Teachers often get a bad rap from rock-and-roll, dating back to “School Days” by Chuck Berry on through “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd, and both hit versions of “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” by Brownsville Station and Mötley Crüe.
But what happens when the instructor in front of the classroom is actually a rock star? In some cases, they’re up-and-comers who teach by day and jam by night; in others, they’re established figures who return to school to share their unique knowledge.
So with school back in session, here’s a salute to ten major musicians who (at least) once stepped off stage and rocked a chalkboard.
For a brief spell in the early 1970s, Gene Simmons—AKA the fire-breathing Demon bassist of Kiss—taught sixth grade at P.S. 75 in New York City’s Spanish Harlem.
“The reason I quit after six months,” Simmons revealed, “is that I discovered the real reason I became a teacher. It was because I wanted to get up on stage and have people notice me. I had to quit because the stage was too small. Forty people wasn’t enough. I wanted 40,000.”
In 2005, Simmons hopped the pond to star in the UK reality TV show, Gene Simmons’ Rock School, where the God of Thunder was challenged, a la the beloved Jack Black movie School of Rock, to transform a classroom full of kids into a high-powered rock-and-roll ensemble.
Future Police frontman Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, taught elementary English from 1974 to 1976 at St. Paul’s First School in Northeastern English town of Cramlington.
“When I got my degree, I became a teacher,” Sting said in 2003, “but deep down, that’s not what I wanted to be. Somehow, God smiled on me, [saying] ‘It’s your turn, you can have a hit record.’”
Among those hit records was “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” Sting’s imaging of what challenges he might have faced had he taught higher grades instead, with classes teeming with the exact sort of teenage female fans who went so mad for the Police.
Rock fans know and worship Brian May as the brilliant guitar virtuoso of Queen. Scientists know and respect him as a brilliant astrophysicist who, most recently, worked with the NASA team that launched a flyby of Pluto.
Back in 1971, however, secondary school math and science students at South London’s Stockwell Manor knew and learned from Brian May as their teacher.
“It was very challenging,” May said of his teaching gig. “You couldn’t get the children to attend unless they were incredibly interested in what you were saying. I had an advantage because I was young and could speak to them in their own language.”
May says he enjoyed the job, except for one class when passed out scissors to be used to cut out shapes. “Half an hour later they were attacking each other,” May recalls, “blood and paper everywhere!”
Just after Simon and Garfunkel parted ways in the wake of Bridge Over Troubled Water’s mega-success, NYU invited Paul Simon in 1971 to head up a songwriting workshop on their campus.
Students had to audition to take the course. Among those who made the cut were cult New York singers Maggie and Terre Roche of the Roches, and future pop star Melissa Manchester, who enjoyed the class, and recalls Simon being a little nervous. Manchester herself is now a music professor at USC.
During the interpersonally tumultuous period leading up his partner Paul Simon taking professorial residence at NYU, Art Garfunkel completed coursework toward a PhD in mathematics uptown at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Subsequently, from 1971 to 1972, Garfunkel taught math at the Litchfield Private School in Connecticut. After Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits record took off and the duo reunited for a political benefit concert, Art hung up his cap and gown, and hit the studio again as a full-time music-maker.
Fresh out of the University of Missouri at Columbia in the early 1980s, Sheryl Crow taught music for a few semesters at Fenton, Missouri’s Kellison elementary school.
The gig provided Sheryl with time flexibility via long holiday breaks and whole summers off to work on her own music and to hone her voice as a singer of commercial jingles. One of Crow’s first jobs was a “back to school” ad for the Famous-Barr department store.
After becoming a superstar, Sheryl Crow was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri and Southeast Missouri State University.
Multitalented rock visionary Todd Rundgren added “college instructor” to his long list of credits in 2010, when Indiana University named him a Wells Scholar Professor.
Partnered with esteemed educator and good friend Glenn Gass, Rundgren taught two of the four weeks of a course titled, fittingly, “The Music of Todd Rundgren.” When announcing the course, Gass said: “Todd is a treasure trove of memories, knowledge, stories. The class is a way for him to celebrate what he’s done and allows him to share his experiences with students who really want to hear what he has to say.”
Two years later, Rundgren taught a string instrument workshop at Newark High School in Newark, Ohio.