Ron Clark: The Power of Passion and Engagement (Ep. 171)

Ron Clark–founder of the Ron Clark Academy–joins AOEU’s Shannon Lauffer for an interview on this very special episode of Art Ed Radio. Ron shares the story of his life and his career in education, and he is equal parts engaging, hilarious, and inspirational. Listen as he and Shannon discuss his experience teaching in Harlem, the founding of the Ron Clark Academy, his time on the show Survivor, and what it takes to be an incredible teacher.  Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

This week’s show is coming to you from Atlanta Georgia at the Ron Clark Academy. If you’re not familiar with Ron Clark, he is a bestselling author, a passionate and inspirational educator and the founder of the Ron Clark Academy. He has so many great ideas about education and his passion for teaching and passion for working with kids is contagious. You are going to love listening to what he has to say.

This interview came about because as you probably know, Ron will be the featured presenter at our Art Ed Now online conference on July 25th. I’m excited for you all to hear him here on the podcast and even more so at the conference in July. But, stepping in for me on this interview is Shannon Lauffer, one of my amazing colleagues a AOEU. You have heard her multiple times on this podcast. She is a great interviewer and she’s going to conduct a great conversation here. Let me turn it over to her now as she interviews Ron Clark at the Ron Clark Academy.

Shannon: Today I’m here a the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta Georgia with Ron Clark himself. It’s been super exciting to be here, walk through the school, get to know a little bit more about you and about the Ron Clark Academy and about your philosophy of education.

Ron: Thanks, Shannon.

Shannon: Yeah, thanks for being here. We’re super excited.

Ron: Glad to do it.

Shannon: Awesome. People in education know who you are, they’ve read your books, they know a lot about your strategies but tell us a little bit more about you personally. Where you grew up, how you got into education and what kind of led you here.

Ron: Sure. I’m just from the country. I grew up priming tobacco, digging potatoes in the field. No one in my family on either side have been to college and it wasn’t even really expected that I would have to go to college. It was just something that I wanted to do. As a kid, I dreamed about riding on an airplane and my big goal as a child was that one day I wanted to have enough money that I could go to the airport, fly all the way across the country to Washington State and then fly right back and not tell anybody I did it.

Shannon: Oh I like that.

Ron: I wanted to something, and I thought to me, that would’ve been a grand adventure. Even though I was in small, tiny town, I had ideas of big things in the future. At least at the time I thought they were big. I ended up going to East Carolina University. I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts 40 hours a week for four years. Got my whole time in college and when I graduated I wanted to take that airplane flight and so I had saved up $600 from Dunkin’ Donuts, I went to a travel agency and I said, “I want to go around the world.” And she said, “You ain’t going nowhere for $600.”

Shannon: Oh no.

Ron: She said, “Might get you a one way ticket to London England.” And I said, “I’ll take it.” I went, I had no money to get back. My parents freaked out. They’re like, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’ve had this feeling I’ve got to go do something.” I ended up becoming a singing and dancing waiter in London because I didn’t have money for my flight back. I lived at youth hostels and just kind of made my way. I then backpacked across Europe with my tip money from waiting tables in London. When I was in Romania, I got food poisoning. I ate a rat, it’s a long story.

Shannon: Oh no, a rat? A rat?

Ron: Yeah, it was more like a gerbil slash hamster on a stick at a fair that some gypsies took me to. It’s a long one.

Shannon: Noted. Do not eat a gerbil on a stick.

Ron: Yeah, don’t do it. I got so sick I had to fly home to North Carolina and I was in the hospital recuperating. My mother told me that a local teacher passed away and she said, “You need to go teach and stop these crazy adventures and traveling around the world.” And I said, “No, I want to go to China.” And she said, “You don’t have money to go to China.” I said, “I’m going to work at Dunkin’ Donuts and save the money up. I’m going to China.” And then she just twisted my arm and said, “Well at least please go talk to the principal or I won’t support anything you do for the rest of your life.” You know how mommas can be so I went to the school and I met the principal and met the kids and I just fell in love with them and 25 years later I’m still teaching.

Shannon: I love that.

Ron: Mom’s know best sometimes.

Shannon: 99 times out of 100 they do. Speaking of great adventures, then you decided to start the Ron Clark Academy. Can you tell me how that came about and why you chose to do that in Atlanta.

Ron: Sure. I wanted to make a school that could be a model school. I wanted to show people that schools can be fun, exciting, passionate, hands on. I wanted an environment where everybody would be happy, students and teachers. Especially in middle school. We went across the country, we visited 100 elementary schools, 100 middle and 100 high schools in all 50 states and we found some pretty good high schools and we found some pretty good elementary schools that impressed us. Of the 100 middle schools we visited, or junior highs, not one made us feel like that’s a place that is a perfect example of what a middle school should be.

We’d sit down with students and they had so much to complain about. We’d sit down with teachers, oh my Lord, just everything. They would complain about everything. We wanted to show people that middle school can be fun and exciting. The idea started many, many years ago and in the year 2000, I met Kim Bearden. She had named as the American middle school teacher of the year and I walked up to her and I said, “Oh my goodness, you’re such a great teacher.” I said, “We should start a school together someday.” And she didn’t even know who I was but she turned to me and she said, “Let’s do it.” And so years later I called her and I said, “Look, I wrote this book Oprah put on her show, it made all this money we put in a foundation. Come up to Harlem and start this school with me.” And she said, “I’m not moving my family to Harlem but if you come to Atlanta where I live, I’ll consider it.”

I flew down. We met. We went around the city. We found this 100 year old factory that’s in the second highest crime rate area of Atlanta. There were crack houses on either side of it and drug dealers and streetwalkers and I said, “This is it. We’re going to turn this old factory into a magical school that’ll change the lives of kids not only in this building but helpfully around the country and around the world.” And we did it.

Shannon: That’s incredible. Could you immediately tell an impact on investing in the community? Finding this place.

Ron: Let me tell you about the community.

Shannon: Tell about the community.

Ron: Is the crisis.

When we started this, we’re nonprofit and so we went and got our board members and we said, “We really want to invest the money to buy this old factory.” And when they got out of the car, they said, “Ron, Kim, get back in the car because it’s a challenging area.” They said, “You do not, the community will destroy this school.” I said, “Nah, it’s going to be awesome, you’ll see. They’re going to love it.” In the first six months of construction, we had 19 break ins. They threw windows at rocks. They spray painted, they broke in and got copper piping out. Even with barbed wire up, they’d go over the barbed wire. Crafty. It was a mess.

The board members said, “We told you. We told the community would destroy this school.” And I said, “Well my grandmamma always told me, no excuses, find a solution.” I got by backpack, I went to every house in the neighborhood. It took four months, we visited every home and I’d say, “Hello, I’m Ron Clark, I’m a school teacher. We’re trying to start this school up the street, can I tell you about it?”

After going to every home for four months, there were some places that I hadn’t been yet because I was like, I don’t know if I want to go to those houses because, a little sketchy. There was this one house and there were men drinking on the front porch, they were smoking and I said, “I don’t want to go up there.” But I thought to myself, the Lord will be with me. I walked up there with my nice little suit on, my backpack and I said, “Hey everybody.” And they said, “Are you one of those Mormons.” I said, “No, I’m not a Mormon,” I said, “I’m a schoolteacher.”

Shannon: But that’s a good guess.

Ron: That’s a good guess. And they said, “What do you want.” I said, “Well I’m trying to build a school, that’ll be a center for creativity, innovation, a unique way to teach kids for the whole world and people are going to come around the world to see it.” And one of the guys said, “Huh, if that school had been here when I was growing up, I’d have been something.” And the other guys said, yes too. I said, “Well could you help us make this school something for this neighborhood?” They became some of our best volunteers. Painting the factory, moving the rubbish out. We do community trash pickups and I see the streetwalkers on the corner and I call them over to help because if you call over streetwalkers, they will come over every time.

They wouldn’t help very much but eventually after we met the neighborhood, told them who we were, what we were doing, crime not only stopped happening to our building, we had no more break ins in the last 12 years, not another attempted break in. The beautiful part is that crime also left the neighborhood. We’re no longer in the top 20 in terms of crime in Atlanta, in terms of neighborhoods and the police department when they came to visit, they said, “When you bring good energy to an area, negativity will leave.” I take that as for your own classroom, for your home, for your church. If you can be that good, positive energy, you can eradicate negativity. It was a valuable lesson.

Shannon: That’s fantastic. That gives me little goosebumps. Can you talk a little bit more about priorities in the Academy? As art teachers we love creativity and we love color and as I walked around the school, I’m just so astounded by the beautiful artwork that’s all around. How do you harness that creativity from your teachers and how does it impact the environment and just kind of how does this whole school based on beauty and art kind of come together and inspire students?

Ron: Our school has a balance. On one hand I tell my teachers, infuse music in every class. I want there to be art. I want it hands on. I want to see kids doing something. I want education to come to life. Around the school, it’s like you’re walking through a museum of art and energy and passion and just creativity. On the other hand, I hope and it is our goal that we are the most rigorous middle school in the world. We challenge these kids and it is so hard and a lot of our kids come with learning issues and behavior problems and the majority of our kids are low income but we don’t make excuses for these kids. We say we’re going to push them and make it as hard as possible.

What we found is that if you use art and music and love and passion, then kids want to be here to the point that they don’t mind that it’s hard and then we’re able to get kids to have such great success. That’s one of the reasons why our kids do so well is because it’s a balance of the art with the rigor.

Shannon: I love that. And then so as you’re, I wonder you a lot, hearing you talk about going around to the community and investing so much time in your schools and I know you do other things outside of this. Outside of just teaching in the classroom, you’re also an administrator in this school. How do you keep a balance?

Ron: I’m the wrong person to ask that question.

Shannon: What is balance?

Ron: Pass, skip that one. I’m not really good at that. I’m just, I’m a workhorse. Both of my parents, they never went to college but they worked very hard. Work all day, work another job, then my dad would go play turntables at night to make extra money and they never slept much and I think genetically I think I got some of that. I’m just like a hard worker and don’t know how to have balance.

It is hard teaching and being the administrator and trying to have a life. I told my staff, I said, “If everything that you do this year in our school, what makes me most proud of you is when you uplift each other because a lot of us are type A personalities, we’re going to get burn out, it’s going to be rough. We need to support each other.” I said, “Write little notes and stick it on each others’ computers and tell them, ‘I saw you tutor that girl yesterday for two hours, you’re an amazing person. I love you.’ Don’t sign your name to it. Just let them know that it was noticed. Bake for each other. When you see each other coming out of the hall, high five each other.”

Everything we do here, my staff heard me that that is the most important thing we do. More than test scores. More than parent relationships. Just making sure that you take care of each other. I said, “Keep each others’ names out your mouth. I don’t want any staff member to wonder, is someone else talking about me?” I said, “And while you’re at it, keep my name out your mouth too. Because Kim and I don’t want to wonder are you questioning us too? Come see us if you are.” That’s the type of environment we’ve built here. We’re teachers, are empowered. Our staff’s empowered to love each other and then it kind of bleeds down to the kids and everything else falls into place when the staff is as it should be.

Shannon: Absolutely. And I love that you, one of your rules is that, we are a family. And I feel like that’s a rule in each classroom but also then it sounds like a rule for your school as a whole. Maybe it’s easier to achieve that balance if you can view your work people as your family.

Ron: Yeah, it’s funny, I love the statement, I hate this statement because I say all the time, we are family but I can’t tell you how many times it’s been thrown in my face. For example, I have to suspend a child. A third of our kids come to our school with some discipline issues in the past and so we have situations and the parent will say, “Well, how are you done my son away and suspend him for three days if we’re a family?” Or, I’ve had to things happen. Years ago I had a write a staff member up and the staff member said, “Well this doesn’t feel very much like a family right now.”

It gets thrown in my face. People want to use it as an excuse but then I want to tell them, I always try to explain. Families aren’t perfect and you probably don’t get along with everyone in your family all the time either.

Shannon: That’s 100%.

Ron: And there’s people you don’t want to necessarily sit beside with at Thanksgiving lunch. But family means that in the end we have each other’s back, we love each other and our intent is to make sure that we’re all taken care of. It doesn’t mean that sometimes there aren’t issues but the intent is to love one another and to try and be a family.

Shannon: I love that. Of course we have to talk about Survivor. You’re on Survivor right now. As if you were not busy enough. I know you probably can’t tell us too much about it but how did that come about? What was the experience like? Now you’re a TV celebrity too.

Ron: Oh gosh. Regret it. I was in New York City, it was the year 2000 and I had this little one bedroom little shack and I had this little TV. It was black and white and I heard that this show Survivor was coming on and I was like, well let me turn this on. I was grading papers and I instantly fell in love with it. I said, “I want to apply to be on this show.” But then I was busy teaching in Harlem, I was doing a summer program with kids and I said, “Well I don’t have time now and I don’t feel like I want to leave my students.” And I said, “I’ll do it next year.”

Literally every year for 18 years I said, “Well maybe next year.” After I started a school in Atlanta I was like, well I’m too busy with this school, I could never do it but I continued to watch the show with my friends religiously. I’m a big Survivor geek.

About a year and a half ago I said to Kim Bearden the co-founder, I said, “Kim I think that now the school’s at a point where if I left for six weeks during the summer, I think it would be okay.” And she’s like, “You have to do it because I don’t want you to ever hold RCA, our school, responsible for you not living out your dream.” I applied and I thought of course, it’s going to be good drama. They’ll probably pick somebody like me. What I didn’t realize that tens of thousands of people are applying. I didn’t get picked. And then I was like, oh wow I didn’t get even to the finals or nothing.

And then I got called back. Then I didn’t get picked and then I got finally called again. Went through seven days of interviews in LA.

Shannon: Oh my gosh.

Ron: And then finally got on the show. It’s very hard to get on the show.

Shannon: Wow.

Ron: I was very grateful for the opportunity once I realized, oh my God, tens of thousands of people are trying to get on this show at one time.

Yeah, I did it. And it’s like this, my life is like, I’ve devoted my life to children, making a difference in the lives of my family and people I love the most but if you put a Monopoly game out, I am like so vindictive and competitive. My friends don’t want to play Spades with me. When I play basketball, I’m going to try and go through you to get to the hoop.

Shannon: Go big or go home.

Ron: I’m a fierce competitor. If you watch the Survivor show, it comes across that I’m like this conniving, really play hard, vindictive, like I’ve got to win this game. My friends and family and my students are even like, yep, that’s Mr. Clark.

Shannon: This is accurate.

Ron: But people who don’t know me well they’re like, wait a minute. I thought he was all about children and taking care of people.

Shannon: You were wrong.

Ron: You were wrong. But on one hand of course I am but if you know me well, just something clicks when it’s competitive and I just go into hyperdrive. I think it’s one thing that helped me be successful in that I’ve got that competitive drive, push, push, push but I look just snarky on TV and watching yourself on TV’s hard because in my head, I see myself one way and there I am on TV and I’m like, Lord my God I’ve got a southern accent and I didn’t realize it.

And then, it’s like, wow. Just to see some of the things I didn’t say it. Well I wish I hadn’t said that. And you really don’t eat anything. After 21 days.

Shannon: I wouldn’t make it.

Ron: Of no food, but you little thing of rice, a shell of rice in the morning, a shell of rice at evening and then one time I got a piece of pizza. It was the best pizza ever. Yeah, you don’t realize what happens to your brain when you don’t eat. Day 21, is when I was saying all the mean stuff. Like I was like, I’m just done with these people. I was complaining a lot because I was just really. Imagine if today, I told you you can’t eat dinner tonight. And then tomorrow morning, nope and then tomorrow afternoon nope and then tomorrow night nope and then it’s 21 days of it. You don’t think clearly. And the worst of you comes out and that’s what happened.

Shannon: I believe it. Well it only takes me a couple hours to get there and my whole worst side comes out so I can’t imagine 21 days. I might not make it. Did you win? Don’t tell me that. I know you can’t say.

Ron: I can’t say. I think by the time this airs it’ll all be out so you’ll know but all I can say is I’m still in the game at this point.

Shannon: Okay, perfect. Well we’ll keep watching then.

What advice do you have for an art teacher who’s starting to feel frustrated or burn out by the system? Or what advice do you have for teachers everywhere who just can’t?

Ron: Yeah, I feel like that sometimes too. It’s rough. I think the main thing for art teachers who are starting to feel burn out, first of all, what art teachers are expected to do is ridiculous. The short class time, make it so hard to get anything accomplished and then you see so many kids a day that you can’t really do all you want to do. That’s a whole nother question about what I feel about scheduling in schools. But if you are feeling burnt out, I think the best thing I can say is surround yourself with positive people. Sometimes you want to vent but if you go to vent to a person who’s a venter, you’re compounding the problem and you’re just going to wallow in your misery. It’s better to spend time with people who don’t vent and who are positive and who have a happy outlook.

That’s one thing that was hard for me because honestly in the past, I’ve had good friends in education who were venters. And I found that when I would go to them, my buddies to vent, instead of helping me feel better, they just sat there and we would just go back and forth with how upset we were.

Shannon: Yeah, you can go down the rabbit hole.

Ron: I had to learn, well I don’t think that’s healthy for me. I had to learn to find the right people to go to for inspiration and to help pull me up when I’m feeling low.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. I guess kind of along with that, if you could give teachers your most important piece of advice, what would that be?

Ron: Oh Lord.

Shannon: You only get one but if you want to give us three, you can give us three.

Ron: Oh wow. Oh just one. Okay, well that’s a big question. All right, I’ll a give a simple one. We went to all 50 states and we observed educators across America. We went to 300 schools and my biggest takeaway is something so simple, educators don’t look kids in the eyes. I would observe a state teacher of the year sit down with her and I’d say to her, “Well during your whole lesson, you never looked your students in the eyes.” And they would say, “Yes I did. The whole time. I looked at them the whole time.” I was like, no well you looked out at the class, you never really drilled down to look the children individually in their eyes to make that connection. Yes I did. The whole time.

I don’t think people realize they don’t do it. Especially kids in the corners of the classes. When we were in these schools, my team said to me, “I think there are millions of kids in America that go to school everyday and no one ever looks them in the eyes.” And I said, “I think you’re right. They don’t even know that someone see them or that they care that they’re there.”

It’s something simple but I think it’s important. Just look them in the eyes. Let them know that you see them.

Also another simple thing is that you have to walk down the hall anyway, so if you’re going to walk down the hall, walk down the hall, look at the people, smile at people. If you’re going to teach, teach. If you’re going to be there, go for it. You have to be there anyway. If you’re going to be there, why not try to be exciting and passionate and try to make a difference in the life of a child?

And then some people will say to me like Cory Collins works at our school, he’s one of my teachers, he got six kids. C.J. Wallace got four kids and so I’ve hired a lot of people who have huge families and they said to me, “How do I balance this? How do I have my family and feel like I’m doing a good job because to work at RCA, people are looking at our teachers as examples for the world.” For them to be a true example, I can’t just hire single educators who are type A personalities because that doesn’t really look like everybody. But to me a mom with a four kids or a dad with six kids, that’s realistic sometimes.

I told them, “Your family should always come first and as long as you make your relationship with your loved one and then your children, that’s your number one priority in life, then you can feel good about yourself and you’re doing what you should do. Don’t ever feel guilty for choosing your family first. You should never. But, when you’re in this school building, be here. And be here with these kids and give them all you’ve got. If you have to leave at 4:00 o’clock, I completely get it. If you can’t come to the basketball games, you can’t go on the trip, I completely get it but be here when you’re here and then when you go home, your family should be the most important thing in your world always.”

Shannon: All right, final question here. What is, tell us the biggest issue you’ve seen in education.

Ron: This may not be one people talk about or one that’s a popular answer but also when we went across the nation, but also we’ve had 57,000 educators who have come here that we’ve interacted with and talked with. I feel like in America, we have a lot of teachers who have become what I call bread teachers. Bread teachers are teachers are kind of plain, that do the basic job. They do what’s expected, they give the tests, they grade the papers but they come at 8:00 and they leave at 4:00 and they don’t go above and beyond.

But I’m begging educators to be pizza.

Shannon: I love pizza.

Ron: To take kids on field trips. And to decorate your room and to go above and beyond and bring it to life for kids. But when you’re pizza, sometimes you give people indigestion. Sometimes people don’t like that you try to do more. For example, you might take kids, your art class to go to a museum but you get them back 45 minutes late to the school. Parents are upset because you’re late. You get called in the principal’s office, the principal says, “You cannot have kids come late.”

The art teacher walks out of the room and goes, I should have just been bread. Why did I try? I’m never taking kids on a field trip again. A lot of educators in America have been burned by administration but also burned by parents who can be very complainy and difficult because they’re coddling children in America. A lot of teachers have said, “I’m just going to do a basic education because they just expect me to be basic so I’ll just be basic.” When they try to go above and beyond, that’s when there’s drama but I think the biggest problem in America is that we need educators to be pizza but they’re afraid to do it or there are repercussions when they try to do it. And I think that’s the biggest problem.

Shannon: Yeah, absolutely. If somebody could do, I said final question but I now I have a followup. If a teacher could do one single thing in their classroom to be pizza, what would it be? Eat cheese.

Ron: Eat cheese. I’d say, use your own personality. You could do something simple as have your favorite song playing when the kids come in. Use music, energy. Pizza teachers dress professionally because as educators as part of this revolution, we’re trying to show people, pay us like CEOs, treat us like CEOs. We are professionals so dress professionally. Making it hands on. Sharing your life with your kids. Showing them, here’s a picture of my family. Here’s when I went rappelling off of a building last year. Here’s my own personal art that I do in my free time. I thought you all might like this piece that I made. Taking kids on field trips. Transforming the room. Writing a grant to get a kiln and finding a way to bring that program to life.

Pizza teachers are teachers who are always trying to find a way to push the limits and to find ways to make education an exciting, magical experience for every child.

Shannon: I love that. Great. Well hey thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today Ron.

Ron: No problem.

Shannon: This has been great. I’m going to go figure out how I’m going to be a pizza teacher and maybe eat some pizza on the way.

Ron: Sounds good.

Shannon: Thank you so much and we’ll talk to you soon. I know you’re our featured presenter for the Art Ed Now Conference which is on July 25th. We can’t wait.

Ron: Thanks a lot.

Shannon: All right.

Tim: Thank you again to Ron Clark and thank you to Shannon for conducting the interview. If you want to hear even more, make sure you register for the Art Ed Now Conference. As we said, Ron is going to be our featured presenter there on July 25th. You can hear a lot more behind the scenes stories, learn more about the academy and see that passion in action and best of all, you can even ask Ron your own questions during the Q and A session at the conference.

If you are not registered yet, make sure you do that soon at Just like this interview, the whole day of the conference is going to be filled with humor and passion and inspiration. You will not want to miss it.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening and we will talk to you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.