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The Essential 55: Rules for a Lifetime

"No lesson," says Ron Clark, "will place pride in the hearts and minds of students. You can, however, teach skills. Skills will lead to confidence, and confidence will lead to pride and self-esteem." Clark believes his Essential 55 rules will build kids' self-esteem by giving them skills they can use throughout their lives.

Ron Clark, author of The Essential 55: An Award-Winning Educator's Rules for Discovering the Successful Student in Every Child, is a native of North Carolina. He began his teaching career in 1995 at Snowden Elementary School in rural North Carolina, later moving to an inner city school in Harlem in New York City. Clark's work with disadvantaged students and his determination to make a difference in the lives of those students has garnered him worldwide attention; President and Mrs. Clinton recognized his work with three invitations to the White House; he was named Disney's American Teacher of the Year for 2000, and he was named Oprah Winfrey's first "Phenomenal Man."

Ron Clark

Clark has been featured on the Rosie O'Donnell Show, the Today Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Show among others. TNT (Turner Network Television) made a TV movie about his life entitled The Ron Clark Story.

Clark's dream is to start his own school for disadvantaged children. He has traveled across the country talking to teachers, parents, students, and business and civic leaders promoting his rules, his dream, and his message that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of achieving one's goals and dreams.

Clark took time from his schedule to share with Education World his thoughts about the importance of rules to students' entire lives.

Education World: Your book, The Essential 55, offers 55 rules that you say "are all explained, practiced, and enforced from day one in the classroom." How do you have time to do anything else?

Ron Clark: Introducing the rules and enforcing them really doesn't take that much time at all. The first day of class is devoted to discussing what the students will learn throughout the year and going over the rules. I explain each one, and then we practice and role-play so that the students know exactly what is expected of them. Of course, it takes a lot of time before all the students are following the rules as I would like them to. I tell them that the first week is just for practice, and that I will remind them of any rules they break. I tell them that after that trial period, every time a rule is broken, there will be consequences, and we go over those consequences as well. By November, the class is organized, focused, and running smoothly. A class that was previously seen as the "worst class in the school" is well-behaved, polite, and doing extremely well.

One main thing I point out to the students is that I don't have 55 rules because I want to be mean. I tell them I have that many rules to help them become better students, so that when they leave my classroom they will have skills that will help them for the rest of their lives.

EW: Which of the 55 rules do you think are most important?

RC: I think the last five rules are the most important. They deal with overall themes like living life to the fullest, taking risks, and handling mistakes. Throughout the entire year, I bring up those points in novels, lessons, and classroom discussions. I use any opportunity available to inspire the students and motivate them to truly live life to the fullest.

EW: Aren't 55 rules too many for kids to remember and follow?

RC: You should see my students on the first day of school! They are like, "55 RULES??" At first, they don't understand, but after about a month they are saying, "We love having 55 rules, because we know exactly what we can and can't do, and we know what the consequences are if we don't follow the rules." I think that parents and teachers expect too much of students sometimes. Kids are told to behave and then, when they don't, everyone is shocked. What I have found is that if you take the time to show kids exactly what you expect, they are far more likely to do as you ask. Just expecting students to know how to act and hold themselves in all situations isn't realistic if they have never been exposed to the correct behavior.

EW: Today, most education experts recommend that kids participate in developing their own classroom rules. Your students obviously don't write their own rules. Why not?

RC: I think the reason most experts say that kids should participate in developing the rules is so they will have ownership of the rules and, therefore, understand the reasoning behind them. I think that is extremely important, and that is why I spend so much time discussing the rules with the kids. The program I have, however, really works, and I am happy with it as it is.

EW: Many -- probably most -- of your rules have less to do with classroom behavior than with social and moral behavior. What does restaurant behavior, for example, have to do with school?

RC: The restaurant rule was actually one of my first rules. I noticed that kids were so disrespectful and sloppy in the lunchroom. Food was all over the floor and none of the kids even cared. Other teachers would fuss at them to clean it up, but I wanted to take the time to discuss etiquette with them and show them how to behave while eating.

Most of the rules, as you said, deal with social behavior. When I was thinking about the rules, I knew I wanted to do something to teach my students pride. The problem is, there is no lesson you can teach that will place pride in the hearts and minds of students. You can, however, teach skills. Skills will lead to confidence, and confidence will lead to pride and self-esteem. That is why a lot of the rules deal with issues out of the classroom. I wanted to give the kids skills they could use throughout their lives, and, therefore, build their self-esteem. For example, when my students eat at a formal wedding reception or at a prom, I don't want them to have to look at others to see which utensils to use. I want them to automatically know and have the confidence to eat comfortably.

EW: How do you think growing up in the South influenced your rules?

RC: I was raised to have respect for myself and for everyone around me. It was just normal, and everyone else in my little southern town was raised the same way. I was taught how to appreciate life and to help those around me at an early age, and as a teacher I wanted to pass those ideals along to my students.

EW: Are the same rules appropriate for kids living in the rural south, the urban northeast, and suburban west coast; for elementary students and high school students; for students of all cultures and economic backgrounds?

RC: These rules are for everyone! They are not only for students; they also are for adults -- for anyone who is interested in living life to the fullest, respecting others, and making a difference in the lives of others.

EW: Which rule do your students have the most trouble following?

RC: At the beginning of the year, they are all hard to follow. It just takes practice and reinforcement. One of my rules deals with memorizing the names of all of the teachers at the school, as well as the cafeteria workers, custodians, and all other staff members. I want the schools where I work to feel like a home, and I want my students to feel comfortable in that environment.

Each year, I give my students a booklet I make that has a picture of every staff member. The kids have to memorize their names and then speak to the adults who work at the school with respect, and say things like.. "Good morning, Mr. Johnson, good luck with your classes today," or in the cafeteria... "Good afternoon, Mrs. Peterson, may I please have the pizza and French fries, and oh, by the way, how is your daughter doing? I know she is at State College."

The kids usually have a hard time learning everyone's names, so I enlarge the staff's pictures on the Xerox machine and after school we use them as masks. We then practice introducing ourselves to one another, working on using firm handshakes, making eye contact, and memorizing names. Just that little bit of effort goes a long way, and the kids are soon interacting with teachers all over the school. It even gets to a point where the cafeteria workers and other staff members get involved in the educational process. They are constantly reminding the students to study for exams or to try their best. The cafeteria workers ask for lists of the spelling words, and when the kids walk through the line they say things like, "If you want some pizza, you'd better spell this word!"

EW: What advice do you have for other teachers as they develop their own classroom rules?

RC: Do not think you have to use these 55 rules. Use the rules that work for you. Feel free to use some of mine, but also make sure to create your own list and use the system you feel comfortable with.

EW: You've written a large number of rules for kids to follow. What rule or rules should teachers follow in dealing with their students?

RC: My number one rule for teachers is to have a balance in your classroom. You can't be too strict, because if you are, the students will hate you, and then they won't respect you or want to be in your classroom. I hate when people tell teachers not to smile until November. Who would want to be in a classroom where the teacher never smiled? Certainly not me.

On the other side of the coin, you can't try too hard to get the kids to like you. If you are too lenient, and if you avoid punishments because you fear the kids won't like you, then they aren't going to learn anything. They are going to walk all over you and, in the end, they won't respect you at all.

There has to be a balance. Teachers have to be firm and have rules that are fair and consistent. Teachers have to stick to their guns and not let their desire to have the students like them affect how they discipline students. At the same time, teachers have to make education fun and they have to do things to make their classroom exciting and a place where kids will want to be. We, as teachers, have to do things to get the kids to like us and enjoy us as teachers, but we can't let that interfere with our discipline plans and the way we keep order in the classroom.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World


Updated 08/13/2009