In this episode of the Beyond Speaking podcast, best selling author and co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy, Kim Bearden shares how she handles personal struggles while teaching in the classroom, her journey of adopting her three sons from Soweto South Africa. and the importance of surrounding with people who fill your soul.
The guest host for this episode is Premiere's education agent, Ryan Giffen.
Listen to the full interview on the Beyond Speaking podcast.
Kim Bearden - National Teacher Hall of Fame Inductee
Kim Bearden: I've learned that the best way to get my mind off of my pain or my sorrow is to go figure out how to help somebody else. I always feel better when I do it that way.
Intro: Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord. A podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.
Brian Lord: I'm Brian Lord and on the show today, we have the bestselling author and co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy, Kim Bearden. She shares how she handles her personal struggles while teaching the classroom, her journey of adopting her three sons from Soweto, South Africa, and the importance of surrounding yourself with people who fill your soul. This episode kicks off our back-to-school series with our education agent, Ryan Giffen. Here's to the kids getting back to the books and the amazing teachers who teach them. We hope you enjoy our interview with Kim Bearden.
Ryan Giffen: Thanks for being with us today here at Premiere.
Kim Bearden: Thanks for having me.
Ryan Giffen: Throughout the year, you get to talk about what you do in the classroom every day and what you do at the Ron Clark Academy as the co-founder. You get to do all these things in training and leading and building up teachers, but we're here to talk a little bit about the backstory and the beyond speaking of Kim Bearden. One of my favorite stories is how you overcame some of the hardest times in your career during what some would consider the most successful part of your career. It was the most difficult part of your personal life and that story can speak to so many people.
Kim Bearden: Sure! I am Kim Bearden, the co-founder and executive director of the Ron Clark Academy and I'm a teacher. I teach every day. You're referring to a part of my life where I went through a really dark time. It's important to share that with people because everybody has a story. Now, we all have bright times and we have dark times. When you're going through that dark time, you feel so alone. I had been fortunate to receive a lot of recognition as an educator and so people thought I had it all together. But, there's that illusion of perfectionism that plagues us sometimes. We put on a good smile and sometimes we're in a lot of pain. I was married before many, many years ago to this very handsome, charming guy. But he led a whole double life like "movie of the week," USA Today, Lifetime television movie of the week. It's embarrassing to say that I was completely unaware of it but what I discovered, to make a long story short, is that he actually led a whole double life where he had different women in every state. I mean, seriously, numerous women. There was another child the same age as our child. We had been married several years before our child and then he disappeared and all of the money disappeared. At the time, I had a little girl in elementary school and I had to get up and go every day in that job and pour into those kids. Some people understand this when I share it, some don't, but it was so dark for me. I didn't tell anyone and I think that's a true theme. I see a lot of people sometimes that they're struggling and it's almost like a secret. There are a lot of reasons why people don't talk. You don't talk because you're humiliated, to be quite honest. But also, it was just almost so dark that I didn't have words and I didn't want 30 other people telling me, "Kim, you have to do this." I needed to figure it out myself before I knew how I was going to put things together and how I was going to move forward. There are many lessons I learned because when you're in that darkness, you become the most enlightened thing. The biggest lesson was that by focusing on lifting my students up, that's what actually pulled me up. Instead of seeing them as a burden because I had so many other things going on, I really saw them as my sanctuary and I was able to go in there and focus on lifting them up. That was the biggest thing that got me through that dark time.
Ryan Giffen: And there was somebody extremely instrumental in that because I know many people going through dark times in their lives. They don't ever see the road ahead of them and sometimes it does take someone grabbing your hand and dragging you kicking and screaming sometimes down the road. Tell me about that person.
Kim Bearden: I had a teacher that worked next door and her name was Mona. The most extraordinary woman I've ever known. She's one of those people that everybody loved because she was so warm and loving. One of those big huggers and a joyful spirit. She came into my room one day after school and she said, "Kim, you're doing a great job." I said, "Thanks, Mona." She said, "You're doing a great job at fooling everyone, but you're not fooling me. What is it?" So I opened up to her and in doing so, then the floodgates came open. But she did all the things you'd want someone do. She'd listen to me, she'd cry with me, she held me, she prayed with me. The next day, I actually came back into my room and she was already waiting on me to check on me. She said, "Kim, teaching has always brought you such great joy, hasn't it?" And I said, "Oh, yeah." She said, "Then during this time, when you can't control any of this other garbage that is going on around you, you've got to let it be that source of joy." That sounds really simplistic, but it really did have a huge shift in my thinking. I was carrying all of those burdens into that classroom every day and I wanted to just focus on what talent I did have and use it to lift up those kids. Some days I fell short and I could forgive myself and say, tomorrow I am going in there and focus on lifting them up. It actually pulled me up and during that time, it wasn't a quick healing. It took months, even years to clean that all up. Life is good now, that all was many years ago, but even now, when I still have painful times or difficult times I've learned that the best way to get my mind off of my pain or my sorrow is to go figure out how to help somebody else. And I always feel better when I do it that way.
Ryan Giffen: You have an amazing family now. Scott, your husband is probably one of my favorite people other than you.
Kim Bearden: Yeah, I got it right the second time! I am a lifelong learner and I learned from my mistakes! And I know you don't have to have a man to find happiness. I don't want anybody to think that I'm implying that. But, I was very blessed to remarry a wonderful man and I have a daughter who is twenty-nine. The little girl I mentioned before, she's now twenty-nine years old. She's married and doing so well. But yes, I have three sons who I adopted from South Africa.
Ryan Giffen: That is just another great question that we want to go into. You have one of the most interesting stories of how you've grown your family. It's not a route that a lot of people take and are blessed to experience. Tell us about your three sons and how that all came about.
Kim Bearden: Our school travels a lot and every year we take our eighth graders to Soweto, South Africa. Many of my students come from low wealth situations, but we believe in exposing them to the world and through lots of work and fundraising and things like that, we were able to make that happen. We return to the same schools and orphanages every year and several years ago, there were three little boys that just stole my heart. Wherever we would show up, they would just show up. They kept following us around town and they were always there. We finally gained permission to put them on the bus with us and take them to dinner and we're sitting there and at dinner and there's a little boy named Phakamani, with the most contagious little giggle. He was kind of mischievous, but we'd all laugh when he laughed. We didn't even know why we were laughing, but because of his giggle, he was that kid. Then there's Sabelo, he's like the brooding, dark artist. He always had this little sketchbook because he wants to be an engineer. And then there's Sisipho. He was the one whose personality was larger than life. He's one of those kids that when he would speak, people would all walk up and surround him to hear what he was going to say. One of my students at the time, Darius, said, "Sisipho, what happens after high school?" Sisipho is never at a loss for words but I watched how his eyes filled up tears and he put his head down his tears just bounced off his plate. He didn't answer because there's no answer. If you don't know anything about Soweto, I encourage people to learn more about it. It's a very beautiful history, but also extraordinarily painful history. There are incredible human beings from Soweto, you can visit Nelson Mandela's former home, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But, during apartheid, people of color were forced to live in townships and the word Soweto actually comes from what was once the southwest townships. Horrible disparities, horrible conditions, horrible lack of resources and to this day, that's still the problem. Abject poverty. About 1.5 million people living in the worst poverty but yet such beautiful spirit, such resilience, such joy, music, laughter when you go there. When Sisipho did not answer, it just broke my heart because I realized that he has dreams like every other child and did not have the opportunities to be able to realize them. I came home and you know, I do have the world's best husband and I said, "I just feel led. I feel like we're supposed to do something. We don't have the time. We don't have the resources. I don't have the knowledge. I don't even know what to do, but I can't let go of this." I think sometimes you just know you're called to do something. I've always loved all of my students and been called to do many things for many children but I felt like I was supposed to do something bigger. Those three little boys are now my three sons. It was a very long journey to adopt them. They arrived at age 12. I met them the first time when they were 8 and 9 years old. But now they're all three of my sons. Two of them are biological cousins. Two are Xhosa and one is Zulu and they have now been with us over five years. But when they arrived, they could not add, they could not multiply, Sisipho could not read. Imagine entering seventh grade in the United States. Our school is very rigorous. I brought them to the Ron Clark Academy, obviously. The teachers just poured into them and then we would have to go home every night, sit five, six hours at night, to get them caught up. Now they're all honor students and they're entering their senior year in high school and we're thinking about colleges. They just took the ACT for the first time and they do it all on their own now. It's been quite a miraculous journey, really.
Ryan Giffen: You just recently had to go back to South Africa to prove the official adoption, which we were just discussing earlier. And it's just incredible the lengths that you've gone for these boys.
Kim Bearden: That's what mothers do, right? So, my sons, they arrived here on student visas to attend the Academy. I was able to petition for adoption and so it was a several-year process until they became legally my children. I was legally their guardian until they were legally adopted. Then came the long laborious process of being able to get their citizenship. There are obviously, not being political, there are a lot of immigration issues in our country right now. I think some of those were even made lengthier because there are so many things in our country we're trying to figure out. I had to submit hundreds and hundreds of documents, had attorneys, everything from pictures of my boys and every penny we've ever spent, and proving that they live with us and all these documents with our address, and every single thing to prove that in some way I wasn't just trying to bring kids over here and get them citizenship. The very first hurdle is to get green cards for them. They were legally adopted so please note that all along, they were already legally my children. But adoption is something done through your state and citizenship is done nationally through the federal government. In November, I received a letter in the mail and to summarize it, it basically said that I had not proven that their birth parents actually lived in South Africa and that they could be in the United States. I had 30 days to prove that their birth parents lived in South Africa. Well, that's hard to prove because to even get paperwork, they've got a very different system set up there. People living in shacks, no running water, no transportation. I was like, "Thirty days? How in the world am I going to do this?" I looked at my husband and the attorney and I said, "Well, I'm going to get on a plane and go South Africa." My attorney said, "Seriously?" I said, "Well, of course, there's no other option. I will go find the information." We worked it out and I was ready to go all by myself. My husband stayed with the boys and because I had been to South Africa ten times, I knew I felt very comfortable going. My big brother insisted on coming with me. I was like, "I'm fine. I got this." But he came with me. He's a firefighter paramedic. You know, they're very protective, which is beautiful. We went to South Africa and had to go to Cape Town, where one of my son's birth mother was, and then to Soweto. It was absolutely miraculous because, this is a place of very little paperwork, documentation, things like that. But you are able to get affidavits there at the police department 24 hours a day, which is the craziest thing. I literally every time I go I say, oh, you know so-and-so? Would you mind signing an affidavit that says you've seen him here? And I had letters from the church, I had letters from jobs, the neighbors and I was bringing people at all hours of the night, too. I thought, well, the police are going to start to get suspicious. I was rotating police stations. I had a driver, I got someone I hired. I said, "Can you just drive me all week long?" and he was just the most wonderful, wonderful man from Sweden. He got so excited about the whole prospect. He felt like he was on this mission with us. Then I flew to Cape Town and met my other son's birth mother. And she had kept certificates, of courses she had taken to try to find employment over the years. I was able to get those and get those notarized. It's very hard because she has no address because she lives in shacks. I was able to do some things for her, but also she was so beautiful. I loved meeting her and she has such a beautiful, beautiful soul. It was very emotional, too, as you can imagine.
Ryan Giffen: I can see a trail of dust behind you while you're there because you were going non-stop. Anybody that's seen Kim Bearden teach or speak, she's all over the place. I can only imagine that's how you were in South Africa. There was just this Kim Bearden blur going from place to place.
Kim Bearden: And you are not kidding. I was like, "OK, let's go, let's go, let's go here." And then you start thinking, "OK, so how do you buy your clothes?" You could go to a store and you could have an account and you could charge clothes to that account. It's sort of like our layaway. I was like, "What stores have you bought clothes from. Will, they tell us?" Then I went to their schools and I went into the schools where the boys had attended. I said, "Do you have any records that the parents that these were their parents?" One of my sons has a living brother so I went to him and found his school. I said, "Do you have proof that his mother is still here in the country?" It was incredible the amount of information I was able to to get from nothing to prove that in fact, of course, they had been mine all this time and they had been with me solely. It was a huge blessing. In January, we received their green card so they are permanent legal residents. Now we've sent in all the paperwork for their citizenship and that's their great dream is to become American citizens. We look forward to that being approved and I feel so confident that it will because we adopted them at a very young age and everything else is now checked out.
Ryan Giffen: From all of your experience, what's your advice that you give to people in a dark time?
Kim Bearden: A lot of times when you're going through that, you feel very powerless, like you have any control over anything. I realized that sometimes we define power the wrong way. If you define power as your ability to control things, then your happiness is always going to be dictated by your current circumstances. If you define powers as the stuff you have, while there's nothing wrong to have nice stuff, that's a hunger that will never be satisfied. I've learned that the greatest power is when you empower others because when you empower others, that exponential effect goes on forever and it gives your life and purpose and meaning. The other thing I learned is that the importance of surrounding yourself with people who fuel your soul. Time is so fleeting. We all encounter negative people, you can't avoid that. People say "Avoid negative people" but that is impossible. You may work right next door to a soul-sucker! I call negative people misery evangelists because they're always trying to recruit the flock and spread the gospel of misery. The way you don't get sucked into that vortex is you've got to seek out those Monas as I mentioned Mona earlier. In doing so, it helps to make you more of a Mona. There's a song that says "A heart without hurt is hollow." I think that if you're able to take your pain and use it to help somebody else who's going through something similar, then all of a sudden it makes meaning out of the pain. Then you realize this wasn't done in vain. This actually empowers you to have the words to help this particular person who's going through something and it makes sense out of it all. I had a dream, it was that time in between sleep and awake so it's like I was conscious, I wasn't fully asleep. But all of a sudden I was just thinking about a photograph of my family. It was my husband and my daughter and my three African sons and I thought about if I was 21-years-old and I was just about to enter into that first marriage and you had shown me that picture and said, this is your life, I would've been like, "What wait a minute? How's that? Who's that man and who are these three little boys? And how is that gonna work?" Then it might have even terrified me to think, "Well, then that means this marriage isn't going to work." All these things may have even terrified me. But now, when I look at that picture, that picture is the most beautiful thing I can possibly see. So sometimes as you're going through something, you can't see the end result. You can't see what the beauty of it's going to be, but understand that sometimes the plan is something more magnificent than anything you could even begin to comprehend or imagine on your own.
To book Kim Bearden for your next event, visit her profile: https://premierespeakers.com/beyond_speaking/kim_stewart_bearden
Kim is the author of Talk To Me: Find The Right Words To Inspire, Encourage, and Get Things Done. To order copies in bulk for your event, please visit BulkBooks.com.
Brian Lord is the president of Premiere Speakers Bureau and host of the Beyond Speaking Podcast. In addition to hosting hundreds of interviews and helping clients with speakers for the past 24 years, he’s been interviewed by the BBC, Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post, and was chosen as one of Nashville’s 40 Under 40.