My brother recently wrote about his struggles in working with middle school students. He and I talk a lot about education (even though we come at the topic from very different perspectives) and I have tried to commiserate with him, but I know that he has one of the hardest jobs in the world. Now, this post isn’t just an excuse to ramble on and list some of my favorite songs about teachers, but it is a recognition of the important connection between music and education as well as the critical work that teachers do.
“Rock n’ Roll High School”, The Ramones
My brother is in a band now but when I was in high school, it was all rock n’ roll for me. I can’t think back to high school without thinking about being in a band. High school as the Ramones know, is a mentality and a time more than a place.
Now, the problem with my brother’s job isn’t just that it is underpaid (he’s not even paid as a full-time teacher but as a long-term sub) and that he’s leveraged for the next 25 years to pay for the education he got to get there; no, the real problem is that people don’t respect high school teachers—the general public doesn’t understand that educating our children comes at a great psychological cost. And, my brother works with the students who are most at risk but whose potential for change is the highest.
“I’m the Man”, Anthrax
My brother writes well on several occasions about his experience in and after high school. His soundtrack always has a bit of a hip-hop beat. My high school days were a little more heavy metal. The attitude Anthrax lampoons in this song? That transcends musical genre.
One of the things that may not be clear already is that we come from a family of educators. Our grandfather was a superintendent of schools; our grandmother and aunt taught; our mother is still a teacher; my wife taught English in Hollis Queens (the neighborhood of Run DMC and LL Cool J) before fleeing to become a dentist. I have taught for fifteen years.
We were raised on the belief that not only is education a primary avenue for economic and social mobility, but that educating is a sacred task that rewards sacrifice and dedication with honor and meaning. As I have worked in a high school and Universities I have had to test that belief consistently. When I talk to my brother now, I know that he is struggling to do the same every day.
“School’s Out for Summer”, Alice Cooper
Oh, students run ecstatically into the open arms of summer. They don’t realize how relieved teachers are to get there at the end of the year. To all the talking heads who complain that teachers work only part of the year: try spending 9 hours a day with middle school students and see if you can make it through a week.
The end of the school year always brings me a chance to breathe a bit more deeply and reflect on what the year has brought. As a professor, I am afforded a shorter teaching year because I am supposed to spend the rest of my time in “the production of knowledge.” This rather masturbatory period allows me to refresh my mind and refocus. Even though many university educators do get tired out and bitter, we have a much easier time of it than our secondary school brethren.
So, I get to spend months working on articles, writing for the blog, spending time with my family and working on syllabi for the coming year. High School teachers often have to get additional jobs because we pay them too little. This is something I can’t really get over. Why do we pay those responsible for training and preparing the next generation so poorly?
“Umass”, The Pixies
I have mentioned this song before. I love the chorus. I love the implied irony of the screamed chorus. I love the implied criticism of what ‘educational’ even means. Growing up in New England, the universities of Massachusetts loomed as castles of learning and bastions of experience. The farther away I get (and the more I listen to wrong-minded debates about higher education, the more conflicted I am about which is more important.
It isn’t only that we pay teachers poorly, we also don’t really think about what they do. A big difference between my brother’s job and mine is discipline. If a student doesn’t behave in my classroom, I tell him to leave. In 15 years of teaching, I have only had to do this once. Students choose (generally) to come to college.
Because middle school is essentially mandatory, students arrive with mixed expectation and preparation. Teachers like my brother are on the front line and the final line for some students. The sad fact is that by middle school, the general ‘destiny’ of many students has already been written. On most days, my brother performs a desperate kind of triage. On others, he just prays to survive.
“Oxford Comma”, Vampire Weekend
The boys from Vampire Weekend went to Columbia University. If you have ever spent some time on a college campus, listen to their first album, you can almost smell the dorm rooms around the lyrics. I love this song for the opening “Who gives a fuck about an oxford comma” because of the mix of high and low, the irony that to dismiss an oxford comma you must first know what one is, and because I had an advisor in graduate school who insisted on the damn thing.
But the thing that keeps bringing him back is some kind of twisted combination of (1) need (he has to work; (2) hope (he believes he can make things better); (3) and responsibility—he really does believe that this is a sacred task.
The problem with younger students and their teachers is that there is an asymmetry in what they’re trying to derive from the situation. Teachers want to teach (but they also want to make a decent wage) and students, by and large are not really there to learn. Too much of our social discourse is excessively pragmatic: we worry about how ‘education’ translates into dollar bills. But, much of what makes us smarter and wiser does not simply translate into a wage.
“Suspended From Class,” Camera Obscura
This is a beautiful song. The rhyme of “class” with “ass” both evokes the upside down nature of living inside a high school body and elides two things that shouldn’t go together but often do (class and ass, you see). I love this debut album—the airy vocals are both saccharine and sharp. Who doesn’t want to be suspended from class?
So, two problems to end this post thinking about—first, there is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is about facts; wisdom is about what to do with facts and how to evaluate them. Knowledge can be learned from books or websites or MOOCS; wisdom is gained from experience and process.
A good teacher can help you digest facts and guide you towards wisdom because he or she is wise in terms of process and judgment from years of training and experience. Human teachers will always be indispensable because education needs to be about the acquisition of a measure of wisdom, not the apprehension of myriad facts.
“One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” Ben Folds Five
One of the reasons many of us keep remembering high school is that we still allow our self-worth to be gauged by who we were then or what we think other people thought about us. Carrying around such baggage is unhealthy, but it can be cathartic to let it go through fantasy or even reality. This Ben Folds’ song about such psychic revenge has one of the worst and most tortured titles of any song in my iTunes library. Despite the title, this is a great rock-revenge song.
The second problem is that we ask our teachers to bring knowledge and wisdom at a time when students are at their most vulnerable emotionally and biologically. Our teachers, furthermore, can be instrumental in helping students develop and navigate the confusing world they face in the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The more resources we give to these champions, the better chance they have to make a real difference.
And, despite terrible stories like those that have come out of Horace Mann and some other private high schools, many of those of us who do succeed owe some gratitude to high school teachers. My Latin, English and History teachers changed my life. I still think of them and shudder to think of the control and discipline they mastered to be so inspiring despite financial and cultural challenges.
“Bishop Allen,” Charm School
When it comes down to it, education doesn’t stop in the classroom. It also doesn’t start there. A lot of the things we learn in life come from experiences far estranged from the conventional classroom. I love this song because it sounds fun and has a great feel to it. But, what I love more is that the speaker understands that he needs to learn something more, that what he can do is no longer sufficient. This type of ‘metacognition’ is the best thing we can learn because it teaches us how to diagnose what we don’t know, the first step towards addressing the problem.
So, this post is a way for me to remember my brother and all the teachers who labor every day with too few people noticing. The teachers in my family and my life have made my current life possible; they have endured me, inspired me, and, most importantly, educated me in more ways than they know.
Our best teachers are remarkable carry with them the most sublime and optimistic belief—that people can change and that education can be a catalyst in making our lives better. Without a conviction in the former, then we are all doomed to live out destinies over which we have no control. And, without a belief in the latter, we are cursed to a world in which we cannot improve the lives of those around us.
Dear Brother, have a beer on me.