You know, if a person were to decide to make a summer of reading professional books in hopes of finding inspiration and ideas, they would choose well. This summer, so far, I have chosen well. Over the past few weeks, I have reviewed a few really good educational books, by some really great authors. This time around, I asked around on Twitter and was asked to review The End of Molasses Classes by Ron Clark. I had already read this book back in 2012 when I first got it, but it had been some time, so it wasn’t so fresh in my mind. I decided to give this book a go, and am glad I did.
First, I perused a few websites with short reviews of the book. I know a lot of people would prefer not ‘taint’ their opinion by reading other views first. I tend to think differently (I’m told that A LOT). I like to look at some of the negative feedback, and see if I can figure out why they felt that way as I read the book. Most of the negative reviews, of which there were not very many, were centered on the fact that what Ron Clark does is not realistic in a public school classroom, or for people who “wish to have a life”. So, with that fermenting in the back of my mind, I was off. This book took a bit longer to read than the norm, as I was on the road for a good bit of the week.
Let’s start out with the layout of the book itself. It is divided into four sections. The first lays out Ron Clark Academy’s (RCA) core principles and values. This is the section that tells us what RCA teachers believe. To put it bluntly, they believe in kids, and they believe in teaching kids to believe in themselves. I found this section resonating with my teaching. I often find other teachers and administrators telling me that I expect too much from kids, that kids are not capable of many of the tasks I ask of them. I found this section of the book refreshing. I have had great success in getting kids to do far more than most other educators think kids should do. While we all know there are many like us out there, it is always nice to read about a place that has great success doing the same thing on a much broader scale.
This is also the section where I think many teachers say that what RCA does is not plausible. I disagree. Ron Clark makes sure to tell the reader that not everyone will be able to do each and every task in the book. Do what you can do, and make the most of the time you do get with your kids. What RCA does is amazing, but to do it on the same scale requires a school where everyone is on board, from the top down. He built a dream school. We might not have our own dream schools, but what is to stop you from making a dream classroom? For one to say it’s not plausible because they teach in a public school is just finding excuses not to put forth the effort.
The second section of the book discusses the role of parents in education. When I started reading this section, I wondered how much I would really get from it. I mean, sure, I am a parent as well as an educator, but I wasn’t sure how I would tie this into my teaching. Well, a few pages in, I realized, this is information for everyone. Clark tells us to make a point of actually telling parents what you expect and need from them. This is the point where some teachers scoff and say things like “Parents never come to my classroom so I can tell them anything.” Well, after reading this section, I realized something.
Have you ever seen someone trying to walk a goat on a leash? It turns out, I have a couple of goats (long story about my daughter wanting to learn about animals). Well, I had the grand idea that my goats were going to do some of the yard work for me. I was going to walk them out by my small pond and “let” them eat the brush out there. Well, one goat, Mocha, decided she didn’t want to go. I pulled and pulled to no avail. Have you ever tried to pull a stubborn goat? I have, and if the stubborn goat doesn’t want to go anywhere, they won’t. I ended up bribing her with feed to get her to walk, and she trotted right next to me. The point of this story you ask? Some teachers are like goats. They don’t want parents in the room, and they don’t want to be told to do things differently. They like it where they are, and have no regard for the needs or desires of others. Don’t spend your time trying to pull the goat, instead, show the goat something good, and perhaps they will follow along.
If we never tell parents what we want, we can’t expect to get anything from them. Parents spend years in the system being told different things by different teachers. They have no idea what you want unless you make it explicitly clear.
The third section is about creating climate. This is where kids feel comfortable. My room is certainly far from the norm as far as classrooms go. We do things very differently. The rooms at RCA, however, sound amazing. To have the door to a classroom actually be a moving bookshelf? I wish. While we may not have the freedom to do everything RCA gets to do, you have some options. Make the most of those options. Also, climate is far more than just appearance. Your attitude and style lend to the overall climate. You create the climate. Take a moment and reflect on how a student actually sees your class. What do they think as they walk down the hall to your room? If you’re not happy with what that is, it’s time for some classroom climate change. Section three is for you.
Section four is where probably one of the main sections where “goat teachers” say, “This is ridiculous.” I beg to differ. At no point does Clark say you must do each and every thing in the book. He is simply laying out what works for RCA. Take the ideas that work for you, and run with them. Some would say “I can’t go to every sporting event at school, I have my own kids.” I agree. I have a daughter, and she will always come first. However, we also make a point of going to games and such as a family. And, when we don’t make an event, I make darn sure to ask the student how it went the next day. What students need is for you to be interested. Make it clear that you are. This section is full of ways to show that you actually care. If you find yourself thinking there is nothing good in this section, it might be time for some personal reflection about your career choice.
Now, as I said, I read this book in 2012. I have been fortunate enough to see Ron Clark speak on two occasions. My principal at the time bought this book for me and got it signed. I respect what Ron Clark has been able to do a great deal. He literally has a dream school. In fact, what he does is amazing enough that teachers travel to his school to get to spend a day learning the RCA way. I have begged principals over the years, to no avail. Perhaps one day Cyndi and I will be able to go spend a day. If you have the ability, make the trip. The End of Molasses Classes does an incredible job of showing you the beliefs and climate of the Ron Clark Academy. If you find yourself struggling to find motivation. This book is for you. If you are already highly motivated, this book is for you. If you are that teacher who gets told you expect too much, this book is not only for you, but for your principal as well. (I will be buying a second copy for him)
Overall, I loved this book. I think that any teacher with the desire to teach would love this one. After reading this book with the negative reviews in my mind, I have decided to have a poster made (somehow, not sure how yet) with a picture of a goat. My new motto… “Don’t be a goat” Give this book a read, and don’t be a goat.