February 7, 2019 Atlanta - Ron Clark, founder of the Ron Clark Academy, speaks about the cast for the upcoming Survivor at The Ron Clark Academy on Thursday, February 7, 2019. Ron Clark, the creator of Ron Clark Academy, is going to be on the 38th season of "Survivor." HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta educator Ron Clark releases an updated ‘Essential 55’ after 16 years

Originally posted Friday, May 3, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Atlanta’s  Ron Clark is currently moonlighting as a reality star on “Survivor: Edge of Extinction.” In fact, he was just voted off the island this past Wednesday, with a slim chance of returning this week. 

But his real job is renegade educator who opened his own experimental incubator school Ron Clark Academy 12 years ago in Atlanta focused on following 55 rules he created when he was a teacher in Harlem in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He is known for dancing, jumping on tables and rapping, his infectious enthusiasm apparent in any YouTube video you see of him. 

“I had 55 rules posted around my room,” Clark said last week in a phone interview. “I practiced with my students. It turned my class from very unruly and rough around the edges to polished. They were focused. They wanted to learn.”

When he showed up on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show after winning a 2000 Teacher of the Year honor, she suggested he write a book. The result:  “The Essential 55,” summarizing the types of rules he gave his kids at the start of every school year. 

Kids, no matter how difficult, thirst very specific rules, he said. Look people in the eye when they talk. Respect other student’s comments and opinions. Complete your homework. Always say thank you when given something. 

He recalled a principal who insisted all teachers just focus on math to improve test scores. She believed that as long as you keep students “actively engaged,” there will be no discipline issues. 

“I watched the school go into chaos,” Clark said. “Discipline problems everywhere. I watched my class get more and more structured and focused. It kind of hammered home my point that you’ve got to have rules and structure. My 55 rules provided that structure and civility to the learning environment.”

He said 55 was a bit of an arbitrary number. He has seen schools focus on 10 or 150. “I don’t think you can have too many rules,” Clark said. “Humans in general want to be successful. Kids want to be successful. Give them a road map. At RCA, we’ve done the same with our staff. We give them a road map for success so they can find success in our building.”

Indeed, over the years since he opened his academy in 2007, he has distributed tens of thousands of copies of his book to teachers who go through training at his academy. 

But he decided last year it was time to update the book, which sold more than 1 million copies and landed on the New York Times bestseller list. 

“I looked at the cover of the original book and I didn’t even know who that is!” Clark said. “It made me curious. If my picture is outdated, maybe some of my rules are, too. One of my rules talks about subway tokens. The subway don’t even use tokens anymore!” 

His very first rule about “saying ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes sir’ was changed to “Be humble.” Given all the issues regarding gender nowadays, he felt it was time to just excise it. 

But humility is of utmost importance, he said, and sometimes difficult to achieve. (If you watched Clark on “Survivor,” a little starvation and fatigue along with a modicum of power made him sometimes lose sight of that.)

 “I’ve seen so many kids who brag when they do well and those kids become adults people don’t like very much,” Clrk said. An exception: job or scholarship interviews. But he said even in those situations, it’s crucial to note that any accomplishment was not done in isolation and to highlight who helped them succeed. 

Clark also added a new rule about not letting negative people impact you too much. In this age of rampant cyber-bullying, this rule could not be more timely. He recalled while teaching at a North Carolina school a teacher across the hallway who drove him batty with her negativity.

“She had me physically sick,” he said. “I look back now and laugh. Why did I give him so much power? She didn’t deserve to have any power over my life. I try to get kids to understand the importance of not allowing what other people think affect you to the point it makes you sick or takes away your joy.”

And like the issue of humility, Clark said he has struggled a bit with the negativity rule himself in the face of nutty social media comments about him on Twitter and such. “People are crazy!” he said. “They send out death threats when I vote somebody out that they like!” 

There is also irony about another new rule, which is about not being so tied down by rules as to strip yourself of your individuality or not taking risks. He calls it: “Be the pizza, not the bread.”

“You have to let your voice be heard,” he said. “Sometimes pizza might give someone indigestion but you still want to make sure you’re living your life the fullest.” 

The new version of “The Essential 55” came out Tuesday, April 30 and can be ordered here

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.