Bearden: Let kids struggle and have high standards

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Ron Clark Academy Co-founder and language arts teacher Kim Bearden tells the story of students who are still waiting for an award — a letterman jacket earned by students at Ron Clark Academy — cheering on a student who finally received his. She said one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is to teach them to be happy for others when they achieve good things.

Judging by the reactions of teachers, administrators and school board members returning from visits to Atlanta’s Ron Clark Academy, the school not only offers new ideas and methods for innovating and improving education, but a much needed booster shot of inspiration and joy of the teaching profession.

On Tuesday, June 12, the award-winning Kim Bearden, co-founder and executive director of the Ron Clark Academy, a language arts teacher and a mom, spoke to teachers in seminars during the day and at a sparsely attended parents session that evening.

“I have a daughter [now 28] … and I also have three sons whom I adopted from South Africa, all 16 years of age,” she said. “I adopted them at age 12 … and when they arrived here, they spoke 5 languages, but they could not multiply or read or do any of those things. Now they’re all three honor students. I’ve taught over 3,000 children over the course of my 31-year career. I’ve seen a lot and I work a lot with parents and I’ve been a parent.”

She talked about the balance at Ron Clark Academy between strict rules and expectations for discipline, manners and respect and high academic standards and the creativity and passion and joy at the school.

 “We’re a safe, structured environment where kids can learn, but at the same time, we’re a joyful, passionate dynamic place so kids want to learn and they’re willing to dig in and do harder work because they’re engaged in the lessons the teachers are teaching,” Bearden said.

Let them feel negative emotions

She said something she’s noticed is the over-coddling of children.

“There’s this idea in what we’ve seen in schools … is this mindset that our children can never be sad, they can never be hurting, they can never be disappointed,” Bearden said. “If you’ve never experienced those emotions and you get out into the real world for the very first time and face that as adults, that’s when you fall apart. It’s not that you want children to suffer, but you want to challenge them because there is that idea of grit and determination and overcoming obstacles.”

She told the story of seeing a toddler (one of six children in a family) making their way down the bleachers during a basketball game. The child lost their balance and went tumbling head over heels down the bleachers. Bearden said she and Ron Clark started to run almost panicked to the child, but the mother stopped them and checked on the child, made sure they were all right and the child was fine and toddled off to do whatever they were planning to do. The reason, the mother said, was that if parents freaked out when a child looked like they might be hurt, the child freaks out because they believe they are hurt more than they are.

Don’t be afraid to hold kids to high standards

“In our classrooms, we have very high expectations,” she said. “We’re known for looking at what our state requires to teach and then push our students two grade levels above that.”

But it’s a private school. Surely these are the most high achieving students from surrounding school districts, right? Not necessarily. About one-third of RCA students are exceeding expectations in school before coming. Another third are performing at an average level and another third are struggling academically and no matter where they fall on the academic spectrum, many have behavioral issues as well when they start at RCA. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Around 70 percent of her students come from single-parent homes where single mothers may have to work three or four jobs to make ends meet. All students attend RCA on scholarships provided by school partners. Still, last year’s class of 30 eighth graders received $4.2 million in scholarships to private high schools and 95 percent of RCA graduates go on to college or the military.

“When they come, we push every kid in the class,” she said. “… What has happened across this country is you have gifted kids in class and they’re chillin’. They’re bored out of their gourds. Do you know what happens when you really push and challenge a gifted kid? They cry. They’re so frustrated because they’ve never had to push through something before. They never had something they didn’t understand and when they’re confronted with something they can’t understand, they fall apart. I don’t want them to freak out, but I want them to see it as a challenge to overcome.”

A phenomenon she’s noticed with students who are struggling academically is the whole class slows down to accommodate. Bearden wants to develop methods and techniques to use to help the struggling student without slowing everything down for others.

“We think we’re helping that child [when we slow it down], but we’re not,” she said. “In life, the whole world isn’t going to slow down for that child. He’s got to function in a world where the goal is still the same … Sometimes they achieve that goal and sometimes they fall short, but by the end of the year, they will accomplish far more than if we had just slowed down and gone at a pace that lets us barely get it done.”

All that push and challenging must come from a place of love.

“When you’re interacting with a kid and disciplining them, it has to come from a place of love, even if you’re frustrated or angry,” she said. “Kids can tell how you feel about them by the way you look at them. Eyes are the window to the soul.”

Holding students to high expectations may seem frustrating for students at the time, but is really an expression of love when done for the right reasons.

“I think high expectations are an outward manifestation of your belief in a person,” she said. “When you have low expectations, what you’re really saying is, ‘Baby, I don’t think you can do it, either.’ You can’t just say, ‘get there,’ you have to give them the help and support while doing that.”

Discipline ≠ bad kids

When a student is disciplined at school, parents can be quick to jump in and object, insisting their child couldn’t have done something necessitating punishment.

“Your kid might be the best kid ever, best behaved, but your child did get in trouble … and sometimes that sends parents into an uproar,” Bearden said. “But what does that really teach that child if they really make a bad decision? That parents will bail them out. Mama’s going to fix it and make it all better. I believe one of the best lessons you can teach a child is there are consequences for your choices … Even if a child says, ‘But I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to,’ well, baby, I’m glad you’re sorry. That’s beautiful. I’m so glad you’re sorry, but there’s still going to be a consequence because actions always have consequences.”

At RCA, the school works hard to build a team with parents. They encourage parents to take what children tell them with a grain of salt and email teachers politely if something doesn’t sound right. She told how frustrating it was when Ron Clark went up to a parent in the parking lot one day and told a mother he was disappointed to hear her child mocking another student at lunch that day. The mother turned to her child and asked, “Is that true? Did you do that?” The child replied he didn’t.

“Ron was like, ‘I was right there and I’m telling you I heard it,’” said Bearden. “She said, ‘My child would never lie to me.’ … Even the best kids on the planet will lie to their parents. These are the sort of things parents need to keep in mind. It doesn’t mean they have a bad kid or they’ve shamed the family or anything like that, but sometimes they lie.”

Bearden said sometimes, parents can exacerbate situations by “wearing the emotions of our children.”

“When I was a single mom, I worried so much for my daughter … and I can remember that when my daughter was sad, I was sad,” she said. “If my daughter was anxious, I was anxious. If my daughter was mad, I was mad. I mirrored her emotions because I cared so much about her. One day it occurred to me that I was creating more havoc in my house by doing this. When she is sad or anxious, that is the very moment I need to be OK.”

This can translate into a student’s relationship with school.

“With the expectations they’re having at school and they come home and share things, understand if you can be supportive of that and say, ‘Well, baby, that teacher has to have discipline in her classroom. I want you to go to school where kids are well behaved.’”

She said when she was a student, parents usually took the side of the teacher, even if, sometimes the teacher was in the wrong. Now, that has changed and parents side with students, even if the teacher is right.

“We have to meet in the middle somewhere and have more of a balance with that,” she said.

Encourage their passions

Another helpful thing parents can do to foster a stronger school and students is to encourage students’ passion and creativity and point out passion and creativity and excellence in others.

“Anything you can do to encourage your child’s creative talents, do it,” she said. “I think we know that and do it a lot when they’re little, but when they get older, sometimes we stifle that. If your child is very imaginative and creative, allow them to do that.”

Her daughter is an artist who loves to paint. Bearden said after spending a small fortune on canvases, she gave her daughter a wall in the guestroom and let her paint it however she pleased and explained to guests that the wall in the room they were staying in was her daughter’s wall to paint.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to be excited when good things happen to other people,” she said. “When something really good happens to a classmate, they should be happy about that.”

She showed a picture taken in the lobby of RCA of a student on the shoulders of an adult, wearing a special letterman’s jacket which must be earned by students by working hard, showing kindness and encouragement to other students and embodying the character traits the school hopes to instill in students. Surrounding the student and teacher was a crowd of other students cheering for the achievement of this student. Bearden pointed to a cluster of students on the left side of the picture, faces smiling and cheering just like the rest of the students.

“Almost all the kids on this side of the room had not received their coats yet,” she said. “Look at their smiles. They’re smiling for him, even though they want their coats. They want their coats terribly. But they’re happy for that child and if you can promote that in your children, whenever something good happens to someone else — a lot of times, kids just listen to the things we say … ‘I am so proud of your friend, Jeremy. Isn’t it great he go the MVP? When he’s on that basketball court, he’s amazing!’ ‘Well, Mama, I play basketball, too.’ ‘And you’re amazing, too, baby. You are. I’m so excited to see you on the basketball court, too, but gosh, when he’s like the wind the way he runs! Isn’t it wonderful you have a friend who’s that talented?’ That doesn’t mean you’re putting your child down, but you’re teaching them to appreciate gifts in other people.”

Going along with helping kids appreciate gifts in others, help them to notice their own gifts by encouraging them when they do something good, even if they didn’t do it well.

“I appreciate how hard you worked on that,” she suggested.

Forget about grades — are they learning?

She encouraged parents to focus less on grades and more on if their students are learning.

She said students in Georgia who have a 3.0 cumulative GPA (a B average) are eligible for the Hope Scholarship, which gives students a free ride to any university in the state. Soon after, a trend of inflated grades started to emerge, where students were receiving Bs on work that didn’t deserve it.

“We know this is true because only three out of every 10 students who get the Hope Scholarship will keep it after the first year,” she said. “That means 70 percent of these kids who thought they were honor students when they went to college were not prepared for college. … Sometimes, parents get so worked up over grades, teachers just say, ‘Fine, take the B. It’s just easier for me to figure out how to give this kid a B than it is to deal with a mom who’s riding me because I gave him a C.’ Sometimes, as parents, we’re more worried if our children have an honor roll grade than if our children learn something.”

Reduce test stress

Another change Bearden said both schools and parents can do is take pressure off of students for standardized tests. Ron Clark gives students the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the SSAT, which compares them to other kids in private schools.

“Our kids blow it out of the water, but let me tell you something — we don’t mention the test to them,” she said. “My teachers are forbidden to. I don’t want my kids to think they’re learning something for a test. I want them to think they’re learning something for life … There’s nothing more traumatic for some kids than saying, ‘You’re going to take a test on Friday and if you don’t pass this test, you’re going to be retained.’”

She sends an email to parents before the tests, telling them when the test will be, encouraging them to make sure their student gets plenty of rest and a good breakfast if possible and to make things as calm and peaceful as possible the morning before the test, taking much of the stress out of the test at home as well.

Bearden doesn’t even call chapter tests in her classroom “tests,” but “celebration of acquired knowledge.”

She said high stakes tests put a lot of pressure on both teachers and students and it’s changed the culture for the worse for teachers.

“We’ve got to do something different about these tests,” she said. “It’s one moment on one day. I would hate to think the rest of my life, one grade on my SAT was what defined me.”

Never give up

And when you hit a road block or a struggle with your child, don’t give up or let them back down from the challenge.

“You never know with kids,” she said. “You’ve got to always keep trying and trying until you find out what works for your kid. … All kids are different. All kids learn differently. They all have their own unique gifts and talents and sometimes it takes a lot of searching and challenging and working and finding and stumbling and getting up again and stumbling again and eventually, they find their stride.”

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