Final lessons from Ann Clark on CMS educators, critics and the kids who threw chairs

After Superintendent Ann Clark shook the last hand at graduation, reality began to sink in. She’s about to leave the school district that has been her family for 34 years.

She started as a special education teacher in 1983, when her pay was $12,600 and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was less than half the size it is today. She was principal of three schools before moving into central offices.

Now she’s retiring after 2 1/2 years as superintendent. Most leaders of large school districts relocate several times, but Clark has stayed in one place long enough to see her former students emerge as teachers, principals and parent leaders.

“The collective collage of students that I have had an impact on is the most inspiring thing about my career,” Clark says. “It’s the magic of staying in one place for 34 years.”

Clark sat down for an “exit interview” with the Observer earlier this month, sharing her advice and memories and offering a glimpse of what’s next for her.

Biggest lesson from her career: “People remember how you treat them. People remember that you care in really authentic ways. People care that you take the time to listen.”

Corporate leaders can motivate staff with bonuses and big salaries, Clark says, but educational leaders have to offer their time: “Time with a kid after school. Time with a kid going to Carowinds because they made huge progress in a particular quarter. Time with teachers, time with parents at ballgames. ... For me as a principal to stand outside with a teacher while he or she was waiting for the last kid to be picked up is me giving my time to them in conversation. As educators it is time that is our gift.”

What she sees as her legacy: Matching strong principals with the right schools. “Every step of the way I have built a strategy for reform around having an effective principal in every school. ... I know that any principal can hire a great teacher, but only a great principal can keep a great teacher.”

How she deals with criticism and anger: Clark says her best training came in her early years, when she taught students with behavioral and emotional disabilities – and when she worked a summer job on the front desk at a mountain resort.

“I was in a classroom with kids that were throwing chairs,” Clark said. “I couldn’t afford to react to that. I had to override any sort of emotions I had to be a successful teacher and create success for those students. It doesn’t change when it is an adult that’s angry.”

As for that summer job when she was a student at Davidson College, she tells this story:

“I can remember someone coming to the front desk screaming at me about the fact that it was raining. The ranting went on for about 15 minutes and I just sort of maintained my composure. Finally I said, ‘Sir, hold on just a minute. I’m going to hit this button right here and the rain’s going to stop.’ And all of a sudden he just realized how silly it was that he was screaming at me because it was raining. That’s sort of how I approach things. I can keep a complete calm, but at some point I can bring a closure to it in a light way.”

How the student assignment plan stacks up against her vision: Clark’s superintendency was dominated by a two-year student assignment review. She frequently spoke about how the chance to reverse racial and economic isolation and create better opportunities for all students was “our moment” to make history.

Clark said she understands that as she departs, many are struggling to figure out whether CMS has made meaningful change.

“That was a conscious decision we made to not be completely disruptive and create chaos,” she said. Instead, the first phase of the review, approved in November 2016, will expand magnet programs over the next four years and use a new diversity-driven lottery to award seats.

“I’m excited about the promise of Phase 1,” Clark said. The second phase, approved May 25, changed some boundaries to boost diversity and/or alleviate crowding but left most schools and neighborhoods unchanged. It will fall to her successor, Clayton Wilcox, and his staff to carry out such innovations as paired elementary schools.

“I think that paves the way for future opportunities,” Clark said.

Biggest worry: The dwindling supply of teachers, as enrollment in colleges of education shrinks.

Clark says she’s encouraged that starting pay has risen from $31,000 to $35,000 in the last two years, but she believes it should be $50,000. But that’s not likely to happen quickly, she said, and public support needs to change as well. One of the district’s 2017 valedictorians is pursuing a lifelong goal to be a teacher, Clark said, but she heard such comments as “You’re too smart to be a teacher.” That horrified Clark.

“When a young person says ‘I want to be a teacher,’ how do we respond to that as a community? Do we embrace it? Do we affirm it?”

Biggest source of pride: “The ability to be Ann, consistently, throughout 34 years. No one’s surprised by a position that I take or a response that I give.”

Clark says it was nice being named national principal of the year in 1994 and being part of the CMS team that won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2011. “Those are highlights for me, but they’re not personal highlights. They’re things that I will remember as great celebrations.”

Instead, she said, she takes more pride in hearing from students and educators she has worked with over the years. “I run into people every day. There are thousands. For me the inspiration is this collage of faces that pop up in my head as I think about all the experiences I’ve had.”

On the debate over Project LIFT results: Even before getting the top job Clark was a key player in the formation of Project LIFT, or Leadership and Investment for Transformation. It was initially pitched as a $55 million, five-year public-private plan to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and eight feeder schools (the project has since been extended a year), and the end of the fifth year coincides with Clark’s retirement.

Clark acknowledges student proficiency on state exams remains well below the goal of 90 percent, but says the “success or failure” debate misses the point: All nine schools are better than they would have been without the philanthropic partnership.

“There are amazing leaders and teachers that have been recruited to those schools that are working incredibly hard every day on behalf of kids.”

“I invite our critics, whether it’s Project LIFT or something else, to look in the mirror and say, ‘Have I done all I could do, and have I shared my ideas, not just my criticism?’ We earn and deserve criticism, but we also deserve people rolling up their sleeves and joining us and coming with ideas about how to make it better. We don’t get better just based on criticism. We get better based on people jumping in, as Project LIFT did.”

Advice for new teachers: “I promise you’re only going to have one first year. We all remember what our first year of teaching is like. The other thing I say is don’t close your classroom door. ... Embrace the idea of learning from others and asking for help when you need it. In your first year of teaching you don’t know everything you need to know.”

Advice for new principals: “If you get to the top of the mountain and you look back and nobody’s with you, what’s coming pretty quickly is you’re going to topple over the edge of that mountain. You’ve got to bring your team with you, and your team includes your students, your parents, your staff, your community. ... Oftentimes you might have to go slower than you might like to bring the team with you.”

And this: “When a parent is upset, just listen. Don’t try to debate. Just listen. Maybe they are wrong, but maybe you pick up something that helps you work with that child the next day in a better way.”

Thoughts on the transition: “We’re going to have an exceedingly good baton hand-off and I’m committed to that,” Clark said of stepping aside for Wilcox to take the top job. She said she encouraged the three-month overlap, in which Wilcox has been quietly learning the job while she continues to lead.

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him,” she said. “He’s fun to be with, and I just think he’s going to do great things for the community and the school system.”

What’s next for Clark: She has one trip planned to the Grand Tetons and another to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. She hasn’t figured out what her next job will be, but she expects to stay in Charlotte and do something to support children and families. The idea of working on ways to boost the status of the teaching profession is especially appealing, she said.

Clark said she doesn’t need to be in charge – or even necessarily get paid – but she’s adamant about being part of a strong team.

“I’ve been asked about elective office. I’ve been asked about heading a nonprofit. Any and all of those, I guess, are possibilities,” she said. “I don’t want to be a consultant and run around the country getting on and off airplanes. ... I feel sure I’ll be doing something by August, but I’m not sure that something will be the long-term thing.”

Two years ago, when Clark launched a push to get volunteers to spend an hour a week reading with one student, she started reading with a third-grade boy. She says he didn’t even know she was superintendent until the end of that year, when he saw her picture on a computer at school.

They kept working together this year, and when he heard about her retirement he worried that their partnership would end. But she assured him she’ll be back when he reports for fifth grade in August – and every year after that.

“I am committed to sticking with him every step of the way,” she said. “It will be a great way to remain connected and supportive of CMS.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms