With David Bowie’s passing, I think many of us feel like we’ve lost a creative and gifted soul. Bowie was an extraordinary visionary and talented artist who was a hero to many. While often seen as very different career paths, artists and teachers share many values and one can learn much from the other. As an educator, I feel that I’ve learned – and will continue to learn – a lot from the artists that inspire me. What can teachers learn from artists like David Bowie?
- Above all, be creative: Bowie was intensely creative from a very early age until the day he died, with a phenomenal output (witness the 25+ albums he produced in his lifetime). Importantly, not all the songs he wrote would be regarded as “hits.” Even his biggest fans admit that among his body of work, there’s stuff they really don’t like. But the huge output ensured that there were successes, and many of them. As educators, most of us accept the revised Bloom’s taxonomy, which positions creativity as the highest order of thinking. While we often go to great lengths to nurture our students’ creativity, we don’t always do the same for ourselves. Teaching is – and should be – a highly creative endeavour.
- Be original: No one can doubt that Bowie was one of a kind, working without a precursor. Who could have predicted a musical figure like Ziggy would arrive on the scene in the early 1970s and flout so many gender norms, giving Bowie’s followers instant permission to do the same. Teachers who are willing to be different and original are often the ones who are most respected by those they teach. Like performers and other celebrities, we look up to teachers; when they’re prepared to be original, it gives us permission to be the people we want to become.
- Avert disaster when needed: Speaking about his rampant cocaine use in the 1970s, Bowie remarked “I blew my nose one day in California. And half my brains came out. Something had to be done.” He could have easily slid into decline, further drug use (he also a regular user of heroin for a period) and an early death. In this respect, he would have been another tortured artist, probably over-celebrated for a while and then just comically forgotten. Instead, he decided to turn his life around, seek help and get sober. This decision to be strong and avert disaster made him successful for another thirty-five years. Teachers have to avert disaster – not just of their own making, but of students they teach. Recognising when students are going “off the rails” is tricky, and even loved ones and health professionals miss important cues. But as teachers, we are aware of the significance of important life decisions and many students turn to us.
- Experiment, make mistakes and learn from them: Bowie’s meteoric success afforded him some luxuries, particularly during the 1970s when commercially successful artists could go on to produce all kinds of “experimental” albums with avant garde (and often drug-fueld!) sounds. No one can listen to Bowie’s Station to Station without thinking that such a “far out” album nowadays wouldn’t pass muster with the big record labels. Regardless, good artists have always pushed the envelope. As educators, we don’t always have to fit the mould; we can try new ideas – even crazy ones – and see where they go.
- Stand up against injustice: As some Australian journalists have pointed out in the wake of Bowie’s passing, he wasn’t afraid to stand up against the kind of racism against Indigenous Australians, particularly at a time when mainstream Australia wasn’t prepared to stand against this injustice. Bowie used songs such as “Let’s Dance” to shine a light on Australia’s Indigenous struggle. What’s interesting about this story is that he could expose racism in such a subtle yet effective way. As teachers, we work for equity and justice pretty much all of our working lives. We can make some pretty major achievements in these areas through small tweaks. For example, some have highlighted clear links between violence against women to boys’ use of sexist language while growing up. We might not be able to single-handedly solve the big problems, but we can work together to ensure we address the small issues that often lead to them.
- Be a collaborator, and work with the right people: No one can doubt that Bowie’s collaboration with Brian Eno in 1977 on the highly influential album Heroes is something special. Bowie knew that good collaboration could make his work even better, and he chose the right people to work with. While the “autonomous teacher in a box” has been something that marked the educational landscape in the latter 20th century, we know that good teachers in contemporary schools are good collaborators. They understand their strengths and weaknesses and connect with the right people to ensure that they can support others and be supported.
- Remember, you’re playing a role – sometimes multiple roles: Bowie was a role player, par excellence. He knew how to adopt different personae and even make fun of himself. As The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust suggests, he also knew when it was time to let go of a persona and move on – to reform his identity. As teachers, we’re always playing one role or another, but the roles we play don’t need to define us beyond their use. Sure, we’re teachers; but we’re also more than just teachers.
- Be humble: For all his ego, personae and success, Bowie was a surprisingly humble guy. I would say this probably stems from him being a true musician and someone who knew that there were many awesome, talented artists in the world. Just as the great jazz musicians of the 20th century knew that there were others as good – if not better – than them, Bowie formed a fairly realistic and accurate understanding of himself in his latter years. Teachers should do likewise.
- Know when to take a break: Following his collapse on stage and emergency heart surgery in 2004, Bowie knew it was time to take a break. Thankfully, we had another two albums and several live performances ten years later. Teachers who know when to take time out and invest in themselves – body, mind and spirit – are often much better teachers for it.
- Never give up: Perhaps the most extraordinary gift that Bowie gave us was his final album, Blackstar – released just days before he died. In the song, “Lazarus,” he greets us with the words, “Look up here – I’m in heaven,” bringing an eerie and otherworldly quality to his music. There can be little doubt that Bowie intended to go right to the end, perfecting his craft and connecting with his fans. As teachers, we may move schools, jobs, or careers – but I feel that most of us will always be teachers in one form or another. We should never give up trying to be there for those we teach, supporting them and hopefully making the world a better place.
There’s certainly a lot that teachers like me can learn from David Bowie. As I reflect on some of these lessons, I know he’s made me a better educator and I’m deeply grateful for this. Thanks, David – we’ll miss you.