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The Ron Clark Story - Summary and Learnings

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

I recently watched a heartwarming movie called The Ron Clark Story, and it's based on a real story about a teacher, Ron Clark, who tries to turn around the toughest, naughtiest sixth grade class in New York. It is a story about pursuing dreams, overcoming challenges, and building relationships. We may not all be teachers, but this movie can be insightful and inspirational for all of us.

The film won multiple awards, including the Family Film Awards for Best TV Movie/Drama. It is a great watch for all audiences, and it can be found on YouTube for free here. Below, I'm going to give a summary (spoiler alert) and then share my learnings.


Part 1: Summary

1.1 Beginning

Ron Clark is a talented elementary school teacher from a small town in North Carolina, and his students do exceptionally well on standardized tests. His school hopes he will stay forever, but after reading all the news about troubled schools in New York, he feels that New York needs him the most. Hence, he packs his bags and heads to the metropolis.

After arriving in New York, he first stays in a motel while looking for a job. It took quite a while, and he ran out of cash, so he got a part-time gig at a restaurant. Eventually, he arrives at Inner Harlem Elementary School, where a teacher had just quit because a student tried to assault him. Ron tells the principal that he could replace that teacher today.

After the principal looked at his resume, he offered Ron a good class, probably out of fear that Ron would quit just like the previous teacher if given the naughty class. However, Ron happily insisted that he wants the naughty class because he knew that's where he could make the most impact. It was Friday, and the principal told him he can start on Monday.

1.2 Starting His New Job

Over the weekend, Ron visits the families of all his students, hoping to get the parents cooperation and support throughout the school year. He soon finds out that each family is challenged, overworked, or messed up in their own way.

On Monday, he starts teaching the naughty class with his big ideals, and he quickly realizes that this class is unlike any he's ever faced before. In fact, it's challenging beyond his wildest imagination. He gives his utmost love and care to the class, but the class only gives back disrespect and even hostility.

Occasionally, Ron has small successes in getting the class to behave well, but his method is rather forceful, so although the students comply temporarily, they are accumulating resentment inside, and they wreak havoc later. Eventually, Ron has an angry outburst and walks out of the classroom, ready to quit.

He's been in New York for a while, but he never explored the town yet, so he asked a friend from the restaurant he works at to show him around. He shares his struggles and how he plans to give up on his ideals. His friend gives him a pep talk and encourages him to go back because those students desperately need him the most.

1.3 Rising From Failure

Thanks to his friend's help, Ron rises from his abyss and is re-determined to turn this class around. Rather than forcing his students to behave properly, he decides to bargain with them. He brings dozens of small chocolate milk cartons to class and tells them, "Every 15 seconds you behave well and listen in class, I will drink a carton of chocolate milk. If you guys can hold out long enough, you just might see me puke."

(Ron Clark getting his students to behave using chocolate milk)

The class is super excited at this offer, and they finally behave well for a long time. Whenever any student interrupts the class or does something bad, all the other students give that person a nasty look. Eventually, Ron asks a question, and a student answers correctly. Ron is extremely happy, and the student is surprised that she could actually "learn."

Ron's sincerity finally breaks through, and the students start warming up to him. He even goes to play with them during recess. In the past, the students would ignore him, but now, they let him play jump rope with them.

1.4 A Challenge of Beliefs

Halfway through the year, the principal has a meeting with Ron. He is unimpressed at his class's test scores and says, "These kids are at the bottom of the barrel. All I'm asking is for your students to pass, then they can become someone else's problem."

Ron is upset and argues, "The problem isn't the kids. The problem is your expectations. You are setting the bar down here. Why? Set it up here! They can make it! In May, all my students will test at grade level."

The principal rolls his eyes and says, "I don't see how that's possible."

Ron says, "I'm sorry, did I say grade level? I meant above grade level."

Unbeknownst to Ron, his students were actually listening outside the principal's office, and they were shocked at their teacher's promise to the principal.

Later, Ron gives a motivational talk to his students about how he had overcome his fears and achieved something he never thought was possible in the past, and that every day in class, the students are also working to achieve something big that they never thought was possible: being a stellar student and achieving a bright future.

He told them, "If you trust me, then come up here and light a candle on this cake, and I promise you that you will learn more than you ever imagined in our class."

(Ron Clark inviting his students to light a candle and put their trust in him)

Now that his trust level was high with the students, they didn't argue or misbehave. They came up, lit a candle, and put their trust in their teacher.

1.5 Rising from More Failure

The school year continues, and none of the students passed the history test. Rather than blame the students, he reflects on his teaching methods. He realizes that he needs to do something more fun, engaging, and interesting to help the students learn, so he creates a rap to help his students learn America's past presidents, and he even performs for them.

(Ron Clark singing the Presidents' Rap with his students)

This rap is extremely well received by the students, and everyone's interest in history is sparked. Later, nearly all his students got A on the history test.

1.6 Another Challenge of Beliefs

Ron identifies some students that need extra help and take initiative to give them outside-of-class tutoring. One student is Shameika, who always has excuses for not handing in homework. Ron visits her home and asks to see her homework. She says she is too busy and didn't finish. Ron looks at it anyway and says this is actually pretty good, and she just needs to fix some small things.

Shameika is surprised, but before she could continue working on her homework, her three brothers arrive home from their babysitter, and Shameika has to go cook dinner because her parents are out busy working. Ron offers to cook dinner so that she can fix her homework.

Later, her mother arrives home to see Ron eating dinner with her kids, and she is extremely upset, saying, "You don't think I can take care of my family Mr. Clark? Leave my house."

The next day, she goes to the principal's office and complains that her kid comes to school to learn, so she shouldn't be doing school work at home.

Ron argues that students have homework, and Shameika can't be babysitting all day. He says, "Shameika has more potential than any kid in my class. Why can't you see that?"

Shameika's mother angrily replies, "How dare you tell me what I should or should not see in my daughter. I'm taking her home. This guy better not be teaching at this school when I bring my kid back tomorrow."

As they leave, Shameika turns around and pleads to the principal, "Please don't fire Mr. Clark! He was just trying to help. Mr. Clark please don't leave because of me."

(Shameika pleading Ron Clark to not leave the school)

Before they exit the school, Ron runs to catch up with them. The mother says, "Why are you doing this? You give her these grand ideas. The world is just going to crush her down!"

Ron says, "I don't believe that. I just know she's a great student, a born leader, creative, intelligent."

The mother is astonished and says, "Shameika? My Shameika?"

Ron replies, "Yes! If she tests well enough in May, we might be able to get her into Manhattan West for middle school."

The mothers says, "That's for gifted kids."

Ron silently looks at her and nods in affirmation.

The mother finally says, "Maybe Ms. Benson (the babysitter) can keep the boys a little longer every day."

1.7 The Final Stretch

It's only two months until the big test, and Ron gets pneumonia. He is forced to stay at home for at least two weeks, so he records video lectures for his students to watch in class.

(Ron Clark pre-records videos for his students while recovering from pneumonia)

One week before the state exams, his students are worried and lack confidence. They say things like, "We always mess up," "Everyone thinks we're losers," and "What if we choke on the test?"

Ron gives them a pep talk and emphasizes that they have been working hard every single day, that they've accomplished so much over the past year, and that he is extremely proud of them. He affirms them that they will crush the test and walk out of that room knowing they can do anything they want to do in their life.

After the exams, the principal personally came to Ron's classroom and told them that they scored higher than any other class, even higher than the honors class. Afterwards, his students went on to attend some of the finest middle schools and high schools in New York.


Part 2: My Learnings

Lesson 1: A Meaningful Life is About Serving the Greater Good

Ron Clark didn't have to go to New York and take on such difficult students. He could have had a comfortable life in his hometown. But he saw a desperate need for his talents in New York, and he was willing to let go of personal comfort for the greater good. Of course, no dream is easy to accomplish, but I'm sure Ron feels like he made the right decision to serve the greater good, and everyone will remember him for it.

Image Sources: 1, 2

This isn't to say that having a comfortable life is bad, or that we all need to take a big risk to chase a dream. The key point is that if we want to feel a sense of meaning in life, we should try to serve the greater good in some shape or form. We can start off small and let it accumulate naturally.

Ron Clark didn't dream of going to New York on his first day as a teacher. He taught for many years, accumulating his passion and abilities, then when he felt the time was right, he took the risk. Anyone can start by finding a cause that we care about, and then helping out that cause in whatever way is suitable for our current situation. Serving the greater good will bring us a sense of fulfillment and help us feel like our life was well-lived.

Lesson 2: There is no unteachable student, no unchangeable person

There is a Chinese proverb that goes,

"When you don't get the results you want, reflect on yourself."

In other words, don't blame other people or outside circumstances. As a teacher, it can be easy for me to write off "bad" students as "hard-to-teach". After all, some students can earn high grades with my current teaching method, so if other students do poorly, that's clearly their problem. Perhaps they don't pay attention in class, or they don't do their homework, or they just don't care about this class. But Ron Clark reminded me that if I was truly a good teacher, I would be able to find a way to teach them rather than blame them.

Ron Clark got his students to behave well by drinking dozens of cartons of chocolate milk. When his class failed the history test, he made a rap to help them remember the past presidents and spark their interest. It's not that the students are unteachable, it's just that we teachers don't care enough to find creative ways of teaching that appeal to our "bad" students. Just like a doctor should not blame a patient for having a complicated illness, a teacher should not blame a student for struggling to learn.

The same can be said for the parent-child or the leader-follower relationships. Is our child/follower really unteachable? Or did we just not make the effort to truly understand them and then try different methods until we find one that works? The same goes for any relationship. Is that person really unchangeable? Or are we just not willing to truly understand them and then persist in trying different ways to inspire them?

I think the reason Ron was able to come up with these creative teaching methods that resonated with his students is because he took the time to truly understand them, and he is always thinking of ways to help his students succeed, whether walking, eating, or showering. These aren't ideas he got off the internet or that other people told him, these are sparks of inspiration that came from his nonstop effort to help his students. Therefore, if we want to change others, we need to spend the time to really understand them, and then sincerely think of ways to inspire them. The question isn't whether or not they are changeable, it's whether or not we are willing to put in the effort.

Lesson 3: The success of everything depends on endurance

If we want to build anything, whether it's a relationship, a career, a skill, or a thing, it all takes endurance. We have to endure hardship, challenges, and negative emotions.

Ron had to endure his students' naughty behavior, his principal's prejudice, parents' misunderstandings, and even pneumonia. And not just for a day or two. Ron had to endure everyone's prejudice towards his class for a whole year, until his students finally proved themselves with their stellar test scores.

Ron also nearly gave up at the beginning because he couldn't endure his anger. He worked so hard for many weeks to establish class rules, and one angry outburst burned everything he had built. His students probably thought, "Aha, I knew it. You don't actually believe in us. You just want us to control us. That's why you got angry when we didn't listen."

The same is true in our own relationships. If we do nice things for others but expect them to be grateful, then we will get annoyed when they don't return our grace. As that annoyance builds up, eventually, our anger will explode, and then they will think, "Aha, I knew it. You were just putting on a show to get me to do something. You don't truly want the best for me. I'm not going to change for you."

We might think these students are too unreasonable to endure, but in reality, their situation is very reasonable. They are the result of their unfavorable circumstances over years and years of accumulation. Despicable people have lamentable circumstances. If a problem took years to accumulate, it's not going to get fixed in the snap of a finger. We have to endure it out. The same is true for most problems we face in life. These problems have years of complicated history, so we have to be patient and persistent in trying to overcome them.

Ultimately, if we want to be successful in life, we all need to develop resilience towards hardship and the ability to manage negative emotions, especially anger. When we face tough situations and struggle to endure, it's helpful to have good friends who can support us. Fortunately, Ron had a good friend who helped him out of his depressed state, or else the students would have had a very different future.

Lesson 4: Belief is the mother of possibility

Ron Clark taught the naughtiest class in New York, and no one believed this class was capable of anything good…except Ron Clark. He was the first teacher to believe in his students, and this belief isn't a shallow belief, it's a deep belief that can withstand challenges.

Below are three examples, and from these examples, I can really feel that when someone deeply believes in us, it is powerful. It inspires us to live up to their expectations for us, and we know if we ever struggle, we can go to them for help.

Example 1:

When the principal said, "These kids are at the bottom of the barrel. All I'm asking is for your students to pass, then they can become someone else's problem."

Ron said, "The problem isn't the kids. The problem is your expectations. You are setting the bar down here. Why? Set it up here! They can make it! In May, all my students will test at grade level."

The principal rolls his eyes and says, "I don't see how that's possible."

Ron says, "I'm sorry, did I say grade level? I meant above grade level."

From this incident, I could sense that Ron deeply believes in his students, and without this deep belief, there's no way he would have been able to persist through so many obstacles and find creative solutions to help his students achieve such high scores on the state exams.

Example 2:

When Shameika's mother said, "Why are you doing this? You give her these grand ideas. The world is just going to crush her down!"

Ron says, "I don't believe that. I just know she's a great student, a born leader, creative, intelligent."

This was after Shameika's mother had given Ron an angry outburst and demanded that the principal fire him. For Ron to say these kinds of words to her despite all the disrespect she gave him, it really shows how deeply Ron believes in Shameika even when no one else, not even her mother, believed in her.

I also felt that Shameika's mother was hardened by difficulty and suffering. Deep down, we all want to have hope. But some of us become scared of disappointment, so then we don't dare to hope. That's why her mother didn't want Ron to give her daughter such high hopes. She's not trying to be mean, she's just flinching from past hurt.

I think Ron understands that every parent inherently wants the best for their children, and that this mother needed someone to affirm her child. His deep belief in her child finally got through to her, and she decided to cooperate with Ron. As a result, Shameika was able to attain an outstanding score on her state exams. If Ron's belief wasn't so strong in the face of such a tough mother, the result would have been very different.

Example 3:

One of his students, Tayshawn, got into a fight in class. Ron stopped them, and Tayshawn ran out of class. Ron ran after him and said, "Tayshawn, stop! Look, I know you have two strikes. If you walk out now, they'll expel you for sure. Just get back in there."

Tayshawn asked, "Why?"

Ron joked, "Because I would miss your glowing personality."

Tayshawn rolled his eyes.

Ron said, "Mr. Turner (the principal) doesn't have to know anything about this. Just give yourself another chance."

Tayshawn decided to go back to class.

From this incident, I could really feel that Ron purely wants the best for all his students, no matter if they are well-behaved or the worst behaved. He deeply believes that every person has the potential for greatness, even a gangster with anger problems like Tayshawn.

Throughout the whole year, Tayshawn remained the most resistant to Ron's inspirational messages, but Ron never gave up on him. Even on the day of the state exams, Ron sensed that Tayshawn might not show up, so he personally went to Tayshawn's house in the morning. Indeed, his gangster friends were telling him to follow them, but Ron invited Tayshawn to walk to school together and review on the way.

(Tayshawn choosing between his gangster friends and Ron Clark)

Tayshawn was moved by his teacher's care this whole year, and he decided to abandon his gangster friends and go with Ron, and he indeed passed the state exams.


No matter who we are or what our situation is, we probably all have goals that we are trying to accomplish, challenges that we're trying to overcome, or relationships that we're trying to improve. The Ron Clark Story is a heartwarming and insightful movie on these fronts, and some key lessons I learned are

  1. A meaningful life is about serving the greater good

  2. There is no unteachable student, no unchangeable person

  3. The success of everything depends on endurance

  4. Belief is the mother of possibility

If you also watched the movie and have other learnings, I'd love to hear them.

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