What Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark Teaches Teachers about Teaching
The nine-year-old version of me sat glued to the television, riding the emotional rollercoaster that was depicted in the film Lean on Me. Like the kids in the movie, I, too, wanted Mr. Clark, not just any old principal. No, I had never seen students behave like the ones did as the opening credits popped onto the screen with Axel Rose’s voice belting out “Welcome to the Jungle.” And the idea that a girl could be attacked and stripped in the bathroom and chased unceremoniously into a volatile mix of drug infested and fear riddled hallways caused me undue terror about my own impending high school years. But I could not help but feel that a man who could change the horror and academic depravity that was an inner-city high school like Eastside was a man who could propel a kid like me to my greatest educational heights.
So imagine my surprise when I learned, not even five minutes ago, that the real Joe Clark was unsuccessful in raising the scores.
A part of my childhood has died a sudden, shocking death.
I realized, even back then, that Hollywood was different from real life. In fact, my mother had me convinced that if we happened to see some errant body part on screen, it was really “a body suit” not a real butt-cheek or breast. But somehow, Morgan Freeman had me convinced that Joe Clark was the real deal: able to put the proverbial proof in the pudding. I pulled up an old interview with the real Joe Clark on YouTube and was amused by his elevated diction and witty lines, but sorely disappointed by the superficiality of his arguments, especially considering his own failure to decrease the academic disparity between students like those at Eastside and their more affluent and, therefore, academically privileged counterparts. Moreover, arguing that criticizing the Newark superintendent (and the school board under his command) was not going to happen because they were close friends stunned me. How could a man who had such remarkable, controversial views about school reform, decline to comment on the basis of friendship? This seemed hypocritical to me, particularly because teachers lost their jobs because of his abhorrence of their ineffectuality. What was he implying: we can chastise, or even fire, those who underperform only if we are not friends?
Now, I wonder what relevance a seemingly arrogant, intentionally verbose, and socially insensitive 1980s icon of educational reform has on the modern day lives of educators. Perhaps this is an unfair question, for Clark himself implied that the value of his portrayal was more entertainment than didactic, but I do tend to think that we can learn a few things, even if the totality of the representation is not absolutely true. Moreover, I contend that a strong administrator is important, but not more important than the work of the people on the metaphorical front lines: the teachers.
- Make the kids learn the school song: I still remember my high school song, but I wish it were the soulful Eastside High song (“Loyalty, Loyalty!”) the guys sang for Mr. Clark in the bathroom. If you still know your school song, chances are you had some pride in what school you attended (or you were a band geek). When we teach kids who have little to nothing, it is hard sometimes to find something that they can and should have pride in, so Mr. Clark forced pride upon all the kids at his school by making them learn the school song or face suspensions. This seems extreme, but having pride is often enough to encourage kids to do better.
- Bring a bullhorn and a bat to work: Sometimes we have to be loud and threatening to get a point across. I’m not an advocate of screaming at kids or physically abusing them with sports equipment, but I do think that we need to start astounding our students with the essence of loudness and the implications of peril. I have found that I speak the “loudest” in a class of students largely unresponsive to my pleas by silencing myself. My bat: sometimes I say, “We have 10 minutes left and this is due at the end of the period.” I won’t take creative credit for this technique: I learned it in high school from my brother when he used to ask in an incredulously, deviously low tone after breaking some household rule, “Dad, why are you yelling?” The clencher: “I don’t think all that’s necessary, Pops.” My dad would get so pissed off and thrown off his original course that he would walk away before he broke my brother’s neck.
- Drag kids to rooftops compelling them to “jump”: I remember watching this scene in the movie thinking, “Goodness, another iota of force from Mr. Clark’s shoving hand will push Sams right over the edge.” In life, we all need reality checks. We may not be experimenting with crack, but we do tend to engage in some negative, self-destructive practices sometimes, and kids, especially those on the margins of society, need a strong person to be willing to say what everyone else is too afraid or indifferent to say. Every kid won’t buy in to this method, but as illustrated in this scene, Sams was the only expelled student to try to get reinstated in school, so this type of student will probably benefit most from intentional conversations about his future.
- Chain the doors: Mr. Clark went to jail for disobeying the fire chief’s orders to keep chains off the doors, preventing students from escaping if there were a fire. But Mr. Clark realized that the chance of fire was less of a threat than drug dealers, gang bangers, and other riffraff menacing the school. In other words, Mr. Clark was most interested in a safe, effectual learning environment that would help students produce. We cannot expel every perceived miscreant from our buildings. If we did, we would be proving that we don’t believe all kids can and should have a quality education. We can, though, unlock our minds and chain the door to excuses: anything that will prevent us from making great instructional strides, reaching all learners, and helping them demonstrate proficiency of course concepts and skills.
- Fire some teachers: No teacher has the authority to really fire a colleague, but we can hold each other accountable for student results. In the last couple of years, I’ve completely reversed my position about teachers talking to other teachers about student skill acquisition and instructional effectiveness. I used to say things like, “I don’t get paid the big bucks to make those kinds of comments to peers,” or “It’s none of my business what goes on in their classrooms.” But since I’ve started sending my own kids to school, I realize that if my child were getting a subpar education in one classroom and a teacher down the hall was delivering high-quality education to the same grade level, I would hit the roof if nothing was said or done about it. And I wouldn’t care if the person who said it was a teacher! In fact, I would rather it was the other teacher so that they could help each other improve the level of instruction for all kids and keep their jobs. How dare we be so ineptly isolationist with the lives of kids! Grow up and do the right thing! If it were your child, would you be so quiet? If a teacher was going into a room and physically restraining kids to the point where the students became paralyzed physically, would you let the chips just fall? Why then do we allow this when the paralysis is mental? There’s a part in the film when Mr. Clark says to the students something like, “We sink, we swim, we rise, we fall together.” This is true of teachers in schools. When we all start to embrace the necessity of being on one accord and truly collaborate, not just write exams and complete curriculum documents together, when we acknowledge that compliance and quality are not necessarily as closely related as we like to think, when we begin to fight a unified battle, realizing that a loss in one room is a loss for the school, we’ll begin to make the gains we seek. I don’t believe that teachers need to be fired, just fired up.