Lean on Me and Change

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In the words of Billie Holiday’s song, God Bless the Child, “Them that’s got shall get and them that’s not shall lose.” So why struggle for social change? In my opinion, change is inevitable. The current minute is going to change to the next minute, tomorrow is going to change into today, and a baby is going to change into an adult. Time, people, places, and things will change, so why not have things change for the better instead of repressing, denying, or ignoring change.

Looking at the the biopic movie of Principal Joe Clark in Lean on Me, one can better understand how to be an agent of social change and address questions in the dialogue for social change. As I have been reading and writing about education for the past few weeks, I am trying to understand the purpose of education. Being a part of a minority and marginalized group, I understand education as a means of empowerment to change the world for equity.

There are children at the bottom of the social hierarchy and marginalized in America; however, it is unjust that a social hierarchy exists when there are enough resources for everyone to live well. I know that society’s hierarchies were established in the past, are maintained in the present, and will be perpetuated in the future. Yet, I can’t help but dream and pray and hope and struggle and live for a better world where equality, freedom, and love are fully realized.

This film is a personal favorite of mine since I look up to Joe Clark. Lean on Me is a portrayal of a real person and the type of educator that I want to be. The name, Lean On Me, is perfect for the film because the children really began to rely on education for empowerment and the school relied on each other for support. Clark cared, the teachers cared, and the students cared. Another major lesson that I get every time I watch this film is the importance of caring – by having high expectations of my students. Educators cannot accept anything less than the best from students.

The film on Joe Clark’s life shows the quintessential dilemmas of an educator. He is trying to do the right thing for his students in the face of state government, city council, school board, and parental pressures. This film is important to me because it is about an educator who is committed to helping his community. Not many Hollywood films feature a Black educator in such a leadership role. There are many films about Black sports figures, musicians, and politicians but not many educator leaders. As I watched the film, I asked myself what makes him a good leader? What makes him a good educator? The answer is Transformational Leadership. Craig E. Johnson defines transformational leadership as, “Transformational leaders speak to higher-level needs, such as esteem, competency, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. In so doing they raise the very nature of the groups or organizations they guide.” In other words, such leaders transform the lives of followers and their cultures as a whole.

The film is based on the story of educator Joe Clark, a high school principal in Paterson, New Jersey in 1982. As the film begins, Joe Clark is asked to be a principal of a troubled high school filled with violence, drugs, and low expectations of the students. The school is also at risk of being taken over by the state government because of the poor test scores and underachievement plaguing the school.

Throughout the movie Clark raises the expectations, culture, and pride of the school and his students. The last scene with the students rallying for Clark is evidence of the transformational change that Clark influenced to make Eastside High School into a special place. The students were empowered to stand up and rally to demand that Mr. Clark stay as principal. They became aware that they had the right to rally and use free speech to demand that their opinions be heard. In the movie, Clark smiles because the students rallying is almost reminiscent of the marches for Civil Rights where the disenfranchised and disadvantaged rallied to demand fairness, justice, and equal rights.

Race comes up many times in the film as a negative and a positive. It’s symbolic that most of the students at the underperforming high school are Black and Latino because this is the same case today. As Clark states to the Superintendent why he’s taking such drastic measures, “We have to fight because Blacks are becoming a permanent underclass!” The time period that the film was released is important because it’s relevant to Joe Clark’s work. Philosopher Cornel West in his book, Race Matters, gives many theories of the situation in the eighties and early nineties. The introduction of crack to inner-city communities, the growing disparities between the middle, working, and poor classes, and the attack on social programs benefitting black families. West states, “Most of our children – neglected by overburdened parents and bombarded by the market values of profit-hungary corporations – are ill-equipped to live lives of spiritual and cultural quality.” Clark knew his community and understood its rich traditions and heritage. Yet, he saw firsthand what drugs and violence were doing to his students and their families. He saw the deteriorating school culture. So he fought at any chance to end the impoverished thinking of the people around him.

West proposes one way to meet the challenges in America is new leadership, “We need leaders – neither saints nor sparkling television personalities – who can situate themselves within a larger historical narrative of this country and our world, who can grasp the complex dynamics of peoplehood and imagine a future grounded in the best of our past, yet who are attuned to the frightening obstacles that now perplex us.” Clark doesn’t mind being called “Crazy Joe” or “Batman” because he used the publicity to highlight the problems and issues at his school, such as lack of security doors. He didn’t mind being seen as the bad man if it meant fairness, justice, and equality for his students. This is the type of leadership West is asking for to deny one’s self or ego and work towards equality for all.

Clark instituted his own version of tough love to raise not only the expectations of the school culture but also to raise the test scores of his students. In his treatment of his students, he always uplifted them. He held high expectations and consistently believed in them. Even when he was disappointed that Kaneesha was pregnant, he still uplifted her. Throughout the film, I questioned his motives: Why did he let Sams back? Why did he visit Kaneesha’s house? Why did he suggest Maria to be a lawyer? Why did he discipline Clarence for acting like a clown? Why did he corner the boys and make them sing? Nel Noddings explains this type of interaction with students on a one-on-one basis, “Caring-for is the direct face-to-face attempt to respond to the needs of a cared-for. It uses the response of the cared-for in monitoring and shaping what it does to meet these needs.” Clark always cared or “cared-for” his students by looking at their individual strengths and weaknesses. He was always attentive (even in the midst of solving other problems) to each student’s problems and/or issues. He knew each students name.

In my opinion, educators’ concern of effecting change is not where they can make a difference but how much they can make a difference. Change is needed all around us. Clark is a good principal and a top administrator; because, whether he is teaching in the classroom, greeting students in the hall, or running a staff meeting, he is making a difference. In every student he advises or every battle that he wins, he is planting seeds for change. He is being that change that he wants to see in the world and he fully understands that it starts with himself.

After two years at Eastside High School, Clark was named one of the nation’s top ten “Principals of Leadership” and Eastside was declared a model school by the New Jersey Governor in 1986. Yes, the movie is skewed to show Clark’s point of view; nevertheless, he was able to do the impossible by educating the disenfranchised and disadvantaged. He used transformational leadership to change the school culture, which inevitably changed the attitudes of the students. They began to believe in themselves and took pride in their school. Inevitably, this raised the culture and the test scores of the students to pass the State tests. Of course, Clark didn’t do it by himself; yet, he led the way by holding high expectations for the students. He preached hard work and discipline because that was the only way his students would survive in a world that sees them as marginalized. He led by example as a role model of right and wrong to his students. He served as a positive black male role model for students, especially those who didn’t previously have one in their lives.

He went beyond his bounds to help the students achieve not only good grades but higher self-esteem. He went above and beyond his duties as a principal and answered a higher calling to help students who wanted to be helped. There is symbolism throughout the film which adds a great aesthetic feature to the movie. The music, language, and images strike you when the flashback of Eastside High in 1967 changes to the present Eastside High School in 1987. The sequence of scenes ends with Sams locked in a locker yelling for help. This is an analogy of the situation at Eastside High where students were yelling for help but no one would listen. Joe answered the call because he cared.

PlainSpeak (PS): In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

1 – Johnson, C.E. (2004). Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership. Sage Publications. Pp. 352.
2 – West, C. (1994). Race Matters. Vintage Books. Pp. 154.
3 – Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 236.

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