I never grew out of the mixtape. It really is its own extremely special kind of literacy. I love making and sharing playlists for particular moments in time, particular tasks, or particular people. Today, my fellow teacher about to go back to school, I made one for you.

Since music is intensely personal, you might enjoy the songs I’ve selected, or you might not. In case of the latter, I’ve included an “answer key” of sorts at the end of the post that will help you build your own playlist, according to your own preferred musical selections. Same spirit, different tracks.

I’d like to talk a little about each song and why it’s a power song for me. If you want to skip straight to cranking it in your classroom, just click here. I’ll include all the titles and artists in the post so that you can also pick and choose on your own music platform as desired.

A Tour Through the Songs

1. 365 Days – ZZ Ward

“I told you back in June–you knew d–n well what I would do… the summer’s over.”

ZZ Ward emanates cool. I really enjoy her music and her unstoppable confidence. This song kicks off the playlist by stating the inevitable, the reason we’re all here: the summer’s over.

2. Move – Saint Motel

“Gotta get up, I gotta get up. MOVE!”

The pace of the school year is insane. We get up early. We stay late, sometimes for several more hours past the final bell. The trill of the A.M. alarm blurs us into the next morning before we even know what hit us. This track reminds us to keep grooving while we’re moving.

3. Church – Samm Henshaw (feat. Earthgang)

“Good morning. Wake up, wake! Wake up and get yourself to church, yeah!”

For me, teaching is ultimately servant leadership. It’s like going to church. You go to serve others, you bring the best of yourself, you offer it up, you go to be together and to be changed.

4. Complainer – Cold War Kids

“You say you want to change this world. Well, you must really believe in magic. ‘Cause you can only change yourself. Don’t sit around and complain about it.”

There are inevitably problems and frustrations that exists in education, both at the national level and in our own local environments. But, both as professionals and as citizens, we have the power to make changes in positive ways instead of giving up. I love the way this song just takes no excuses.

5. Something Good Can Work – Two Door Cinema Club

“Something good can work, and it can work for you. And you know that it will.”

Staying positive and hopeful is important for teachers. We believe so hard in our students, in their potential, in their fundamental goodness. This song is all about that, positivity and trust in the future.

6. Short Skirt / Long Jacket – Cake

“I want a girl with a mind like a diamond. I want a girl who knows what’s best… She’s fast, and thorough, and sharp as a tack. She’s touring the facility and picking up slack.”

We always tell our students that the most attractive features they can possess are intelligence, hard work, and confidence. That’s what this song is all about. (Plus it’s just a great jam.)

7. This is Why We Fight – The Decemberists

This is why. Why we fight. Why we lie awake. This is why. This is why we fight.”

I actually wrote a whole post inspired by this song back in 2015. The short answer is this: the kids. The kids are why.

8. You Ain’t the Problem – Michael Kiwanuka

“Don’t hesitate. Time heals the pain. You ain’t the problem.”

Besides having a fabulous groove, this track reminds us to not take everything too personally. Even when the job gets hard, you’re still there taking care of students and helping them learn. You can’t take on everything. In all likelihood… you ain’t the problem. Just keep going.

9. Say – John Mayer

“Walking like a one man army, fighting with the shadows in your head,
living out the same old moment, knowing you’d be better off instead,
if you could only say what you need to say.”

Words are power. More than ever, communication is access. Literacy is opportunity. Our job is to help kids say what they need to say.

10. Going Away to College – Blink 182

This is the kind of song you can only truly divine by factoring in the years during which you were in the highest throes of teenager-hood. For me, this song is the one. The punch-in-the-stomach track that takes me immediately back in time, standing outside my beige locker at Menomonee Falls High School, with all the hopes and cares and dreams that overwhelmed me as a skinny and scared sixteen-year-old. In our profession, it’s important to hold on to a part of that. Remember what it’s like. And treat the young ones with care.


Want to make your own Back to School Power Playlist? See below.

Playlist Answer Key:

  1. A song that kisses summer goodbye.
  2. A song about waking up nice and early in the morning.
  3. A song about mission.
  4. A song about action over nihilism.
  5. A song that projects positivity.
  6. A song that celebrates intelligence and drive.
  7. A song that reminds you why you’re here.
  8. A reminder that even in a flawed system, you can recover to keep doing good in the world.
  9. A song about the power of words.
  10. A song that reminds you how confusing and magical and painful and intense it is to be a kid.