Teaching: What can teachers learn from… Skateboarding? (feat. Rodney Mullen)

Little known fact about me: Marc Johnson is one of my heroes. He’s a pro skateboarder who is truly inspirational in his element. Youtube him if you don’t believe me.

Anyway, I was watching a couple of Marc Johnson videos on the internet and I saw, in the corner of the screen, a related link to a TED talk from Rodney Mullen. Rodney Mullen is another pro skateboarder known as ‘The Godfather of Street Skating’ due to his innovation of tricks and street styles. I watched it and, lo and behold, all I’m hearing is advice on how to be a better teacher.

Allow me to elaborate below, with some quotes from the charmingly goofy Mr Mullen: (tip, for ‘skateboarding’ read ‘teaching’ and you’ll get my drift)



“In this new terrain, I was HORRIBLE.”

Every new term, every new class, every new political context, every new LESSON is a new terrain to get accustomed to. Teachers will always feel inadequate because in this state of flux, there is no certainty to get comfortable in. So you have to evolve. This is why we die young.


“I had an infrastructure – I had this deep layer to draw from.”

But the years of experience give us a well of internalised resources and skills to draw from. This is the unquantifiable thing that separates experience from naivety. It cannot and should not be overlooked.


“How can I expand  – how can the context, how can the environment change the very nature of what I do?”

This for me, is the question that separates the mediocre from the excellent practitioner. We must revel in uncertainty and embrace risk. We can’t shy away from the unfamiliar and the unknowable because that is the very nature of what we do. Innovation borne of unfamiliarity. New needs, new kids, new social and cultural contexts… all these things force us to improve and grow.


“Skateboarding is such a humbling thing, no matter how good you are.”

Exactly. Because of the constant need to adapt, you’re always at rung one. But you’re also always deepening in appreciation, building on your ability and stretching in all directions, rather than just progressing forward. The best teachers are lifelong learners. There is no apex – we’re apprentices for life.


“All of these tricks are made of sub-movements – executive motor functions more granular, the degree to which I can’t quite tell you.”

Case in point: More goes into a well-thought out scheme of work than meets the eye. It’s a subtle business.


“Every trick is made of combining 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 movements.”



“You have to let the cognitive mind rest back a little and let the intuition go.”

This is key. Some call it ‘flow’, some call it freestyling. You can’t quantify it, and you can’t plan for it. It’s in the middle of a lesson when you forget the plan and let your instincts lead. That’s when magic can happen.


“What makes [my peers] great is the degree to which they use their skateboarding to individuate themselves.”

In an era when standardisation seems to be the end goal (in order to maximise attainment), this statement becomes especially relevant. Good teachers are idiosyncratic, individual and unique. We have our own silhouettes. This should be embraced and developed. You can’t get a cardboard cut out model of teaching and expect remarkable results. to reject individuality is to invite mediocrity. Not everyone can do what everyone can do, and that’s absolutely fine.


“We take basic tricks, we make them our own and we contribute back to the community in a way that edifies the community itself”

A collegiate approach to innovation is crucial, including teachers, learners, and wider communities. Evolution and sampling is everything (as I’ve often said in relationship to hiphop culture).


“The greater the contribution, the more we express our individuality.”

Exactly. Teachers should be heralded for their uniqueness, not pigeon-holed into a ‘best-fit’…


“The summation of that gives us something we could never achieve as an individual.”

Which HAS to be the end goal of a pedagogic community. Teachers too often are isolated armies of one, struggling through unseen victories and defeats, alone. This is crazy. We should be a team, nationally, building upon each other’s progress to an unknowable and amazing outcome.


“The degree to which we connect to a community is in proportion to our individuality.”



“Knowing a technology so well that you can induce and manipulate it to do things that it was never imagined to do.”

This, I think is what it means to be ‘outstanding’ (to use that bastardised adjective). Teachers should be skilled enough in the tools of our trade to squeeze new ideas out of them, as and when is necessary. This requires, reflection, collaboration and fresh challenges. (of which there are many!)


“Take what other people do – make it better – give it back.”

Creative collaboration. Simple.


“What is it that will punch you and make you do something and bring it to another level?”

I know so many teachers who are great, because they take emergent challenges and use them as fuel for new solutions. This is where the teacher can soar. Not in ‘performing’ in front of a class, but taking unforseen challenges and tackling them head on for the benefit of the kids. All CPD should have this focus.


“It’s peer respect that drives us.”

PEER respect. Not the validation of government or industry, but likeminded professionals who understand us and share our passions. This is what should motivate us, because it points towards innovation and growth. Not just accolades and wider affirmation.


“The Nobel Prize is the tombstone on all creative works.”


“There’s an intrinsic value in creating something for the sake of creating it.”

Our kids need to know this as much as we do. We’re not learning for the sake of an end result or exam. We are creating and innovating and doing and learning because it is an inherently important thing to do.


“There is a beauty in dropping something into a community of your making.”

Exactly. Shoutout all the teacher bloggers out there.


So, in conclusion: What can Teaching learn from Skateboarding? Maybe some of the following:






Context into content












Belonging on your own terms


Until next time,

-Mr. Unseen Flirtations


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