My husband Cliff has been retired for almost a year now. He served forty-one years in elementary education at public and private schools. During that time, he taught everything from pre-school through sixth grade and spent half his career as a principal.
Never once was he wrong about anything in a school. Ever.
Cliff had the rare ability to sit in a classroom for thirty minutes and tell you if the teacher was any good. Then he’d tell you which children were over placed, which were troubled, and which were falling through the cracks. But he wouldn’t develop a list of issues and walk away. He’d tell you how to address them. He’d give you a Plan A to improve each case, and if that failed, he’d suggest Plan B. He was known to trot out Plan C and D, too. Cliff never gave up with anyone who was willing–adult or child.
After he’d been at a school for a year, he could pinpoint the flaws in the curriculum, the staffing weak links, and the dark reality slinking beneath the fancy mission statement. He gave vision to schools that were wandering. Grateful teachers insisted they learned more from him than any education course. Devoted parents worshipped him for showing them how to appreciate their own children.
I have never encountered anyone else like him in the school business.
Make no mistake, however. Not everyone listened. Many resisted his advice. Still, many apologized when they finally understood he was right and that the contentious issue was never about him at all.
Early in his administrative career, he found himself twisting in the wind over a problem that would leave someone dissatisfied, no matter which decision he made. His seasoned head of school said, “You have to stand for something at the end of the day. That becomes your North. Never lose sight of it.”
Cliff understood he would always be King Solomon, demanding the baby be cut in half, in order to save it. A master of paradox, he consistently chose to do the right thing for the child, despite prevailing pressures. He knew a child was infinitely more than a commodity, a test score, a trophy. A few years ago, an admiring colleague nicknamed Cliff “Don Quixote” because of his relentless courage in the face of arrogant supervisors, jealous contemporaries, and selfish parents. One after another, Cliff faced those ignorant windmills in his weathered armor.
I recently heard a celebrated businessman explain his findings after interviewing thousands of leaders of all kinds of organizations around the world and their employees. He discovered the ultimate traits of a leader are truth and trust. Intelligence and skilled spin-doctoring pale by comparison. In other words, generosity and honesty win the day, and these are the virtues that develop with experience, perceptive experience.
You can’t learn that from a book or a PR firm or a high-dollar consultant. You can’t strong arm your way around what’s real.
You carry it in your heart. Or you don’t. No one can teach it to you.
Children always found the truth in Cliff. It shows in these two sweet notes from students.
Mr. Clark, you plan a lot of fun things. You tell a lot of nice storys (sic). You are so creatof (sic). I’m never afraid to talk to you because yore (sic) nice to me. You make everyone in school feel happy. No one else is like you.
A school without Mr. Clark is lonely.
The school dedicated a row of apple trees in his honor, and those new sprouts meant more to him than gifts and a luncheon. He understood the value of time and the power of growth–in trees, for sure, but more importantly in the children who play beneath their branches.
When he was at a school in Illinois, the Rockford Register Star invited him to write about education.
ALLOWING CHILDREN TO FIND THEIR BALANCE
By Cliff Clark
When our antique mantle clock quit ticking after we moved from Wisconsin, we felt certain that we had ruined the delicate timepiece. But we took this family heirloom to a master clock maker who discovered that it merely needed to be placed on a level surface and then it would run again. Indeed, the clock needed time to balance, not new parts.
The same can be said regarding children. When they are put in a “level” space, they, too, can find balance and harmony. With this balance they can better accept the challenges that lie ahead and probably even survive the rat race we call adulthood.
Frequently I have spoken to children about the inner time we all possess which sometimes pays only veiled regard to the calendar and birthdays. The speed at which the clock ticks can generally be adjusted only by the grade in school where the child is placed. This is the same clock that determined when we walked, talked, fed ourselves, learned to tie shoelaces, and it continues to run throughout our lives. We owe it to our children to help set the rhythm of the clock’s ticks. Every child’s inner clock is unique.
A child’s journey begins when adults become aware of the whole child during his or her first school experience. Too often we become extremely excited by the academic prowess displayed in our children. At the same time, we are sometimes unable to see equally important emotional and behavioral considerations.
All three are important facets of the the developing child. When one is out of balance, the child falters. When two are misaligned, the child fails. Unfortunately we are apt to focus on intellectual performances as the only measure of success. We forget that a forest is more than one tree.
Noted child psychologist David Elkind refers to the “hurried child,” who is a manifestation of “over placement” in school. Often inordinate peer pressure is applied to the immature child who can’t keep pace with classmates and also experiences organizational and social difficulties. The immature child might be encouraged to assume more responsibility but is unable to move forward BECAUSE of that immaturity. Many believe tutoring during the summer will provide a chance to catch up, forgetting that those other classmates will not hold still developmentally.
Early childhood classrooms frequently have this sign: Childhood Should Be A Journey, Not a Race. Keeping that significant statement in mind, you will find there are many master clock makers at your child’s school. Listen to their collective wisdom and to your own heart to ensure your child’s safe journey through childhood.
A life can offer several careers, several homes, and even several spouses. There is only one childhood.
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