As the year winds down and I have some time to reflect, I’m thinking about my soundtrack. Particularly during the past 5 months of teaching. I can tell a lot about how a year went, just by reflecting on my soundtracks. Normally they are a weird mixtape of old stuff I listen to, new music I learn about, and music I create. This year though, only one album comes to mind, “Beat the Champ” by the Mountain Goats. I’ve listened to other things, but this has been the one I keep returning to and the one that has stuck. It’s the Mountain Goats’ newest release. A concept album about professional wrestling, and it offers a ton of metaphors to anyone ready for some sweaty, ketchup mingled with “unintended” real-bloody takedowns. I guess it has stuck with me because I feel like going back to a big public school is a kind of battle. Not necessarily with fellow teachers, they have been great for the most part, and not with my administration, who have been really supportive, but with the system. Or maybe it’s with the 20th century. Or maybe it’s just with myself. Whatever it is, I’ve been in fight mode a little bit, not happy creative mode. That needs to change.
Whenever I am in fight mode, I am made aware of what I think are my limits. There are limits people put in front of me, like “That final exam has to be worth 15% of your grade,” or “You need to cover the textbook.” Those are easy to ignore once you hold them up to the light and examine them for any kind of substance.
But then there are others. The human stuff. The kids who have failed algebra 1 not just once, but 3 years in a row, the kids with heart problems or leukemia, kids with families being torn apart by the government deporting their parents, kids with amnesia, with serious learning disabilities, kids learning English, kids trying to hide that they are muslim so that they fit in, others who can’t hide whatever it is that makes them different, kids who swear they will never be able to learn math and what am I going to do about it? But if I let those things be my limits, I am just making excuses. I mean I have these kids and more in my classes no matter what, so I need to think about them as assets. I need to see what they bring that needs developing and go from there. To do this I need to rethink grading so that kids are measured against themselves and their own goals instead of one-size-fits-all standards. I also need to give them something meaningful to work toward.
I started writing a song today about the first woman to ever swim from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge. I tried to imagine what it was like for her and what she had to overcome to do it. Her doctor had told her that she would never walk again after falling down some stairs, she took to swimming for therapy, and is now considered to be the best open water swimmer on the planet, at 38 years old. And yeah, she can also walk. So the obstacles in her life became something more like boulders redirecting a current rather than dams. When you look at your relationship to your students, you can be the obstacle, a dam, or just a piece of driftwood that gets out of the way. That may be a false trichotomy, or just taking a metaphor too far, but still I see a pretty important choice in there somewhere.
Now back to my limits as a teacher, and back to the Mountain Goats. One of the songs on the new album is called “Choked Out.” It’s about a wrestler who is in a choke hold and losing consciousness. It’s about a man in a battle who is finally up against his limits, though previously, he hasn’t been there yet:
No brakes down
An endless dark incline
Most of the boys
Won’t ever cross this line
If they all want to die dead broke that’s fine, that’s fine
Everybody’s got their limits
Nobody’s found mine
How does this apply to teaching? Well if nothing else, it puts things in perspective. As teachers, we often think things are risky when they have absolutely nothing to do with risk. We think that stepping outside of the traditional way of doing stuff is scary but it can be pretty liberating. We won’t get choked out. Not covering everything in the textbook so that you can make your classroom meaningful isn’t risky, it’s just good teaching. Ignoring your department’s final exam policy so that you can get students to work harder on designing products, and applying math to something bigger than themselves isn’t a risk, it’s helping them and you build a better soundtrack.