Q&A with Kim Bearden, author of CRASH COURSE

crash course
~post by Scott Butki

Teacher Kim Bearden has written a book, Crash Course, detailing the kind of amazing educational adventures she has done with students from various schools, including in the impressive Ron Clark Academy. She suggests other teachers can do this too!

Each chapter ends with class notes and homework as she suggests ways other teachers can do a better job working with students.

I enjoyed the book in two ways: First, as someone who works in education and always delights in hearing new clever was to connect with students. Second, as someone in the process of getting his teachers certificate partly so I can do the kind of wonderful work Bearden has done in order to get students to come out of their shells and/or reach new academic highs.

That said I had some reservations which I included in the questions below. After reading her responses, though, I am indeed inspired. I think all educators – and many parents – could get a lot out of this book, reminding all of the great things good teachers can do.

Scott: Why did you decide to write a book?

Kim: As the co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy, I have had the unique opportunity to interact with thousands of educators and professionals each year. While these professionals have been excited to learn new ideas and ways to implement them, their questions are always the same: How do you do all of this when you are dealing with challenges in your personal lives? How do you stay motivated to make a difference? How do you keep the passion? What do you do when you just don’t feel like doing your job? How do I handle burnout?

Their questions are not unique to the teaching profession—they are universal. Every one of us will experience difficult circumstances at different seasons in our lives—divorce, financial struggles, health issues, concerns for our children or our parents—the list goes on. These challenges become roadblocks that can create negativity, bitterness, sadness, a sense of failure, and even despair. Many individuals become lost or “stuck” and never find their way past these obstacles. These individuals often settle for a life of mediocrity, and their level of joy is often determined by the current state of events. They feel ordinary, broken, and forgotten. Instead of creating a new path for themselves, they settle into a miserable complacency and fail to move forward.

Many of our country’s parents, educators, and other professionals are just going through the motions of life without realizing the extraordinary potential that their lives have and the capacity for joy that is inside of each of them. In my role as a professional speaker and trainer, I have addressed these issues using anecdotes and personal stories. While doing so, I realized that the lessons that I shared were time and time again illustrated by the children in my life; my sense of purpose was discovered by the lessons that they had taught me. The response to these stories was overwhelming, and countless individuals have told me that it is time that these stories be put into a book to help others.

Scott: What are the three biggest lessons or takeaways you want readers to glean from your book?

1. Your life has significance. You matter. You are uniquely designed to bring purpose to the world.

2. The relationships you seek out and those you foster are what give your life the greatest meaning.

3. Believe in the magic that is all around you, and create some of it yourself.

Scott: If you could say one thing to all educators what would you say?

Kim: Realize your power. You may feel powerless when it comes to what you teach, where you teach, whom you teach, whom you work for, or what resources you do not have. However, despite these obstacles, you still have one of the most powerful professions on earth because you have the opportunity to impact lives on a daily basis. True power comes from empowering others.

Scott: Is this targeted for educators or teachers or both?

Kim: Well, I consider all educators, no matter what the position, to be teachers, so it is for us all! It is also for parents or anyone who is struggling to find purpose when life seems to be overwhelming or without meaning. It is a reminder of the “heart piece” that we all need to continue to do our work.

Scott: What do you consider the three biggest myths about educators?

Myth 1: Too many educators are disgruntled.

I actually think it would be more accurate to say that many are brokenhearted. Time and time again, educators share their pain, brokenness, and frustrations with me. They care so much, and they have grown weary trying to successfully navigate through broken systems with little support.

Myth 2: Teachers have it easy because they work fewer hours than most.

All teachers laugh when they hear this one. Most teachers I know actually put in a minimum of about 60 hours a week when you include planning, grading, helping kids, meeting with parents, and more. They spend their summers making plans and attending professional development. And when their heads finally hit that pillow at night, their thoughts are still on those students who need them the most.

Myth 3: Some who don’t teach think they know what teachers need to do, simply because they were students once themselves.

We have to involve all stakeholders in improving education, but it boggles my mind when the actual educators are the last ones to be asked to sit at the table.

Scott: I work in special education. What do you think educators can do better when it comes to special education both in terms of those high functioning and those low functioning?

Kim: Expectations, expectations, expectations. When a student learns differently, we should not set low expectations; we should teach them differently. Oftentimes we set the bar low because we love a child and feel for them, but in doing so, we cripple that child from being able to operate in a world where the stakes are high. When we lower expectations, we are actually sending a student the message that we don’t believe in him or her.

Scott: Please explain why you chose to have “class notes” and “homework” for each chapter?

Kim: As a teacher, I always review my key points with my students, and they always have an assignment to reinforce the concept. It just felt natural to set up the book the same way! It is how my thinking process works!

Scott: What have been your high and low points as an educator?

Kim: I have always said that it is hard for broken adults to help broken children, and the same holds true for me. My greatest struggles occurred when my personal life was in turmoil, and I was trying to juggle everything and not disappoint anyone. In my lifetime, I have experienced a first marriage, betrayal, divorce, financial setback, single parenthood, and the joy of finding love and marrying again. Interestingly, my personal story filled the pages of my first drafts of this book. It was cathartic for me to get the challenges and pain out on paper. As I worked through it all, it was the children’s stories that rose to the top as inspiration for others. A dear friend told me that my first draft of the book was just for me; the version you will now read is to help others to find their own way.

I have been blessed with many high points, and many are shared in the pages of the book. I refer often to how much I was affected by taking our students to South Africa—it was a transformative experience for me. But there is an exciting end (and new beginning) to the story that is not in the book because it has just occurred in the past month!

In June, three beautiful boys from Soweto, South Africa, came to live with my husband and me, and they will be attending the Ron Clark Academy this fall! These brilliant boys have filled my heart and home with love, and I am so blessed to be their American mom. They were living in difficult conditions and they lacked educational opportunities that they so deserve, and so I am so grateful to be starting this new journey with them!

Scott: Did you let the students you wrote about read those parts?

Kim: Absolutely! In fact, I have used some of my stories, their edits and revisions as teaching tools in the classroom. I have shown my students how the written word evolves, and they have enjoyed experiencing the process with me. I’m always teaching!

Scott: All those trips – seeing President Obama, going to stadiums, etc. – all sound great, but I can’t go on those kinds of trips while working in the public schools. How would you respond to teachers saying they could do those in and out of school events too if only they worked at a place like Ron Clarke Academy?

Kim: I am asked this question frequently! First of all, I have taught for 27 years, and for the first 20 of those years, I rarely took my students on any field trips, either. However, I have always believed in the importance of exposing students to the world beyond the classroom walls in order to make learning come alive. I have also always been one to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do. So… that is how all of my classroom transformations actually began. I switched my public school classroom into a beach, a mountain retreat, Mt. Olympus, a hospital, Survivor camp, an Italian restaurant, a thunderstorm, a football field, a fashion show… all without venturing beyond my four walls. It is how I learned to weave magic into my lessons and how to make learning come alive with limited resources and found items.

As a side note, the travel that we do at the Ron Clark Academy isn’t easy for us, either. We have worked for years to gain support for our trips, and our students work hard, too. The majority of our students come from low wealth areas, so we are constantly fundraising to make our trips a reality. The exciting part has been that we have seen many public school teachers with limited resources work creatively to find funding to take their students on trips after being inspired by some of our experiences.

Scott: Lastly what would you say to people considering a career in education? What would you say to those educators considering leaving the field out of frustration?

I speak to groups of new educators often, and I tell them to surround themselves with those who have a passion for the profession and who can impart wisdom. (I also explain that they are going to have to seek out those relationships themselves because the passionate educators are also the ones who are busy doing a million things!) Educators—both new and experienced—also need to take every opportunity to observe those who can make them better. That is why we have designed our school to be an educator training facility where educators can watch others in action and see what excellence looks like. In our profession, there are too many closed doors. We need to open them and share what we are doing with one another!

For those who are frustrated, I hope that my stories will reconnect them with the reasons they chose the profession in the first place. When we lose sight of that, we can become lost in the difficult parts of our profession. I think that we all must constantly strive to stay connected to our purpose and significance, especially on those days that are full of obstacles.

For those considering leaving, they might actually need to do so. It shocks people when I say that, but I believe that sometimes when we have a restless spirit, it means that we need to listen and not feel guilty about it. It might be time to switch schools or positions. Sometimes a change of scenery and a different school climate can make the difference. It could be time to utilize one’s talents for working with kids in an entirely different way. I want talented educators to stay in the profession, but if a teacher is miserable, no one benefits.

Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me is available via bookpeople.com.

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