Ron Clark Talks Creative Autonomy in the Classroom Ahead of MSU Summit Speech

Jun 14, 2017

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

A nationally recognized educator is advocating for more teacher freedom in their classrooms. Ron Clark is a featured speaker at the annual College and Career Readiness Summit at Murray State University this week. He spoke at a press conference before addressing a packed room in Lovett Auditorium Wednesday morning. He said teachers are often “shackled” when it comes do doing their job. 

"We've been told 'teach to to a test, say this each day' it's kind of a script. Teachers become teachers because they want to change the lives of kids and be creative and when you take that away it kind of makes the profession not so fun," He said.

Clark has garnered national attention for the Ron Clark Academy, an unconventional, nonprofit middle school in Atlanta. He has appeared on Oprah, CNN and the Today Show and is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Essential 55.” He has also taught in New York City, where his work was portrayed in the film “The Ron Clark Story” starring Matthew Perry.

The summit gathered some 1,200 educators from the region along with the Kentucky Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt and Office of Assessment and Accountability associate commissioner Rhonda Simms. The event included a series of teacher training workshops.

Clark described his program where teachers have creative autonomy, with monitoring to make sure their methods are working. He also changed some of the traditional aspects of a school environment, like removing bulletin boards (he said teachers don’t need to see leaves on the wall to know it’s Fall). He also turned off the intercom system during the day. "Cause if you're an amazing teacher and you've planned this incredible lesson and then all of a sudden you're saying 'and then Pythagoras started to mount the tree.' And someone says [in an intercom voice] 'John, come to the bathroom. You left your pants in the bathroom.' Then everybody's like 'Why'd John left his pants in the bathroom?'" And he set up a cantina for free coffee and snacks for teachers. He said the $5,000 investment paid off as it made teachers feel appreciated, happier and in a better mood to teach.

He said teachers are often told how to teach a curriculum and stay on script and recommended teachers consider not necessarily change the standards, but rather how those standards are taught. For example, one of his teachers took students on a field trip to a pool hall during the day (when alcohol was not served) to teach the students geometric angles on a pool table. He added that he sings many of his lessons in class. Clark also noted that while many teachers say they want more freedom, but when they have it will ask for more structure.

Clark said fewer regulations could help public schools compete with charter schools for funding, teachers and students. "I think that could be a potential way to help," he said. Charter schools are enticing, he said, because they can do things with more freedom and flexibility.  He suggested local county school boards be more open-minded and used an example of a charter school forming partly so they could take students on overnight field trips, which the local school board was resistant to doing.

He also noted a cyclical change away from test scores (related to No Child Left Behind and Common Core) and advocated teachers find creative ways to present the information and teach in a way they enjoy. Regarding potential financial concerns a rural or low-income school might have in engaging in new concepts, Clark suggested addressing the budget. He said often too much money is spent on reducing class size and said a ‘bad teacher’ with 30 kids will be a bad teacher with 12 kids. He also recommended teachers be included in board decisions.

As students engage in apprenticeships training, ‘STEAM’ (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Math) projects, and group learning on computers, Clark said there are also benefits to the traditional form of direct instruction (i.e.: students facing forward while a teacher lectures). "There's a reason why the Greeks and Socrates did direct instruction. It works. There are a lot of benefits to it,” he said, but noted that a teacher can’t just be talking all day. "I don't want somebody to look at a classroom that has kids facing the front in chairs and think of it as a negative thing. I mean, look at this press conference... there's a reason why it worked 2,000 years ago."

A take away from his Murray State presentation, he said, is to build relationships with students - learn about their hobbies and pets, eat lunch with them, memorize their parent’s names. He encouraged teachers to do “more than you have to” and said if a teacher goes above and beyond, the students will, too.