Meet The Teacher Who Made An Adorable Music Video With His Class, And A Positive Difference In Countless Lives

"Every child has a different experience."

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To make a memorable music video that inspires millions of viewers, you need to have the star power of Michael Jackson... or Michael Bonner. A second-grade teacher at South Greenville Elementary School in North Carolina, he and his class got the whole internet moving, grooving, and, most importantly, reading last month with their original "Who, What, Where, and Why" song and music video. Their song was so upbeat and infectious, it even tickled the toes of daytime talk show host and full-time dance master, Ellen DeGeneres. 

On January 12, she surprised the "Teacher of the Year" with a special interview, as well as a $25,000 donation to his school. As a Title 1 school, South Greenville Elementary serves "high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families," yet, according to its website, still receives less "funding from local, state, and federal sources" than the state average. "When people responded to [the music video], it gave them something I could never give them, which is hope," Michael Bonner told A Plus. "People are paying attention to them. They're not invisible. They are seen, and they are heard. That means the world to me." 

Mr. Bonner's been doing just that — and then some — for years. Long before receiving national attention and Ellen's donation, Bonner and his class proved that, even with limited resources, everyone still has unlimited potential. It just takes the right moment, the right connection, the right human spark to help them realize it. "Every child knows, every person knows that there's something about a teacher," Bonner added. "Just that one teacher, there's just something different about them. I've been trying to be that one." 

We certainly think he is. A Plus spoke with Mr. Bonner, the man behind the music video and at the front of the classroom, about what inspired him to become a teacher, what every teacher can do to make a positive impact on their students, and, ya know, what it's like to become a viral internet sensation:

A Plus:  Was there a particular teacher who you learned from that inspired you to become a teacher? 

Michael Bonner: I've had some amazing teachers, Danny Dunbar in my high school. All of my teachers were phenomenal. I'm not even gonna lie, all of them were phenomenal. But they didn't inspire me to teach ... I was gonna be a major in psychology because they have a $100,000 salary. Where I'm from, that's a lot of money. That's a lot of money, period. I got tired of writing 20-page APA-formatted papers, so I decided to do something that I love, and I've always loved laughing and hanging with kids. They've always gravitated towards me. So I switched my major, and it was something I knew I enjoyed doing. Teaching is OK at times, but interacting with kids is fun for me. 

Did you always gravitate towards younger students, or how did you end up teaching second grade? 

That was more of a decision from a business standpoint and knowing myself ... I decided to go to elementary because their brains are more malleable, and I have the opportunity to help shape them and mold them into being a great individual. And that's the danger of teaching — you have the ability to mold an individual to be a phenomenal thinker and a person who analyzes. Or you can mold them to be bigots, people that are very hateful towards others, that are only one-sided in their thinking. That's the reason why I picked elementary, it's easier for me to help them.

Going off of that, what are some of the main obstacles facing your students, as well as students all over the country, that teachers can really help them overcome? 

Every child has a different experience. As adults, we read a statistic, and then we feel like we understand what it's like — but in reality, we don't. We teach kids who are hungry, but we can go buy a meal. We might have tight times, but we can go buy a meal. We have the ability to apply for another job that would give us access to another meal, but we have to be able to really begin ... trying our best to identify and empathize with these kids, and try to understand their situation and, you know, just go from there. 

For example, in the education field, it's [a common belief that] for African-American boys, they just need a Black male in their life, or a male in their life, and they'll probably be fine, but that's not always true. I think it goes deeper than that. We need to start building genuine relationships with our students so that we can understand where they're coming from, and then we can begin to defeat the type of dysfunctional thinking that they have ... We have to begin to dig deeper with love and try to really engage our students in relationships, and then I think the educational part will begin really to grow into fruition. 

I imagine the process of writing the reading song and making the music video with your students was one way you were able to strengthen your relationship with them and create closer connections. So what was that overall collaboration process like?

I was just looking at the data one day. I just gave them a test, and they didn't do well — like 80 percent of my class failed. When we do independent reading or worksheets or they're working with partners, I'll put on instrumental music because we all like music. Music has a way of connecting with our feelings. So I'll put on something real cool, jazzy, or I might put on a little hip-hop instrumental, and I watch how they bob their heads. I was like, "You know what, I'm gonna write a song." 

So I wrote a song for that standard [reading assessment test] and brought it back the next day. They started singing it, but they changed stuff in it to make it match the content we were teaching, so they took ownership in it. They were like, "All right, this is cool, Mr. Bonner, but we're gonna make it ours." So they took to it so well that I said, "Hey, you know what? If you all pass your test, then I will make you a music video." And they're like, "OK." I said, "Thirteen or fourteen of you have to pass for us to make this music video," because at first, only three passed the test. And I think that motivated them to the point that, when I retested them, they ended up passing the test, and I had to make them the music video. 

I think now, I know when I first put [my video] out [on social media], there were a lot of teachers with videos and stuff out, but ... the reason why I was so comfortable with ours is because mine is an incentive. I could make a video of my kids dancing — they could dance their butts off — but that's not really helping them learn. So what made this video so unique and cool, to me ... was they saw the incentive, they saw the pride, and they decided to motivate themselves to work harder in reading ... They decided to earn the video, and that was powerful to me. 

So the music video was a semi-long-term goal for them, but besides that, what are some everyday ways that you motivate and encourage your students in class when they might be having difficulty with a certain assignment, or maybe an entire subject? 

I honestly try to go to the internet and use evidence-based research strategies. There are a plethora of them. The video doesn't always work all the time, and anytime we release a video, it is because they passed an assessment according to my standards. We've only released three videos this year. I'm not doing a video for no reason because then I'm doing it for the wrong reasons. I'm not doing it for my kids anymore, I'm doing it for a "like" on social media ... So anytime we release a video, it's for that reason.

I try to watch how I reward them because, sometimes in life, we know we do good deeds every day. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be rewarded. So I don't want to ruin my kids by making them think that just because you do good, something good has to happen ... I just try to make sure I send the right message with rewards, so it's not [necessarily] the videos ... it may be something small. They're so fascinated by me, so I may let them have lunch with me. I may let them sit in my chair. I may let them hold my money when I'm doing some type of relatable story with earning income and reading, or whatever the case may be Just little things like that, but it's so big to them because I've built the relationship with them. 

Because South Greenville is a Title 1 school and yet still doesn't receive the state median amount of funding, how has the $25,000 Ellen donated already made a difference in the students' lives? 

We haven't even necessarily spent the money in a direct category yet because we want to be firm by putting our best foot forward, and I've been very vocal about that because it's tied to my name, but people have been donating snacks, clothes, toys, food bags, all types of things to our school, and that's given us the opportunity to spread the resources to kids who really need it. I know, with the funds, we plan on putting it into our classrooms, as far as with food, with uniforms, with hygiene products because believe it or not, they do need those. We've thought about buying an extra washing machine and dryer so we can be able to help kids that ... wear the same dirty shirt three times out of the week. 

We talk about more exposure opportunities, allowing them to see the world. East Carolina, ECU's football stadium's five minutes from the main area that we serve, and a lot of the kids have never been to an East Carolina football game, even though Greenville shuts down when it's time to go and play football. So we want them to see the world and, I know personally because it worked for me, once they get those opportunities to see the world and see how big it is and how what they do makes a difference, then that will push them to want to go out and do more and not stay in the same neighborhood they're in ... I wish I could tell you more, but you'll see after next week. 

Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

Well, two things. One: I just want to thank every teacher and every individual that has reached out to me and our school and just encouraging us. You know, with every positive story, you have somebody that's gonna be negative or ... be the devil's advocate, and we just use that as honestly more motivation to do better. And everybody's nice comments have been a glass of cold water on a hot day, because this has been an interesting transition for us. We're a school that nobody was really thinking about, now everybody wants to come to [us]. So I'm grateful for those people. 

And as far as for teachers, I just want to give a word of advice: Make your classroom your own. You know, have fun with it. No two teachers are alike — there's things that people can do that I can't do, and I can do things that others can't do. That doesn't mean they're insignificant. That just means they have to find the areas that they're weak in and find a way to make them strong, and make your classroom amazing. 

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