturally questioned. Hey, I was and am Chairman of a teachers’ union. Therefore, in the minds of many (or most), I had to have evil motives. No, at the time, I had been living in Clayton County for two decades. It was my home. I saw the handwriting on the wall. I knew the inexorable pattern. I knew that an erstwhile racially homogeneous middle class school system was undergoing sweeping demographic changes (the most rapid in the country, according to an Ivy League study), accompanied by the unraveling of disciplinary bonds within each school community. I wanted to help prove to the world that this did not have to happen. Intervening factors could be set in place which would shore up the community’s support for strong and nurturing discipline within each school. The power-who-were (and some are now deceased) won that battle, fearing, I suppose, that some of their contractual blessings might dry up with John Trotter having too much influence in a school system. Ha! They called upon their Atomic Bomb solution (SACS), showing that they cared more about their contracts than the students and the community itself. Well…you know the rest of the story. The Clayton County School System, under Edmond Heatley, is in a shambles, despite what the phony Mark Elgart and SACS says about it one way or the other. The discipline is near non-existent in the schools, and the Clayton community is now a wasteland.
I taught at Jonesboro Jr. High School in the early 1980s. (By the way, to read about my rather crazy and zany methods of getting to my students, go to the July 4, 2011 article that I wrote earlier this month. I laughingly tell everyone that I would be fired each week if I used these same fun methods of teaching today. The educrats want safe, secure, don’t-rock-the-boat boring teaching. “Boring” is not a word which would have described my teaching.) Hardly any of my former students, black or white, would think about living in Clayton County and subjecting their own children to attending schools in Clayton County. This is a fact. Many, many of my former students are my “Friends” on Facebook. I am shocked if I ever see one who still lives in Clayton County. They want something better for their own children. I don’t blame them. My son Robert just graduated from McIntosh High School in Fayette County, and Matthew will be a junior this coming year. (My daughter Marissa graduated from Lovejoy High in 2001, and she later admitted to her mother that she could have made more A’s but there was a lot of peer pressure about not “acting white.” Can you imagine? Making A’s is “acting white.” I presume that Marissa already had two strikes against her at Lovejoy because she very pretty — perhaps engendering some petty jealousies — and spoke the King’s English. You can’t appear “too white,” you know? Prudencia, like other highly motivated black parents, knew that it was time to get her children out of Clayton County.) Robert graduated with David and Bernadette Worley‘s son, Robert Worley, who will be attending Harvard in the Fall. David, his father, graduated at Jonesboro High and later Harvard (and I believe that his mother Bernadette also graduated at Harvard). (David gave Newt Gingrich a run for his money in 1990, with the race bouncing around at 50 to 50 all night. This close race was a major determination of Newt moving to the other side of town after reapportionment.) But, you see the pattern, right? Once a school system becomes urbanized with all of the attendant problems, the highly motivated families move. Some tritely say, “Well, this is just white flight.” No, it “brain-drain.” The highly motivated black families start moving out as quickly — if not quicker — than the white families. I remember helping two black candidates fun for the Clayton County Board of Education in 1990, Mr. Ulysses Young as a Republican, and Mr. James Ellington as a Democrat. A few years later, I realized that both the Young family and the Ellington families had moved to Fayette County. People, black or white or Latin or Asian, simply want what is best for their children. We can’t blame them, can we?
Now back to Ron Clark…I bought Ron Clark‘s movie about three weeks ago and watched it. I am impressed with the young man. He thrust himself into a very unseemingly winnable position at the Harlem school. The teacher whom he just replaced had been run over and run out, so to speak. Through Mr. Clark‘s indefatigable and ingenious efforts and methods, he was able to tap into the students’ social fabric which enabled him to finally motivate them beyond expectations. I believe that because the administration at the school had given up on anything working with these students, it was willing to grant Mr. Clark considerable lee-way in dealing with these “at risk” students. In essence, the administration allowed Mr. Clark’s creative juices to flow (although I am sure that some of the administrative roadblocks no doubt which were thrown into his path were left out of the movie). Because of Mr. Clark‘s considerable success and the fact that he was named National Teacher of the Year and became a “Friend of Oprah,” he also probably became a “made man” in the New York City School System. Nevertheless, Mr. Clark felt the apparent need to escaped the bureaucratic burdens of working within a large urban school system. His took his “show” (no respect intended here; all teachers are now expected to be “show” people) on the road, founding a private institution, the Ron Clark Academy, where he could determine his own rules. I don’t blame him. More power to him.
Talking about rules, I also looked over his 55 Essentials (or, is it Essential 55?) on Friday evening at Barnes & Noble. They were interesting and well worth any teacher’s efforts to implement them, if the often-moronic administration will let them. I was reminded of the set of about 30 rules that I promulgated in Green County High School (teaching grades eight through 12). Rule 23 was, “Don’t lie” or “Don’t lie to me” (I can’t remember exactly which one of these — but, hey, this was over 30 years ago!). I had a girl in one of my Eighth Grade classes who was sort of big and very tough. (The kids said that she could beat up all of the boys at Corry Jr. High the year before coming to high school.) When some other kid in class started fibbing, making up excuses for not doing his or her work, or just lying, she would blurt out: “Rule 23!” I had the most fun teaching that one year in Green County. I planned a big trip to Athens for my eighth graders. I was polling them about where we would eat in Athens. I was pushing for The Varsity (because of the famous “dogs and rings”) on Atlanta Highway, about one mile from the beautiful UGA campus. I was out-voted big time. Guess where they overwhelmingly wanted to eat? You guessed it! McDonald’s! That’s where we ate. There was no McDonald’s in Green County. These kids lived and in Greensboro, White Plains (or “Ghost Town,” according to the kids), Thomsontown (I could be misspelling this), Greshamville, Siloam, Union Point (the big rival to Greensboro), Veazey, and Woodville (the reason, I am sure, for this famous jone: “Your momma drive[s] a pulp wood truck!”).
I believe that it was in 1978 that I watched Pat Conroy‘s Conrack (based on his book, The River is Wide, a very interested and fun read, by the way). This book is based on the real experiences of Pat Conroy teaching less than a year on an island off the coast of Beaufort, South Carolina. Most of these residents had never even set foot on the mainline. This movie is one of my “cult movies” (like All The President’s Men and The Godfather I & II). Conroy was the quintessential zany and effective teacher. But, of course, he was fired, not long after he organized the Halloween Trick-or-Treating on the mainland, much to the chagrin of the superintendent who had already told him that he couldn’t do it. It mattered little that “Conrak” (this is how the island kids pronounced “Conroy“) was reaching these here-to-fore unreachable students and that they were now dreaming beyond the small island of the South Carolina coast. What mattered that Pat Conroy was rocking the boat. Well, we know Conroy‘s subsequent literary works, The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and many others.
I appreciate the good work that Ron Clark is doing with his students. I know that his parents are proud of him, as I would be if he were one of my children. The East Carolina University Pirates ought to be immensely proud of him. (I notice in the photo for the Essential 55 book that he was donning the Pirates‘ purple and gold tie.) I am afraid that the sad commentary on the public schooling process today is that if a school had 75 teachers who were teaching very similarly to Ron Clark, the administration would be splitting a gut trying to determine how to stop this “revolution.” Trust me, they would attempt to stop it, despite the resounding success that it may be bringing to lives of the students. First of all, establishing a strong discipline model for your classroom has to have consequences for violations. Just little things like not allowing those who constantly violate the 55 essential rules to participate in recess or requiring them to sit with the teacher at lunch would meet with stiff resistance from the administration. In fact, most of the administrators with whom we deal (especially in the urban settings) would not allow for this. In fact, the teachers would be written up for even trying to implement a consequence of this nature. This is no reflection on Ron Clark: rather, this is a reflection on today’s educrats and how they would try to derail Ron Clark‘s proven methods. I agree so much with what Ron Clark is doing. I am sorry that it almost has to be carried out in a private school setting because of the asinine and inane of the educrats’ zeal to hammer out any creativity within the public schooling process. I like seeing a Judas Maccabee coming down the educational pike and revolting against the Seleucid ways.