Friday, December 14, 2018

5 Misconceptions About the Ron Clark Academy (and the 5 Things I Found to be True)

This time two weeks ago, I was in a car with three of my new coworkers making the drive home from Atlanta, Georgia. We had just experienced what was promised to be the professional development of a lifetime (five words I never thought I'd string together), and even four hours into our drive we were still riding this incredible teacher high (at least I was!). If you've ever heard of The Ron Clark Academy, you likely know that there is a special tone of voice educators use when speaking of this school, some complex mix of reverence and excitement tinged just around the edges with envy. Some have described it as Disney World for teachers. Others call it Teacher Nirvana. Many just can't seem to find the words to truly describe The Ron Clark Academy. Like witnessing the miracle of life, falling in love, or tasting Marmite for the first time, The Ron Clark Academy is something that must be experienced before it can be truly understood.

Have you ever had Marmite? I mean seriously...
I've been talking about my own RCA experience for two weeks now to pretty much anyone who will stand still, and I haven't quite found all of the words I need to really make sense of it all. The only way I can wrap my brain around this experience is to tell you about everything I thought to be true about RCA and how those things weren't really true at all. It is my hope that by sharing with you the five misconceptions I had and the truths I learned, you will be able to get a firmer grasp on what this place is really like. 

Misconception #1: They're that school that just dances and listens to music all day long.
There's a lot of fun stuff going on at RCA. This is undeniably true and a part of what makes RCA such a unique school. Have you seen this video? Or this one? But to say that this is what they do all day long is a gross hyperbole. The naysayers of the world seem to think you can't be learning in the same environment that you are having as much fun as you see in these YouTube videos and on the RCA social media, but au contraire. In fact, it is the environment that makes this school a hive of academic rigor and success! The folks at RCA are constantly striving to achieve a balance between the fun stuff (creativity, passion, enthusiasm) and the serious stuff (discipline, rigor, high expectations). They can get their kids to work so hard for them because there is also fun happening in their building. This is a seriously academic school, and it would be an egregious error to believe otherwise.

Misconception #2: They get such great results out of their kids at RCA because of all of their funding, corporate sponsorship, and other resources.
It is undeniably cool to walk into this beautiful building and see an enormous dragon skeleton, a hall with a fireplace, a mirrored wall, and the absolutely stunning classrooms. The Promethean boards and tables found in the classrooms are undoubtedly useful tools, and the journeys these students are able to take around the world are the "field trips" of dreams. However, after my day at the school, I am convinced that the truly magical part of RCA lies underneath all of the flashy stuff. They get great results because it is a tightly run ship and the teachers are the best I've ever had the privilege to observe. I am absolutely convinced that you could scoop up the ten RCA teachers and the philosophies that make this school tick, drop them off in any under-performing middle school in the U.S., and they would have that school turned around in four years. They have it figured out here. They know what is most important in a child's education, and that is what they focus on. Ron himself spoke so passionately about how his school is teacher-centered. The most important part of his (and Kim Bearden's) job is to hire in new educators, and they settle for nothing less than extraordinary. Then they clear the plates of their teachers and give them two jobs: building relationships with the kids and creating amazing learning experiences. If we poured as much into our public school teachers as RCA does, we would get incredible results too.

Misconception #3: The professional development days hosted by RCA  are all for show. 
It really seems too good to be true, but I have it on the highest authority (the kids themselves) that this is absolutely not the case. Throughout the day, we had many opportunities to speak with students. We ate lunch with them, they helped guide us to our observations, and they would occasionally interact with us during class, depending on what their teacher had asked of them that day. I made a point of asking multiple students at different times throughout the day what the difference was between their typical school day and the days that there were guests in the building. They all said the same thing. The only difference between the regular school day and the PD day is that there are teachers there watching them. That's it. Now, it would be remiss of me to glaze over the fact that there is no such thing really as a "regular" day at RCA. There are no bells. The schedule is different every day, depending on the needs of the teachers. It is safe to say the school day is atypical, but they don't put on a special show for the days that there are guest educators in the building. It's just part of their "normal."

Misconception #4: Everyone who visits RCA leaves feeling completely reinvigorated.
I think this is probably true for the majority of educators, but there are some teachers who leave RCA feeling bitter, jaded, or even cheated. I think it can be really hard to see past the pizzazz of RCA. I have heard more than one teacher say of the RCA experience that "it's nice and all, but we can't do that" and "there's no way we could ever do anything like that school does." Some teachers seemed to feel endlessly frustrated by the constraints of their own building and administration, so seeing the freedom and professional treatment of the RCA teachers leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Other teachers deeply feel their own school's lack of funding when walking the beautiful halls of RCA. I am so thankful for the advice given to me by my own building principal. She said to think of going to RCA like a trip to Sam's Club. Go to RCA knowing that you can't bring it all back with you, but find something that you can put in your cart. I know that I will likely never be in a position to take my students to Greece as a culminating activity after studying Greek mythology. I can't get all of my ELA students a free 23andMe DNA test to kick off a research project. I doubt I will ever get Promethean or Oprah Winfrey to sponsor my classroom. But there are amazing things happening at The Ron Clark Academy that I can take back to my classroom. Why can't I combine the visual arts with my language arts classes like Susan Barnes? What's stopping me from crafting my own silent lessons with sign language like Ron Clark? Why not try a room transformation like Hope King, or teaching with music like Wade King? Can't I hold my students to an incredibly high standard like Dr. Camille Jones, or build a love of reading in my students like Korey Collins? I may never have lots of money to pour into my classroom, and I don't have the luxury of selecting the students I teach, but I can use movement, music, and magic to create an amazing learning experience and a career in which I will thrive.

Misconception #5: A visit to The Ron Clark Academy will bring joy back into my teaching.
This is the understatement of the century. I have been to professional development that made me feel good, that lit a fire under my feet, that made me feel enthusiastic about going back to my classroom. The feelings inspired by RCA are so much more than that. I didn't feel good; I felt valued. I didn't just feel enthusiastic about going back to my students; I felt a sense of urgency, a need to start making positive changes to my classroom culture. RCA didn't just light a fire under my feet; it lit a fire in my soul. A visit to RCA is great for learning teaching strategies, but those were not the biggest takeaway for me. I left with the spirit of revolution in my heart. Ron talked about how politicians are not going to change public education. No one is going to make public education better for us. If we want to improve our education system, it must start with the teachers and the administrators and the work we do in the classroom. I felt so inspired to innovate! I left RCA feeling braver as an educator than I ever have before. I feel brave enough to raise the bar on model behavior and to come down harder on discipline, because I've seen that you can have incredible results when you set those incredibly high expectations. I feel brave enough to be more creative, because it should not matter what the teacher across the hallway thinks of you. I feel brave enough to trust myself as a professional, because I am one!

If you haven't made it to RCA and you love the hell out of dynamic learning experiences, get thee hence! You can't pour from an empty cup, and my own cup was overflowing when I left. Two weeks later, and I find that my cup keeps refilling itself every time I take my newfound bravery into my classroom. I turned up the heat on my discipline, and my students actually said thank you. I started teaching ASL in class when appropriate, and my students learned types of figurative language faster than ever before. I tried a (mostly) silent lesson, and I had 100% engagement because the kids had to pay such close attention and were so surprised at the novelty of it all. I quit teaching to the bottom kid, and I started teaching to the top kid while offering support to the kids who have a long climb to get to the top. I assure you, if you go in with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty grocery cart just waiting to be filled, you'll leave satisfied and ready to revolutionize your classroom.

Happy Teaching!