School Principal Joe Clark: Too Tough and Real for NYC?

Jan 5, 2021 by

What exactly does “tough love” mean and how much of it is tough enough when dealing effectively with intractably rebellious students?  

And how de we measure “effectiveness” and define “dealing”?  What’s the goal: compliance with social norms, diligence with school assignments and meeting assessment standards? 

Or is it “no excuses” discipline enforcement, massaging of ambition and fostering of self-esteem to be achieved sometimes by unorthodox means of coercion?

Is “tough love” an acceptable treatment and what is the recommended dosage?   Is it  suitable?  Should it be legal?

The late Joe Clark, former principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, lives on as the ultimate “tough love” icon and super hero. He reportedly expelled 300 students in a single day.  He called them “miscreants”.

Many of them were steeped in drug activity and hell-raisers who created a climate in school that made teaching and learning impossible. Curriculum guides served no purpose except to keep professional developers busy.

Brandishing a baseball bat and a bullhorn in his other hand, Clark would bark like a Marine Corpse drill instructor.  He’d round up and dispatch kids like a home-run champion swatting balls during batting practice. 

He was crude but his intentions were clean and he inspired more gratitude than fear.

He was a minesweeper through the explosive waters of bureaucracy and regulation and he escaped from the barbed wire straitjacket of permissiveness.

How would Joe Clark fare in a present day New York City public school?  

He’d be arrested, escorted from school, be charged and on the fast track to have his license lifted in less time than it takes a a mouse to flit across three tile of a bathroom floor. I know a fine principal who was brought up on charges because he insisted that a student remove his cap in school.

Joe Clark was lucky to have survived the now routine administrative policies that punish educators who act strongly though judiciously to maintain control that is realistically essential.  He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1988, an honored guest on the Arsenio Hall show, a featured spotlight on “60 Minutes”, and the subject of the movie “Lean On Me” in which he was portrayed by Morgan Freeman.

He was a benevolent despot who realized that” restorative justice” notions were not a good fit for his school. He didn’t believe in unicorns. He was stubbornly intolerant of students who were sabotaging the learning opportunities and future of both their peers and themselves.

He championed teachers’ rights to practice their profession and he commanded and received their respect and loyalty in return.  He resented the pop-psychological claptrap that lets students’ off the hook of accountability.

Clark’s critics note that his methods didn’t much raise test scores and claim that his musclebound tactics would never have been attempted were  his students of a different racial and economic demographic.

But his particular brand of nurturing students who were destructive to the community and themselves was not to ingratiate himself so that he would be popular with these kids and thereby circumvent his duty to build their character and prepare them for the real world where they would one day pay a price for defiant behavior.

His illustrated the non-fictional reality of consequences.

Was Joe Clark a violator, abuser and bully?  Or was he an honorable leader with profound profound principles who needed to take desperate measures as a last resort to secure a generation that was slipping away.

Had he not locked horns with these students, he would have been complicit in their ruin.

His style is not universally suitable or necessary.  Quality educators develop a highly individualized formula that works for them and they should be allowed within reason to exercise it without interference.  The present New York City school system is not sympathetic to creative independence among educators.

Joe Clark was flawed and fallible.  But he was also a humanitarian, albeit a little inelegant.  If there is a vacancy for a school chancellor in heaven, he’s on the short list. ( He won’t need the bullhorn and bat, because they already did their job on earth).

Ron Isaac

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