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What I Learned from Springsteen

13 Feb

What I Learned from Bruce Springsteen
by Joe Hoyle, Associate Professor, University of Virginia

Here are three things that happened to me in the past few days.   Hopefully, at the end, I’ll be able to connect these three stories into a definite point that makes some amount of sense.


Last week, I received an email from a professor on the liberal arts side of our campus. He indicated that after 30 years as a college teacher he was in the process of switching to a Socratic Method style. He had heard that I had been using that approach for a long time. He wondered if he could sit in on a class and observe.

Of course, I was glad to have him visit.

He showed up. He paid close attention to what I was trying to do. He took notes. After class, he asked several excellent questions.  We agreed that we would stay in touch. I would provide advice if he ever needed any.

I was impressed that, after 30 years, he was willing to take the leap to make such a radical change. Most college teachers settle into a style early in their careers and make only slight adjustments thereafter. As Einstein said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing. When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique? What are they doing and how (or why) is it working?  When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher. Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”


Dr. Shannon Kathryn Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) are coming out with a book soon titled Reflections on Academic Lives. In this book, they ask quite a number of college professors to look back and describe what advice they wished they had received while they were doing their graduate work. I provided my answer in a short essay that will be included in their book. I actually posted my essay – with their permission – some months ago on this blog.

Earlier this week, I was talking (by email) with my brother and mentioned this new book project.  For many years, my brother was (in my opinion) the world’s greatest middle school principal. I view my job as relatively easy. I viewed his job as virtually impossible. But, he always did it with care and humor and a lot of wonderfully innovative ideas. He is retired now but he was great at something that still seems to me to be an overwhelming challenge.

I told my brother about the book being produced by Dr. Orr and Dr. Zavattaro. I asked him how he would have answered that question. Here is his response:

I always tell new people in education to watch every other teacher (or administrator) around you. Take the time to talk to every teacher you can. Watch how they deal with parents. Watch how they deal with misbehaving students. Watch how they work with their colleagues and deal with time management. Watch them carefully. Learn from them. Then, take what you learn and fit it with your own personality. Learn from both the good and the bad teachers. I remember watching my first principal and assistant principal. I was too young and too green to know that I was watching them, but years later, I took what I learned from them–and many others along the way–and became a better principal. They were not all great principals, in my opinion, but I learned from them. Good and not-so-good. The same is true when learning from other teachers. I suppose all educators feel this way to some extent, but I like to think that I consciously watched others and learned from them. Don’t be so set in your ways that you can’t learn from others. I have a feeling that many college professors are “set in their ways.” I saw many professors when I was in college who would not have changed no matter what.

When is the last time you visited another class and asked the teacher why he or she was doing what they were doing?  When was the last time you observed another teacher and really analyzed their technique? What are they doing and how (or why) is it working? When is the last time you walked up to a colleague and said “I know you are a great teacher. Can I ask you a question or two that might help me become a better teacher?”


I am currently reading the new autobiography by Bruce Springsteen titled Born to Run. It is great, especially if you are a fan of The Boss. I am only about 1/3 of the way through the book but one thing has been especially interesting to me. From his earliest teenage years, Springsteen was obsessed with the desire to become a great musician. He buys a cheap guitar. He then watches other performers and comes home to work and determine exactly how those musicians are doing what they are doing. He is always a student trying to learn. “Obsession” is the only word that I can come up to describe how much he wants to become a great guitar player and musician.

I love books like this. It is too easy to look at someone who is so successful and simply say “They must have been lucky”, or “They just had a lot of talent.” I think that is rarely the answer. There is something in such people that drives them to keep working. Interestingly, Springsteen talks about the fact that he didn’t drink or take drugs because those distractions would have gotten in the way of his music. He was focused.

But, that is not what I want to tell you about. As Springsteen gets a little older, he forms a band and they drive from New Jersey to California to get work and hone their craft. One day his band competes with another band for a job. The other band wins the job. Springsteen’s comment was classic: “They were better than us and that didn’t sit well with me.” Even over 40 years later, you can tell that did not make him happy.

He didn’t make excuses.

He didn’t blame the person who made the decision.

He didn’t ask for a second chance.

He didn’t get upset and quit.

He went out and worked to get better.

First, he knew his group had been beaten (“they were better than us”). Second, that was a motivation for him to do better (“that didn’t sit well with me”). And, of course, the rest has become history.

I love the deep down desire for success that he showed in just those few words “that didn’t sit well with me.”

Three Stories, One Key Point

We are always becoming better teachers. As the sign over my desk says, “The road to success is always under construction.”

It seems to me that every teacher can learn something important from other teachers. Pick a teacher or two who seems to know and love teaching. This might be a colleague along your hallway, or someone who was a new teacher alongside you during that first year on your campus, or a disciplinary colleague who teaches at a college in or near your same town, or a graduate school peer who teaches in the town you’re heading to for a conference. Ask if you can meet to talk about how they teach. Ask them what you really want to know. Here are a few questions that really seem fundamental to me:

  • What do you really want to accomplish in your classes? As your colleague to be as specific as possible in describing these goals.
  • How do you get students to prepare for class and become engaged with the material? 
  • How do you get students to speak up in class?
    • With both of these questions, consider asking follow up questions about specific practices that seem intriguing to you, or that might be especially effective in your course.
  • How do you test so that the questions align with learning aims, what you want to accomplish in the course?
  • How do you help students review and organize material after a class session, before they begin to forget new information and connections between ideas they’re also learning in this or other courses?
  • What do you do if you have students who do not seem to want to learn?

As teachers, we too have to have the deep desire that Bruce Springsteen demonstrated to motivate us to get up and go ask. Otherwise, it is so very easy to settle into a rut and just stay the same throughout a career. Where would the world be if Bruce Springsteen had fallen back on that tactic?  Where might we and our students be if we learn from Springsteen’s model?

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