A Conversation With… Monte Selby

Monte Selby is an award-winning teacher, principal, and professor. He also works as a trainer and consultant and has written music with nearly 39,000 K–12 students. Selby has co-authored eight books and composed more than 200 published songs, one of which landed on the album that won the 2012 Grammy for Best Children’s Album. Selby was one of the keynote speakers at the National Student Council Conference in Plymouth, MN, last June.

Advise: When did you know music would play an integral role in your life? How did you reconcile that passion with your educational pursuits?

Selby: I started singing as a little kid. I got a guitar when I was six, which was mainly to get out of playing piano (my mom’s a legit pianist, by the way). I figured out how to play and sing around third or fourth grade—I wrote a song and performed in a talent show around that time. Songwriting is the one common thread that has run through everything I do—my role as a teacher, principal, professor, keynote speaker, etc. As a teacher, I just started writing songs about kids because they’re there and they’re funny. I continued that as a principal. When I was a principal, my brother Mark and I performed as the Selby Brothers Band. We got invited to perform at Music City Music ’93, which is an exclusive gig—only 10 bands across the U.S. are asked to perform in front of record labels in Nashville. My brother got a publishing contract that led to a record deal. It was then that I realized I didn’t want to spend my life on a tour bus. But a Nashville publisher was interested in the songs I was writing about kids and schools, so that opened doors for recording and sharing my music to a broader audience. Through that publishing network, I was able to write with hit songwriters, which allowed me to see serious connections with songs and how the brain works. For example, think about The Alphabet Song—that’s a very effective way for young children to learn their alphabet, right? There’s a science behind that. Strategically using the power of songwriting can help kids learn. So, in summary, I knew I liked songwriting and performing early on, but it kept growing throughout my life.

Advise: Would you say that songwriting can be an especially effective teaching/advising tool? What age groups are most receptive to this style? 

Selby: Years ago, the first time I was at one of the LEAD Conferences, I had a chance to do a session that was basically about using music as an adviser, even if you can’t carry a tune. I believe people of all ages connect with music, so leadership strategies that include music can help people engage and provide structure. Some of the serious brain researchers say music is a language that the brain invented and that the brain loves to hear. It’s kind of in our DNA, like laughter. Go to any isolated place in the world—people laugh and people sing.

And to the second part of your question, definitely any age. I’ve worked with K–3, special education, all the way up to grad students. Strategically written songs are meant to be unforgettable. The songs that get stuck in your head get stuck there for a reason. If there are things you want to be stuck in someone’s head, you can be strategic about that.

Even if, as an adviser, you don’t know anything about music, but you know a popular song with kids right now or a classic song, play that song during the first three minutes of a meeting. Use that time to mingle, look over the agenda, whatever you’d like. Build that into a habit, and there comes a point where that song comes on and people go on autopilot. This even works in a staff or adviser meeting. Certain songs can signal reflection time. Music can be used as a timer and a trigger to point us to what we always do when this happens. Think of it in terms of the song, When You’re Happy and You Know It—people automatically clap their hands.

Advise: It’s been said that teaching (and advising, by extension) is very much a performance-based profession. Would you agree?

Selby: Yeah, and maybe not so much in the way that we think about performance. To me, good teaching is active. It can’t just be passive. Even if part of what you’re doing doesn’t seem performance-oriented, having kids process something and doing it well is very active. Having kids work on something while you sit at your desk doesn’t work. My dad was a superintendent of schools. He always says, “Maybe the best move in education would be to remove all the desks.” I think there’s some truth to that.

Take street performers, for example. You have to do something to get people to pay attention, then figure out how to hold their attention. If you want to get tips, it has to be about the other person. If I’m just singing stuff that I want to hear, that’s not engaging. No matter where I’m at now, if I go in remembering it’s about the audience and what they can get out of this, that changes everything. If you’re the adviser walking into a meeting and you start with knowing your audience and where they are and what they need—instead of “I need to make them do something”—that can make all the difference. The performance is drawing out of other people as opposed to performance as just entertainment.

Advise: Why do you think participation in student council and the Honor Societies is beneficial to students?

Selby: People think of songwriting as inspiration. If you hang out with songwriters, you are looking for something that sparks an idea. Beyond the inspiration, you learn that good songwriting requires the strategies and knowledge that make a song powerful, and then it’s just work. Kids want to change people’s lives and want to inspire people. But something like student council or the Honor Societies are actually a chance to hone skills and implement strategies that move those ideas toward possible success. Anybody that does student council or the Honor Societies for awhile realizes that you’re successful because you planned like crazy and just put in the work. Changing the world and inspiring people is important, but when you’re in a setting where you learn that planning and skillfulness and hard work result in something good, that is a really powerful setup for life.

Advise: Why is leadership such an important quality to instill in today’s students?

Selby: Most, not all, but most social media and a lot of technology is actually passive. You sit back and watch things unfold before your eyes (or ears). I think it’s awesome to listen to music, but to make music or create music is something other than just passive listening. In the same way, there are people who watch some viral video about what’s wrong in the world, and then there are people out there trying to do something about it. Leadership is about looking up and looking around and seeing what needs attention and being willing to do something about that. Any kid can be a leader. The whole world could use a lot more people viewing themselves as leaders—not as a position, but as an action.

Advise: What advice do you have for students to achieve their dreams? 

Selby: I think dreams are a big deal—thinking about what you want and picturing the future, the future you. What does that person look like? Dreaming big is good. The key is thinking about how to realistically achieve those big dreams. If I had 10 minutes every day for the next year, how would working on that “something” move me toward that thing that I want? I think half the people on the entire planet could be a decent piano player in three years if they spent 10 minutes every day playing. So, my advice for kids would be to have those dreams and those big thoughts. And if there was something you did for 10 minutes tomorrow (and each day) to get you there, what would you do? Dreams can seem so far way that they can be scary. When dreams can be broken down into something simple, like practice, you get in the habit of making them come true. That makes things more real and more doable. Start doing a little of it every day to get there.

On another note, I feel like a lot of times when you talk to kids about what they want to do with their lives—every senior in high school gets asked that about a thousand times—some kids don’t know what they want to do. If students don’t know what they want, I suggest they think about the things they enjoy doing, then dive in and make the most of it at the moment. That is where dreams can get revealed. Sometimes out of just trying to do a good job at what you do and being in the middle of it and doing it, things can open up (simple things like just trying to learn a couple more songs or just trying to get homework done). Talent can develop. The dream opens itself up. The dream may not drive everything. Playing and doing a good job at what you’re doing and working hard can open doors. It’s okay to not know what to do. Do your best at what you’re doing right now. Dreams will reveal themselves.