Educator Ron Clark shares message of leadership, success
By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services
Acclaimed teacher and ECU alumnus Ron Clark brought seven of his middle school students to Greenville on Saturday night to show them what success looks like.
Clark ’94 was the keynote speaker at ECU’s third annual Corporate and Leadership Awards ceremony, where more than 400 people gathered to celebrate young alumni, corporate partners, scholarship donors, advocates and leaders. Clark’s appearance and the event were sponsored and hosted by the Division of Student Affairs.
As founder of the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Clark said he and other teachers take their students across the nation including Greenville, where he visits at least once a year. He has brought students to the annual ECU homecoming football game for 10 of the past 12 years.
“They are going to be in a room (tonight) with a lot of accomplished people,” Clark said. “I want them to see the future.”
As a first-generation college student from Beaufort County, Clark said ECU gave him the foundation for his career.
“It taught me how to be a leader. There are so many leadership opportunities at ECU,” Clark said. “It also taught me to be humble and not be pretentious. I learned that it’s important to be a good friend and to find a way to make a difference in the community.” A watershed moment came when one of Clark’s education professors, the late Dr. William Scott Thomson, stopped class, stared at him and said, “Ron Clark, you will be the National Teacher of the Year one day,” Clark said. “He believed in me.”
Thomson was right. In 2000, Clark was named Disney’s American Teacher of the Year.
Clark sang part of the U.S. president rap he created early in his career to get his mostly African-American students interested in history when their textbooks were focused on white people.
“You’d be disconnected from it too,” Clark said. He began teaching his students about Africa and its countries including Mali, Sierra Leone and Sudan to include missing information from the history books, to highlight positive things about a powerful civilization. “I realized I had to educate my students differently,” he said. “When I did, their eyes opened up. I gave them something to hold on.”
As a leader, Clark said he models the attitude and actions that he wants his staff and students to follow.
“Don’t be so above yourself to set the tone,” he said. “Sometimes being a leader means you do what is necessary.”
Clark said his school is spotless, although close to 700 people visit the academy each day. That’s because Clark picks up every piece of trash he sees. And because Clark does, everyone else does too.
“That’s what it means to be a leader,” Clark said. “Humble yourself, bow your head, do what nobody else wants to do, and when you look up, you’ll see you’re not alone.”
As a leader, Clark said he knows everyone is watching him.
“I can’t be in a bad mood, and I can’t be upset for a minute, and I can’t say my back hurts,” he said. “You set the tone as a leader. I’ve learned if you’re a leader, you have one job description: be in a good mood. You don’t have any other choice. When you’re in a good mood, and you’re happy and you’re excited, that is when your passion can lead others and lead you in the right direction.”
He implored the audience to take the opportunities they’re given to make positive change.
“We are ECU. We have been given a spirit, a goodness, a compassion for others, a knowledge to affect the community, why aren’t we doing more?” Clark said. “Take that spirit with you. Be better, do more, dream big. And do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of others.”
The lessons Clark learned at ECU are at the core of the academy’s curriculum, he said, and highlighted in his New York Times bestselling book “The Essential 55.”
Clark said he gives his teachers autonomy and freedom with a focus on a rigorous curriculum and building relationships. Teachers and administrators visit students and parents in their homes, and teachers eat lunch with students at school. And while it’s a fun environment, “college students would find the coursework difficult,” Clark said. “But the more you expect, the more you get.”
The academy has a 100-percent graduation rate, and last year’s graduates received $4.2 million in scholarships, Clark said.
Since opening 10 years ago, more than 40,000 teachers and administrators from the United States and more than 22 countries have visited the academy to learn better ways to engage students, promote academic rigor and create a climate and culture that promotes success.
“My ultimate goal is I’m trying to create a revolution in education,” Clark said. “There are thousands of schools across the country that are following our model. I’m trying to do something while I’m here. I don’t want to be 80 and look back on my life and say education didn’t change.”
The academy has embarked on a fundraising campaign to expand and build an $8 million performing arts center to be named for one of their students, Ryan Marshall, who was killed during a home robbery.
“Ryan loved coming to ECU and he attended the homecoming game with me twice. He was a remarkable young man,” Clark said.
Dr. Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs at ECU, has visited the academy, which trains about 12,000 teachers annually. “It’s quite impressive to see the leaders of tomorrow and how they’re learning,” Hardy said. “I give Ron a lot of credit for not keeping it in Atlanta but sharing it.”
Clark’s classes have been honored at the White House on three separate occasions. Clark’s teaching experiences in New York City were chronicled in the film, “The Ron Clark Story,” starring Matthew Perry.
At the ECU ceremony, the following honors were presented: Career Impact Award, Outstanding Corporate Partner, Corporate Giving Recognition, Program and Scholarship Donor Recognition, Robert Wright Society Leadership Award, Vice Chancellor’s Advocacy Award and the 40 Under 40 Leadership Awards. (Read the list of 40 Under 40 Leadership Award winners here.)