What ‘School of Rock’ Teaches Educators
Richard Linklater’s 2003 film emphasizes positive relationships and appealing to children’s talents and interests.
One of my favorite movies of all time is School of Rock. As a scrawny kid with no athletic abilities and a love of music, it spoke to eleven year old me when I watched it in a friend’s basement. My parents, to shut me up about it, but me the DVD shortly after. It probably had the opposite effect than the one for which they were hoping. I’ve watched it countless times since then (and I do mean countless), but now, as an educator, the film means more to me than it ever has before.
School of Rock, if you don’t know, is the story of washed up musician Dewey Finn (Jack Black), who hasn’t given up on his dream of being a successful musician. When his roommate Ned (Mike White, who also wrote the screenplay) and Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Sarah Silverman), demand that he pay them back for all of his rent that Ned has covered, Dewey poses as Ned and gets a long term substitute position at a prestigious private school. While there, he realizes that some of the kids have musical talent, and creates a band with a class of fourth-graders.
Now, I don’t condone resorting to identity fraud in order to get a job at a school. But even if you don’t have a teaching degree, like myself, there are jobs available in the education system. As a middle school tutor, I find myself utilizing techniques that Dewey himself uses in School of Rock. The fourth-grade class he is teaching is comprised kids of various backgrounds, interests, and personalities. All of them find success during their time spent with him. How does he do this?
Dewey personalizes their learning.
When Dewey finds out that his kids have musical talents, he uses that to his — and by extension, the kids’ benefit. He assigns instruments to the kids who have experience or talent on a similar instrument. For the kids who might not be as musically inclined (or simply don’t fit into the instrumentation available), Dewey takes the time to find activities for them that suit their needs and interests. When a learner asks him if he can be the band’s stylist instead, Dewey doesn’t think twice about saying yes. If that’s what the kid is interested in, that’s what the kid should be doing.
Dewey also goes through his record collection and selects music for each child according to their instrument, taking the time to explain why he selected that particular album for that particular child. He listens to what the kids have to say and takes it into consideration. They sometimes have ideas that aren’t the greatest, and he steers them in the right direction, but in giving them agency over their learning, they become self-sufficient.
He is real with the kids.
I believe that the only way to really connect and build relationships with kids is to be real with them. If a teacher is all business all the time, kids will see that teacher as simply a fixture in the classroom, and not a person. It’s hard to command respect when you’re an idea, not a human being. Dewey wears his heart on his sleeve, for better or for worse, and the kids get to know him through that.
When he first arrives in the classroom, he is unapproachable and apathetic, closing himself off to the students. He doesn’t begin building relationships until he shows the kids his passion for music and shares that with them. When he presents an in-progress song to the class, he hesitates. His hesitation, his stage fright, is something that just about any fourth-grader can relate to.
Later, when a student with self esteem issues thinks about backing out of a performance, Dewey relates to her with his own self esteem issues. It’s a humorous and heartfelt, and gives her the courage she needs to go on stage. Interactions like this show kids that you know how they are feeling and what they are going through. They create understanding between student and teacher and help build bridges.
He helps them find self-confidence.
Building off of being vulnerable with the kids, Dewey also helps them confront their own vulnerabilities. Multiple times throughout the movie, a kid has a mental obstacle they have to overcome. Zack (Joey Gaydos Jr.), the guitarist, has a father who thinks his music is a waste of time. Gordon (Zachary Infante), the tech engineer, doesn’t think he can improvise his lighting program when a last minute change is made to their show. Lawrence (Robert Tsai), the keyboardist, doesn’t feel like he should be in a band because he’s not “cool” enough.
Every time one of these kids comes to Dewey with negative talk or a poor attitude, Dewey doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t speak negatively toward them. Instead, he speaks positively and gives them the means to overcome their fixed mindsets. He instills the drive to pursue music in Zack. He gives Gordon words of encouragement that lead to his success. He validates Lawrence, showing him that he is cool because of who he is. It’s clear from these interactions (and many others in the movie) that Dewey loves every single one of those kids, and is willing to lead them to success.
The biggest problem facing our youth today is a lack of self-confidence. By speaking to them positively and encouraging them to be their best selves, you can instill a growth mindset in them. These kids often need someone to believe in them, because they don’t always believe in themselves. Keep it positive, believe they can do it, and they often will.
It’s not always this easy.
Granted, this is a movie, not reality. Dewey does have his issues with the class, but they’re played as humor rather than drama. When he tells a student to see him after class for taking a class discussion too far, that’s the end of it. In a real classroom, it doesn’t always wrap up that quickly. But this is a movie meant to be funny and feel-good, not one that dives into the struggles of teaching.
Utilizing the attitude that Dewey takes on — after his initial apathy, of course — is not a cure all for a classroom. There are still going to be days that leave you drained and exhausted. There are still going to be kids that push your limits. There isn’t always an easy fix for the problems you encounter in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons here aren’t valuable.
I’ve seen firsthand what appealing to students’ interests can do, and the positive relationships you can build when you are real and use positive talk with them. I’m not the best educator, by any means. Not even close. But I am a better educator when I remember the things that School of Rock taught me.