Four Lessons Teachers Can Learn from Jay-Z

Most teachers dismiss Jay-Z because of his hustler past, but there's plenty to learn from his massive success.

Jay-Z may have inspired a generation of rappers and entrepreneurs, but for most teachers, his hustler past and materialistic lyrics hardly make him a role model. But in a recent piece for Teacher magazine, New York City educator José Vilson writes that when it comes to engaging young minds, working toward a goal, collaborating, and expanding areas of expertise, teachers can learn from Jay-Z's massive success.

Vilson, a math teacher, coach, data analyst, and member of the Teacher Leaders Network, writes that when Jay-Z began to reach a broader audience, critics accused him of selling out. Similarly, teachers don’t want to ditch their high academic expectations just to engage all students. Just as Jay-Z figured out how to reach the masses while staying true to his roots, it’s possible, Vilson says, to communicate with students in a relatable way "without sacrificing the meaning, context, and depth of what we teach."

Jay-Z's music is critically acclaimed and his albums always go platinum, but he's had his share of career missteps. Teachers also make mistakes, Vilson writes, when they don't "listen to a student when we should have," or "could have better planned a lesson." So teachers, particularly new ones, have to learn the same lesson Jay did: Those mistakes won't "break" you "unless we fail to learn from them and they become patterns in our careers."

When it comes to collaboration, Vilson notes that while Jay-Z's worked with fellow rappers like Kanye West, he's also expanded far beyond the hip-hop sphere, teaming up with everyone from Linkin Park to Gwyneth Paltrow. In order to "improve students' experiences," teachers need to do the same by reaching beyond their grade level or department. For example, "science and language arts teachers can co-create lessons that help students identify and use literary techniques as they read and respond to science texts," he argues.

And, just as Jay-Z is no longer "just a rapper"—he worked on President Obama's 2008 campaign, and has supported United Nations' efforts in Africa—teachers should not see themselves solely as instructors, Vilson writes. Over the next 20 years, he says, educators should become "teacherpreneurs"—spending part of their time teaching students and part of it "solving our schools' most pressing problems."

Vilson's thoughtful analysis is certainly a departure from the dismissive way so many educators treat Jay-Z and other pop culture idols. If teachers can learn these lessons—whether from Jay-Z or someone else—they will, Vilson writes be able to "make a greater impact on our world."

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