I met Ron Clark, the 2000 Outstanding Teacher of the Year, last fall at Disney's American Teacher Awards. He'd not only traveled from East Harlem to Los Angeles to receive his award but he'd raised more than $25,000 to bring his entire class with him. As I watched the video about Ron's life and his decision to relocate from North Carolina to one of the toughest areas of Harlem, I was moved to tears. What I saw in Ron that day left me humbled and inspired—I could literally feel his deep sense of love for and connection with his students.
OPRAH: Was it always your desire to be a teacher?
RON CLARK: I never wanted to teach; all I wanted was a life filled with adventure. After college I became a dancing and singing waiter in London. I went to Greece and got stranded on a desert island for four days. Then I went to Romania and stayed with gypsies in Transylvania—they fed me rats and I got really sick, so I had to come home. I lived with my mom in Belhaven, North Carolina. She told me a teacher in her area had passed away and asked me if I'd be willing to finish out the school year for that teacher. I wasn't interested ... but I figured I'd just go down to the school. I was hooked! The next day I started teaching fifth grade. From then on it was like magic—I fell in love with teaching.
Five years later, I saw a program about a school in Harlem. It showed these students who although they were intelligent had extremely low test-scores because the school couldn't attract good teachers. And at that moment I had a feeling... it was like a calling. The next day I told my co-teacher, "I'm going to teach in Harlem." I packed up my car, drove up to New York, and stayed at the YMCA. Every day, I went from school to school in Harlem trying to find a school like the one I'd seen on TV.
O: You're kidding.
RC: I'm serious! It was hard. I knew the calling I'd felt was strong enough that when I came to the right school I'd know it.
O: That's not a calling, Ron—that's a siren!
O: How do you motivate your students?
RC: The main motivator, whether in rural North Carolina or Harlem, is letting the kids know that you care about them and that you're interested in their success. Sometimes it takes other motivators, like jumping rope with them. When I first got to Harlem, jumping rope was the thing—all the kids were out there doing Double Dutch. So I tried it—I knew that if I could learn to do it, it would earn me points with them.