Published Online: January 22, 2014

How Being Punk Rock Makes Me a Better Teacher

Teacher Nancy Barile (left) backstage at CBGB's in New York, 1982.
—Allison Schnackenberg

What has helped me become an effective teacher? Years of schooling, of course. Multiple degrees. Countless hours of professional development. But another part of my life has mattered as much: my punk rock phase.

I "came of age" in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a historic time for music. Picture me on a typical Saturday night—bleached-blond spiky hair, a ripped sweatshirt of my own design, my eyes lined in deepest black. I’m slouching backstage at CBGB's or perhaps leaning against the wall of a warehouse, feeling tired but somehow satisfied after dancing (hard!) to loud, fast, physical music. The kind of music that spoke to and for my peers, to young people fed up with social injustice and mainstream culture.

What does this have to do with how I teach? Simple: I encourage my students to tap into the power of words to communicate anger and joy, and, of course, to change the world. Back then, we self-published Xeroxed fanzines that included our thoughts on politics, social issues, and especially music. We’d pass them out at shows or leave them in record stores. Maybe our “zines” didn’t change anything—but the act of sharing our perspectives changed us.

That’s why last year, when my students Jose and Alfredo told me about the struggles they faced as young men of color, I urged them to speak out. The National Office of School Counselor Advocacy published their essays, and the boys went on to take part in a national webinar and lead a conference session. Speaking up was making an impact that they never dreamed possible.

Taking a Stand

The punk rock creed—at least the one I subscribed to—railed against racism, prejudice, and hatred of any kind. Once when visiting Boston, my punk rock friends and I protested against a Ku Klux Klan rally at City Hall. When a fight broke out in front of me, my face ended up on the front page of The New York Times. (Unfortunately, my parents didn’t know I’d taken a road trip. Busted.)

Now, as a teacher, I often create assignments that ask my students to take a stand despite conflicting data, complicated politics, and intense societal pressures. I want to equip my kids with the skills necessary to understand perspectives and cultures, to comprehend and critique, and to demonstrate independence.

The do-it-yourself work ethic, so vital to the punk rock scene in the early ‘80s, has proven immensely valuable in gaining resources, knocking down walls, and refusing to take no for an answer when it comes to my students. And that sets an example for these resilient young people, who begin to understand that there is more than one route to success and that they can skirt some obstacles that stand in their way.

Back in the day, when I realized that I couldn’t see the bands I loved because they weren’t playing huge stadium venues or were only booked in nightclubs I wasn’t old enough to enter, I took matters into my own hands. I rented Elks Centers and Knights of Columbus halls, and I called bands from all over the world to come and play shows.

I try to transfer this do-it-yourself spirit to my students. Recently, an immigrant student from Afghanistan told me he thought he should attend a year of prep school where he could get additional assistance to improve his skills. He was accepted to several prestigious schools but given no financial aid, though his family was barely surviving. I encouraged him to write, email, and call the schools. I told him not to give up. He barraged the school with phone calls and emails. He talked to alumni and trustees. One week before school started, he received a $41,000 scholarship—and he’s thriving there now. My student knew what he needed, and he made it happen.

Punk rock taught me not to be manipulated for the sake of a personal agenda, especially if I believe it will harm my students. Most importantly, even at this age and because of punk rock, I still question authority. I refuse to blindly follow the directives of leaders who attempt to compromise my integrity or the integrity of those whom I am entrusted to help. In my classroom, punk rock lives on.

Don’t Have a Punk Rock Past?

Of course, there’s no need to have a “punk rock past” to purposefully tap into your own passions, pursuits, and past lives to become a more powerful teacher.

Doreen, a health and physical education teacher, is a 9th degree black belt in Kenpo Karate. She is currently the highest ranked female in this art worldwide—which impresses her students. Doreen credits her experiences in karate for helping her communicate with non-English speaking students. She also realizes how much the no-nonsense demeanor that she developed as a martial artist serves her now as a teacher in an urban high school.

Even previous jobs can help. My colleague Althea acknowledges that her past work as a bartender taught her strategies for moving past her introvert tendencies. She learned to speak in public, interact with many different people and personalities, and feel comfortable “performing”—all of which have contributed to her success as a teacher. Having experienced this shift, she’s better fit to help quiet students identify strategies for approaching uncomfortable situations.

And then there’s travel. My colleague and former student, Dan, was shocked when he was accepted to Harvard. There he mastered two foreign languages and then moved to the opposite side of the planet, experiencing a new culture. “Growing up where I did, it was easy to think that it just wasn't possible for life to turn into anything that interesting,” Dan says. “I try to make an example of myself to my students, to show them that, yes, a kid from Revere [Mass.] can, in fact, go places.”

Bringing Your Life to the Classroom

What can you bring to teaching? Are there hobbies, passions, or past lives that you could draw on more productively in your work with students?

Here are a few considerations:

1) What did (or what does) the hobby or experience require of you or encourage in you? What skills and dispositions can you transfer to your students?

2) How did (or do) you find and contribute to the community of people sharing your experience or passion? Reflect on how you established and sustained those relationships. Can similar skills or strategies help you to cultivate a healthy community of learners, along with strong connections with parents and families?

3) How do your hobbies, passions, and past experiences nourish you? How do they contribute to your physical, emotional, and mental health? Understand their power to prevent burnout, to cope with frustrations, and to establish new phases of living.

4) How can your past lives or out-of-school experiences deepen your relationships with students? I’ve noticed that students tend to have a great deal of respect for teachers who present themselves as “teacher and… .” A “teacher and marathon runner” or “teacher and guitarist” or “teacher and former knife salesman” gives students a way to relate and connect.

5. How can you tap your experience to encourage students to develop their own hobbies, passions, and world outside the classroom? Your diverse and varied skills benefitted you in your career and in your life. Help students see the value in creating new dimensions to their own lives.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, becoming a teacher was a goal I never thought I’d accomplish. Punk rock to academia is probably not the usual trajectory. But I realize now that without punk rock, I would not be the teacher I am today. Our past experiences and our passions cannot help but impact what we do in the classroom and who we are as teachers. We can be better at what we do by purposefully tapping our strengths and abilities (even if they seem irrelevant or a little rusty).

What experiences do you (or could you) tap in your efforts to help students succeed?

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