Educator Ron Clark ’94 shares message of leadership, success


Acclaimed teacher and East Carolina University alumnus Ron Clark brought seven of his middle school students to Greenville in April to show them what success looks like. Clark was the keynote speaker at ECU’s third annual Corporate and Leadership Awards ceremony, where more than 400 people gathered to celebrate young alumni, corporate partners, scholarship donors, advocates and leaders. Clark’s appearance and the event were sponsored and hosted by the Division of Student Affairs.

As founder of the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Clark said he and other teachers take their students across the nation. He has brought students to the annual ECU homecoming football game for 10 of the past 12 years.

As a first-generation college student from Beaufort County, Clark said ECU gave him the foundation for his career. “It taught me how to be a leader. There are so many leadership opportunities at ECU,” Clark said. “It also taught me to be humble and not be pretentious. I learned that it’s important to be a good friend and to find a way to make a difference in the community.”

A watershed moment came when one of Clark’s education professors, the late William Scott Thomson, stopped class, stared at him and said, “Ron Clark, you will be the National Teacher of the Year one day,” Clark said. “He believed in me.” Thomson was right. In 2000, Clark was named Disney’s American Teacher of the Year.

Clark sang part of the U.S. president rap he created early in his career to get his mostly African-American students interested in history when their textbooks were focused on white people. “You’d be disconnected from it, too,” Clark said. He began teaching his students about Africa and its countries including Mali, Sierra Leone and Sudan to include missing information from the history books to highlight positive things about a powerful civilization. “I realized I had to educate my students differently,” he said. “When I did, their eyes opened up. I gave them something to hold on.”

As a leader, Clark said he models the attitude and actions he wants his staff and students to follow. “Don’t be so above yourself to set the tone,” he said. “Sometimes being a leader means you do what is necessary.” Clark said his school is spotless, although close to 700 guests tour the academy on educator visitation days. That’s because Clark picks up every piece of trash he sees. And because Clark does, others do, too. “That’s what it means to be a leader,” Clark said. “Humble yourself, bow your head, do what nobody else wants to do, and when you look up, you’ll see you’re not alone.”

He implored the audience to take the opportunities they’re given to make positive change. “We are ECU. We have been given a spirit, a goodness, a compassion for others, a knowledge to affect the community. Why aren’t we doing more?” Clark said. “Take that spirit with you. Be better, do more, dream big. And do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Since the academy opened 10 years ago, more than 40,000 teachers and administrators from the United States and more than 22 countries have visited the school to learn better ways to engage students, promote academic rigor and create a climate and culture that promotes success.