Teacher Perspective: Ian Willey


As I was trolling through the internet for some teaching inspiration, I came across a video of an assistant principal dropping a beat with his students about education. The music video they had created was featured on NPR’s “Secret Lives of Teachers” series with a short blurb about the video and the assistant principal/hip-hop artist: Ian Willey.

With a little more digging, I found an earlier video of Mr. Willey describing his life as a teacher and hip-hop artist in New York City. In this video, he brings up many points I think are important for all educators to consider. Thus, I have decided to feature this video for this post! I will be analyzing some of the main ideas from the video and discussing how it relates to teaching and education in general. I have provided the link to the video here and would recommend that even if you skip my analysis, you watch it in its entirety.

Main Ideas

We have many roles we fill, and we play each of them differently:

One of the first points Mr. Willey makes in his video is the existence of role-play in our lives. How we behave and communicate in a given situation determined by social expectations and/or how we are related to the people we are with. As the situation changes, so does our behavior. In Mr. Willey’s case, there is a difference between who he is as a teacher and who he is as a hip-hop artist.

Though the role we are playing can make affect our actions and behaviors, it does not change who we are as individuals. When we play our roles, we play OURSELVES in that role. Our personality mixed with our professional role is what becomes our teaching style. Mr. Willey separates his hip-hop self from his teacher self, but his passion for music is still evident in the way he teaches his class.

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The danger of the professional role in particular is at times, we allow what’s expected of us to completely define who we are rather than allowing our personalities to help define what our role should look like. In essence, we become ‘robotic’ in our execution and in the realm of teaching, this can be detrimental. Not only does shutting ourselves out of the equation take an emotional toll, it alienates students who are themselves trying to define who they are in the various roles they play and will play in the future. With all of the new pressures and expectations being thrown at teachers daily, it is easy to become ‘teaching robots’ at a time it’s vital for teachers not to be.

Try to make every day a good day:

This message seems a little cliche, but if we really think about it, that is ultimately what every teacher’s goal is. All of the work we put into our lesson planning and practice is to help our students achieve success every day. What a ‘good day’ looks like may differ depending on the teacher, or even the day. For example, day could be considered good if a particular lesson was extremely engaging or if students demonstrate they have learned the material. No matter what your definition of ‘good’ may be, we all strive to make each day meet that standard.

Where we all strive to make every day a good one, Mr. Willey reminds us just how difficult this really is. Having a ‘good day’ is more than just a matter of personal outlook, especially when working with other human beings. In the video, Mr. Willey claims even after 7-years of teaching, he is still trying to “blow it out the box” every day. The reality is, we are constantly developing in our practice and even the most experienced teachers can have an off day. In addition to our own development, teachers are working with large groups of individuals who are themselves bringing baggage to the classroom that has the potential to make ‘good’ difficult to achieve. What we can take away from Mr. Willey is not just the acknowledgement that making everyday ‘good’ is difficult, but also that it is vital for us to continue striving to make it a reality for ourselves and our students. Though we may not always be successful, this process will help us and our students continue to grow.

“My job is to inspire students to follow their dreams, so I must do the same”:

As with most things in education, we must lead by example. More often than not, it requires a lot of work and sacrifice for us to achieve our dreams. As with most things in education, we must lead by example as we encourage students to chase their own ambitions. Dreams may be career-related, but they can also be something inspired by personal interest. For example, my dream  is to one day complete and publish a novel. I do not intend to leave teaching to become a full-time writer, but writing is something I love to do and a novel would be the ultimate accomplishment for me. Mr.Willey’s dream is to become a successful hip-hop artist. Both of us dedicate our free time pursuing these dreams and they are things we bring to the classroom.

Teachers must be participants in the pursuit of ambition in order to inspire our students to follow their dreams. Inspiring students means more than just acknowledging their dreams and offering verbal encouragement. Achieving dreams is HARD and students must be prepared for the road ahead. By demonstrating our own pursuits, we are able to give students a more practical view of what achieving a dream takes and help them develop the necessary skills to turn an idea into reality.

Engaging students on difficult topics in which you have no personal experience:

This is one of the toughest parts of a teacher’s job. When working with such a large group of individuals, there are a lot of different backgrounds and experiences students bring to the classroom. Though many of these can be positive and enriching to the classroom environment, there will inevitably be some that are difficult and possibly damaging to the student. Many times, teachers do not share a similar experience and must struggle to relate to the student and provide a safe environment in which they can successfully navigate (and hopefully overcome) their struggles.

Background can come into play when teaching certain lessons as well. It may prove difficult for a caucasian teacher to teach about slavery to a class of African American students, or to discuss themes of poverty and inequality with a group of students from low-income families. This difficulty is not because the teacher is being insensitive and/or  lacks knowledge in the area, it is because a lack of real experience has given them a different perspective. This of course does not refer to all teachers, and it should be noted that sometimes this difficulty has nothing to do with the experiences of the teacher, but what students perceive that teacher’s experiences to be.  In any case, there is no way to authentically fake an experience in order to engage with students.

So how do we engage with students on difficult topics(both educational and personal)  if we don’t have an authentic experience like theirs? Mr. Willey believes that a key component may be to give students the freedom to express themselves in different ways in the context of the class. Over time, students feel safer sharing more personal opinions. This also helps create another key element: a safe environment in which these personal struggles and/or ideas can be shared. Though these elements do not complete equation, they do offer a context in which teachers can approach this difficult task.

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