The Punk/Ska Scene Made Me A Better Teacher
“Punk rock changed our lives,” is the opening line to Sublime’s 40oz. To Freedom Album and I couldn’t agree more.
The Punk Rock Classrooms Podcast inspired me to write this blog because every time I listen to it, I’m fired up to teach hard! The Punk/Ska scene really did change my life and I think it has made me a better teacher. Here’s how:
When I was in grade nine, I played the tenor saxophone and I thought I was pretty good. All I wanted to do was join the school band. During warm up in Music Class I would play all the songs I had been playing with my dad at home (he played piano and guitar and trumpet), and I would try to impress my music teacher. It didn’t take long before he came to me and invited me to join the school band. I was pumped!
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first band practice. It was a Wednesday afternoon in September (maybe October) and the music room was JAMMED with teenagers honking horns and banging drums, and the room reeked of teen spirit! I didn’t know where to sit and I could barely find enough room to put my saxophone case on the floor to put my instrument together. Finally, with my sax around my neck, I stepped into the music room and more confusion followed. Where do I even sit?! Thankfully, Brent, my neighbour also played the sax (but I didn’t know that until that very moment) and he waved me over, made some room for me to put my chair down and took me under his wing. I was so thankful to have a familiar face in the room because even though he was in grade 12 at the time, the room was filled with kids in every grade and the noise was intimidating.
I don’t know when I found out, but it was soon after joining the school band, that Brent played sax in a ska band. I had no idea what a ska band was and I had no idea you could even play the saxophone outside of school. He offered to drive me to his next show and before I knew it, I was standing in front of Uninspired Empire in the basement of a church in Manotick, Ontario (just south and a little west of Ottawa), in absolute awe of what I was experiencing. That night, a fifteen year old kid's life changed forever. Brent on sax, Maren on trombone, John on Drums, John on bass and vocals, Mich on guitar and I’m ashamed to admit it, but I can’t remember the other guitar players name, Dylan, maybe? They were so cool. And there were other people at this concert too! Other people knew about this place and this band and this scene. And they were dancing and moshing, and cheering, and there were no adults! It was incredible! And literally, my life has never been the same.
I came home that night and I knew I had to do it too. I needed to be in a band. I needed to play my saxophone in a band. It wasn’t a choice, or a decision. It just had to happen. So, I made it happen. Not right away, because I had to learn more about ska music. Brent gave me a Reel Big Fish CD (Turn the radio off) and somehow I got my hands on Let’s Face It by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and that was enough for me. I found enough friends to fill out a ska band, and we got started in my parent’s basement. Skaff was born.
We sucked. We taped our jam sessions, and listening back to them they are some of the hardest things to listen to! But holy smokes were we having fun! I’m so thankful for all the people in that band! Andrew, Taylor, Gord, Gord, Lori, Simon and Chrissy. I don’t know how many original songs we wrote, but it wasn’t many. We covered (well, tried to cover) Take On Me by Reel Big Fish (a cover of their cover) and Damnit by Blink-182. We never played a show, but I hope the other band members have the same fond memories about being in that band as I do, cause it was fun!
There were some older kids in the school band that were also in a ska band, I don’t know how they got started, but I quit Skaff, and joined the band with the older kids. I don’t remember the name of that band, but we were also terrible. I think there were like 11 of us in that band and it was just too much. We had two songs, and the band didn’t last long after I joined because Pat, Akira, Diego and I quit to start another band.
Josh joined us and The Rude Dudes were born. Akira (who played trumpet) bought a bass and amp and Josh was our drummer. Diego on guitar with Pat (trombone) and I on horns. Pat and I were also the lead singers. It took a while, but we were awesome! Josh had to quit and eventually Matt joined us on drums. There are few people in this world as funny as Josh, but Matt was the best drummer I have ever heard. Still to this day. I’ve heard a lot of drummers in my life, but I don’t think any could hold a candle to Matt...maybe Lars Ulrich...maybe.
Pat and I would spend hours and hours and hours dreaming about playing in a world famous ska band. He would drive me home from school band practice (cause he had his license and I wasn’t old enough to drive yet) and we would sit in my parents driveway just talking about ska and the band, and dreaming and scheming. He was more than my best friend. He was like a brother to me that lived in another house. We always seemed to be on the same page. There were times when we didn’t agree on everything, but we always wanted the same things. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but there was no one I trusted more than Pat. I loved him like any brother would.
Sophie joined our band for a bit as a singer, and she was awesome, one of the best singers I ever heard. And she was my girlfriend at the time too, but she quit because it wasn’t for her. We had to ask Diego to leave the band too. Cedric joined as the new guitarist and he was a really good guitar player, but his personality and mine clashed often. I think because he wanted to be a lead singer too and I wasn’t ready to give up any lead singing duties. Our relationship was strained the whole time, but I put that aside for the music because he brought a layer that was too good to ignore. Same went for our bass player after Akira left for university. Mark was too good not to join the band but man, we fought a lot. The good news is, now, Ceds and Mark are some of my best friends and always will be. I don’t talk to them as much as I’d like, and maybe they don’t even know what they mean to me, but I love those guys like any brother would!
We got to a place where we were playing shows once or twice a month and jammed once or twice a week. Our first show was at the Russell Community Centre, our second show was at Bumpers on Bank St. We played Club Saw, Zaphod’s Maverick’s, Cafe Dekcuf, Barrymore’s (sold out twice), The Rainbow, The Bronson Centre, Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm (that was an interesting night!) and our own high school stage! We never went on tour, even though Pat and I dreamed and dreamed about it, we never had the chance. We played some out of town shows, in Montreal and a few in the GTA. We recorded two albums and then as we were set to start recording our second album Pat sat me down on a patio at the Starbucks across the street from the uOttawa campus and told me that he joined a band in Montreal and would be leaving the Rude Dudes. I was heartbroken in the rawest sense of the word. I cried. Hard. I’m still hurt and I don’t really know how to talk about it, but I haven’t talked to Pat since he left. We finished recording the album but never got to release it because we just couldn’t replace Pat. I’m not sure I even wanted to. With him gone, so were all my dreams of playing in a famous ska band. I got robbed. Sold out. Pat leaving the band has had a bigger impact on my life than my divorce from my first wife.
Here are some of the ways that playing in a ska band, and spending my formative years on the ska/punk scene, have shaped me as a teacher:
1. Collaboration: I learned more about collaboration and teamwork from playing in a band than I did playing any sports. Recording my sax tracks for both of our albums with all four of my best friends listening and judging every single note I played was the most vulnerable I have ever felt. But to be great, and do great things, you need to be vulnerable. You need to put yourself out there in front of other people, and there is no safer space to do it than with your best friends. Also, as I mentioned, I didn’t always get along with Ceds and Mark. But I had to find a way to make it work if I wanted us to be great. I had to put my ego aside for greatness to come through. These guys were really, really good at what they did, and I had to get out of their way. I’m not sure how I made them feel, but probably not great at times. I had a goal in mind, and I needed them to help me if I was going to reach that goal, so when they came up with ideas I wasn’t sure about, I’d shut them down. Not because I didn’t like the idea, but because I didn’t understand their vision, and sometimes (but probably most times) I wouldn’t even try to understand their vision. Also, collaboration didn’t just happen within the band. Just about every time we played a show we had to share equipment. We played a lot of shows where everyone would use the same drum kit. How many times did we pack our drum kit only to get to the venue and they’d tell us that every band was going to have to share the kit, and sometimes the amps too! It was one of the things I like about playing the sax. I never had to share. One time I did though and it was super cool! We were opening for Catch 22, one of my favourite bands, and there was a matinee all ages show and then a 19+ show at night. Catch 22’s saxophone broke during the second set, so I ran to get mine and give it to them. I felt so cool that Catch 22 was using my saxophone! Another fun story from that show was after the matinee show, which my mom had come to watch, I was talking to her at the end of the bar. Some guy comes over to me and taps me on the shoulder. I was super annoyed because clearly, I was talking to my mom! He says “Hey man, sorry for interrupting. My name is Pat and I’m the drummer for Catch 22, I just wanted to say I thought you guys had an amazing set and I loved the way you covered America F*** Yeah!” Great memories! As a teacher, I know that it's not about my vision. It's not my education I’m working on, it's my students’ education. I need to work with other teachers in order to find the best learning opportunities for my students. I don’t agree with everything everyone always says or believes to be true, and they feel the same way about me, but if we’re all truly here for the students, we find a way to take different routes to get to the same destination. The thing that I’ve learned, though, is that you’re not going to get along with everyone you work with. But it's still really important to find your crew and lean on them when you need to and be there for them when they need you. I have a very different philosophy of education than some of my colleagues, and that makes me difficult to work with, but I’m here for the students, not to make friends. Playing in a ska band taught me to listen to and appreciate different ideas and perspectives. It helped me learn that other people have ideas that are worth trying and even adopting, but I also learned that I have to stay true to myself and my beliefs. Giving multiple choice and fill in the blank tests just because my colleagues do would be totally selling out. I’ve been sold out, and you can bet your bottom dollar I’m not going to sell out. That being said, I’ve learned to be open to listening to their ideas about how valuable a multiple choice test and then still staying true to myself and doing right by my students.
2. Ego: There is a lot of ego in being a musician. Getting on stage and producing a product that you created but think other people want to hear is inherently egotistic, I think. It's okay though, if that’s where your ego ends. When you think you deserve more than anyone else because you’re in a band, that’s where the ego goes a little too far. I’ve learned, especially lately, as I go further down Pedagogy Road, that there is a ton of ego in teaching. Thinking that you have what it takes to give hundreds or thousands of students skills and information that they will need and use for the rest of their lives takes a certain amount of ego, but that’s okay too! So long as you understand that there isn’t just one way to deliver that information or those skills and that every student that walks into your classroom has something to offer. I think it's important not to treat your students like empty vessels that get filled by you and then they pour it all out onto a test and never remember anything meaningful. It is our job as teachers to provide meaningful opportunities to our students for them to learn from. It’s 2020 and kids don’t need us like they used to. Everything a teacher teaches is literally on the internet...even the curriculum documents are on the internet. So for a teacher to think that their students are not able to find the information on their own and need them to be told what to memorize is taking the ego trip too far. We need to be giving our students more credit. Furthermore, there are people lining up for our jobs...we are fully replaceable. I have a pretty big ego, and it's gotten in the way in the band and at school. I’m working on it, and I’m not as bad as I used to be. I believe that in order to really give the students the best chances, it's okay for us to take different routes, as long as we get to the same destination. My challenge is that when another teacher tells me that I have to take the same route as them, I go further in the opposite direction.
3. Leadership: I learned a lot about leadership. I learned how to organize a bunch of dudes so that we would all show up to the right place at the right time, but I made a lot of mistakes too. I was self-centered and arrogant. I wanted to be in control of everything. I called it running a tight ship, but they’d probably tell you I was a jerk (to put it politely, because this is going on my “professional” blog). I was just trying to make us famous. I learned to listen, and to communicate. I learned that leadership is about giving up the spotlight so your friends and/or colleagues can have it for a while. I learned that I don’t have all of the best ideas all the time...even though I really wish I did. I learned that being a leader is recognizing that you are actually just a part of something much bigger than yourself and to effectively lead, you need to allow everyone to feel like they’re part of the movement, or system, or dream. I learned that I can’t do it all on my own. If it weren’t for the other four guys in The Rude Dudes, I would not have had some of the best experiences of my life. As a leader, I needed them. I may have learned these lessons retroactively, and didn’t show these skills while I was playing with the band. But when I look back on my time with the Rude Dudes and my other bands, I realized I could have done some things a little differently.
As a teacher, some of the best learning in my classroom happened when I got out of their way. Being a leader means putting my students in leadership roles. Handing it over. I’ll be teaching long after they’ve graduated. I need to give them the chance to develop the skills they will need to reach unimaginable heights all the while never thinking of me! If I’ve been an effective teacher I won’t know about it until my students have grown up and are contributing to society. I don’t need standardized test results to tell me if I’m doing a good job. A good teacher won’t know how deep their impact is until long after the students have left their classrooms. Leadership in a school is about providing others with opportunities to develop their own leadership skills. My favourite book is called The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma, and that book actually changed my life. It made me realized that no matter where I am, or what I’m doing, if I want better or if I want to be better, I have to be a leader. I don’t need a position to be a leader. I can just be one. Simon Sinek said in his podcast A Bit of Optimism: “A leader isn’t the person at the top of the organization, a leader is the person that goes first.” The Punk Rock Classrooms podcast had an episode where they discussed if taking on leadership roles was selling out. That episode inspired me. During the episode, they decided that being a leader was no selling out. I’m older now, and I’m part of the system, but being a leader means doing what I believe is right, and doing right by others. Because of that episode I decided to throw my hat in to be the Political Action Officer for my union district (OSSTF D25). Not because I want to wave a flag and plan job action and rallies (but I certainly will if I have to), but because I believe the education system can do better and I needed to take on a role that was going to help me “protect and enhance public education.” The Punk Rock Classrooms episode called “Collaboration 08 with Danny Papa” put it really well, when Danny Papa said that he didn’t like being with disgruntled teachers. Neither do I, so I want to use my role as the Political Action Officer to celebrate learning and celebrate teachers and all the awesome things that happen in our classrooms. What better way to fight for what I believe in than by taking a leadership role with the union? I believe that public education is under attack by this current provincial government (when people call to complain about the COVID restrictions at their children’s school, the staff have asked the parents if they’ve considered sending their kids to private school), and I need to do what I can to keep education in the public sector. Parents shouldn’t have to pay for their kids to get the “best” education and access to the “best” teachers.
4. Humility: Putting your artistic ideas out to the public, and especially to your best friends is a terribly scary thing. Coming up with song ideas that might get shot down by your bandmates is a really hard thing to do! But if you want to be great, you have to put those ideas out there, and then you have to be able to deal with your ideas being shot down. Also, and this goes back to collaboration, you need to be able to shoot down someone’s idea without them feeling like you think they suck. You need to come to terms with the fact that maybe you don’t have all the answers all the time and sometimes your ideas suck too. Or showing up to a venue that took six hours to get there only to find out that the only people in the crowd are the guys in the other bands is a tough pill to swallow. But you’re still going to get on stage and you’re still going to play your heart out because that’s what you drove all that way to do. Or writing a song only to have no one dance to it, and then deciding that you’re going to have to drop it from the set, after all those hours you all spent writing it, and then jamming on it, working out the kinks. Like Pennywise says: It may never be perfect, still can be great! Teaching isn’t far from that. Spending hours on the perfect lesson, or the perfect unit only to have a big part of the class fail the test is a tough pill to swallow. Telling a kid that even though they did their best, it still wasn’t good enough while not crushing their dreams is the worst part of the job...well, one of the worst parts. Thinking that you found the perfect question, or activity, but still no one understands or they finish it way too soon, or when you give a kid every opportunity and extension that you can, but they still don’t get their credit, that hurts. It takes a serious amount of humility to recognize that students don’t need you. There are so many teachers out there that can do the job that you are doing. The key is to be thankful for the opportunities to work with these kids and to make them feel good about themselves that they think of you when they dig deep into their memories from school. It takes humility to recognize that you’re here for the students, and they are not here for you. You’ve chosen to be a teacher, they have to be here. We are providing a service to them. In the public education system, students don’t choose their teachers, so they aren’t in our classes because they want to be, but because they have to be.
5. Conflict Resolution: There is a lot of conflict when you’re playing in a band. Every time we got together there was conflict. The trick was to get that conflict to a place where it had a productive outcome. We had to remember the vision, and the dream. What songs to play at a show, what things would we talk about between songs? Should we play the verse twice and then a chorus, or a verse and then the bridge before the chorus? Are we going to grab a bite to eat as a band before the show, or just show up for sound check? Are we going to hangout together after the show, or just go home? Are girlfriends allowed to come to practice or should it just be The Dudes? The most important thing a group can do to be successful is that everyone needs to have their eyes on the prize. If making decisions is all about the dream, then things are going to be less personal when conflict arises. If everyone trusts that everyone else is also chasing the same dream, disagreements dissolve because we know we all want the same things. Teaching is like this too. Disagreements between teachers, between teachers and students, and between teachers and administrators. As mentioned before, if teachers all have the same end in mind, and are okay with taking different routes, conflict can be resolved. But when teaching philosophies don’t line up and teachers literally see their jobs as being different from one another, conflicts are much harder to resolve. Between students and teachers, there needs to be a level of trust and respect between both parties. It's a two way street. Classroom management issues go out the window when the students recognize that the teacher is truly on their side and just want what’s best for them. It's an old saying, but it's true: kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. They’ll see right through you if you act like you’re better than them. They’ll find a weakness and prey on it. It's happened to me. I wasn’t being true to myself and the students called me on it. Students also aren’t impressed by a teacher’s academic achievement. They don’t care about your degrees and your experience. They’re teenagers. Taking ego out of the equation is the best and fastest way to conflict resolution. Keeping your eye on the prize and never forgetting that you’re part of something bigger than yourself helps resolve conflict. Remember that everyone in the room is there for the same reason, learning.
The absolute coolest memory I have of being on stage with the Rude Dudes was when we were playing our closing song, Fight Might Fall, and I looked down at the kid in front of me. I’ve never seen this kid in my life, but he’s got on our band’s shirt and he’s singing every word to what would have been a hit single if we’d made it that far. I made an impact in that kid’s life and he was letting me know by singing and dancing his heart out! It was such a cool feeling. There was another time where I was driving home from work on day and I flipped the radio to CHUO 89.1fm, the University of Ottawa’s radio station on which I once had a radio show for three years and someone was playing our song on the radio. I called my dad right away. People were still listening to us! After the band broke up, I never saw that kid again, the one singing in the front row, and I never knew the person playing our song on the radio, but for those brief moments, I knew I’d made a difference in someone’s life.
Likewise, I was supply teaching at the Phoenix House for Youth one day, an open custody youth detention center in Navan, Ontario, just west of Ottawa. These kids were tough. Really tough. I remember sitting beside a student who was working on grade 11 math...my worst mark in high school, but he needed my help. So sitting shoulder to shoulder with this kid we worked through a problem. I made a ton of mistakes and had to start over again and again, but finally we got it and I’m telling you I saw the lightbulb go off in this guy’s brain. Again, I’ve never seen this guy since then, and I don’t think I ever will, but in that moment, I knew I made a difference in his life.
Being on stage and sitting in that detention centre, I had the same feelings. And I knew I wanted more.
I remember doing my practice teaching in the first semester of teacher’s college. I was at Hillcrest in the science department. My assignment was grade 11 biology, but every day the grade nine teacher would come into the science office huffing and puffing and saying how she could never do any labs with her grade nines because they were so poorly behaved, and she even called them all idiots. I asked my associate teacher if I could go observe her class one day because I wanted to see what this was all about. As the class got going, I could tell she was doing it all wrong. It was all about her. She was teaching like the kids in her class needed her and that they chose to be in her class and was so surprised at the lack of respect she was getting for showing them a complete lack of respect! And sure, they were in fact being disrespectful towards their teacher, which isn’t okay, but its got to be a two way street. The punk scene taught me that! If you want respect, you have to give respect. Respect is earned, by being respectful.
At a punk/ska show, if you aren’t following the unwritten rules of the show, you’d be taken care of and probably asked to leave. There weren’t any adults at most of the shows we played, especially the all ages ones, but we took care of each other. If you weren’t being cool in the mosh pit, you found out the hard way. This teacher found out the hard way that she wasn’t being cool in the mosh pit. She expected these kids to meet her where she was, instead of the other way around. She didn’t show up for them, but expected them to show up for her. I was glad to hear about her retirement.
Growing up on the punk/ska scene, I got to meet and interact, and become friends with a lot of, as Danny Papa put it, “disenfranchised youth...with lots to offer.” It's really given me a different perspective and an interesting set of skills that I bring into my classroom. I miss being in a band, making music with my friends and being on stage, but I’m so thankful for those ten years where I was in a band, learning more about myself than some people ever do! And now instead of writing and singing songs to empower youth, I find opportunities to help them empower themselves and each other. Our students are not empty vessels. Each and every one of them brings something unique to school with them everyday. We need to celebrate that!
I loved playing in the band, and I love being a teacher. It does not escape me how lucky I am and how thankful I have to be for all that I have seen, done and had. Thanks to the Punk Rock Classroom podcast for being a part of my crew whether they like it or not :) And thanks to my AoE crew, Derek Brez and Cameron Jones for being the two guys I lean on the hardest. It's not the punk scene, but it's my scene and I feel at home thanks to those dudes!