Wheels, Circles, Cycles, and Songs about all of These

This post was contributed by Buck Cooper.

Asked to think about the connection between teachers’ work and hamster wheels, my mind went to tangential things–wheels and circles and cycles and songs about all of these. Thus, for this month I give you my attempt to maximize the blog post as medium with my top 5 songs about circular wheel type things and those songs’ helpful ways for thinking about my own teaching practice. Do note that this list is going to skew old, mainly because I mostly listen to old music and because (yes, I’ll say it) I’m old.

5. Journey’s Wheel in the Sky: This is clearly a song about teaching in November/December/January, when the shine has worn off of the year, when plans are being wrecked by lots of sick children, sick teachers, extracurricular travel obligations and early planned family vacations, but as all teachers know, time marches on. (The wheel in the sky keeps on turning; I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.) It’s that time of year when teachers are tired and many of us get to work before the sun comes up or is just coming up and never leave until it’s been down for a good long while (I’ve been trying to make it home; got to make it before too long. I can’t take this very much longer. I’m stranded in the sleet and rain.) Clearly, Steve Perry had a teacher in his life or taught at some point.

4. Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game: This is earnestly one of the most beautiful songs about children, wonder, growing up and the passage of time. I’d put this one alongside another of Joni’s songs, Both Sides Now, as songs that say something meaningful about how growing up changes the ways in which we see the world around us.

3. Billy Preston’s Will it Go Round in Circles There’s one verse here that speaks to me as a teacher–”I’ve got a dance, I ain’t got no steps, y’all. I’m gonna let the music move me around.” I don’t think the work of teaching is fundamentally improvisational, but I do think the ability to let the music move you around instead of being stuck on the steps of teaching children is an invaluable skill to have. And by that I mean that you have to be responsive in the moment–another apt metaphor is that you need to know the shape of the container that you want to fill with learning opportunities–the guard rails—the contours. 

2. Harry Chapin’s All My Life’s a Circle This is such a lovely song, and this particular version has the added bonus of being from an episode of Solid Gold, which was an early 80s Saturday night family TV viewing staple in my home. I love a lot of things about teaching, but I especially love knowing and being able to anticipate the rhythm of an 8th grade academic year–starting with the awkward few weeks where we teachers and students don’t really know each other and are figuring things out, moving to the period of boundary pushing that really persists from late first quarter until graduation—the slide into the holidays where everyone is a little tired and a little anxious about the season—staring down the long barrel of the January to spring break run, which is also maybe the best period of teaching and learning of the year and then the final 4th quarter sprint where the weather gets beautiful, the behavior gets a little nuts and everyone’s getting impatient for the end of the year where we all realize that we’ve loved each other this year and will miss one another in the years to come. Then, you spend a summer resting, reading and maybe making some extra cash, rinse and repeat. 

1. John Lennon’s Watching the Wheels There are a lot of thoughts that people have when you take yourself seriously as a teacher. I think for a lot of people it’s a liminal profession–the thing you’ll do until you find something else to do like law school or medical school or herding yaks. And I can tell you the moment that I decided that teaching children was the thing I wanted to do–about 12 years after I graduated college, when I had taught middle school for five years and undergraduates for more than that. It was such a relief to tell myself that teaching children would be enough for a career for me. This song, though it speaks to John Lennon’s move from the Beatles and pursuing big fame, also speaks to being fully committed to this work of teaching, and thinking of it as a profession worthy of pursuing on its own merits. (People say I’m crazy, doing what I’m doing. Well they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin.)

I realize this post is mostly really old songs, probably a generation or two before even my time (and I’m now regarded as veteran faculty in the middle school, at least.) I also realize my own increasingly strong opinion that the period from say 1965-1985 (give or take a couple of years either side) may be one of the best periods of popular music in the history of popularity or music. And it all (as it always does) connects somehow to teaching children.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: