- Durham Public Schools
Teacher Musician Shares Life Lessons with His Students
Sean Marshall is hitting his stride.
As a business, finance, and entrepreneurship teacher at Lakeview School, he says he’s able to teach a discipline in which he’s talented, knowledgeable, and of course, prepared. Formerly in leadership with a non-profit, Marshall says a job lay-off directed him toward an education career. The rest, as they say, is history. The now 10-year veteran educator armed with Bachelor’s degrees in political science, psychology, and biology, and a Master’s degree in business administration served as an Instructional Assistant for six years and has now taught for four.
Lakeview is an alternative school for students whose behavior has removed them from their traditional setting, so one would think that Sean’s learning curve would have been a bit steeper than normal when he entered the profession laterally. In reality, he says contemporary culture is actually what’s thrown him the curveball.
There is less formality, he says. An example rests with how young people may interact or even correct each other. While kids will be kids, Marshall says he’s accustomed to seeing peers chide each other if they step over the line of respectability. Not so much today, he’s observed. But while he sees that things are a bit different, he says one thing has not changed: Education opens doors.
“I believe that education can be the great equalizer in all of our communities. It is one of the few things that all of us can do to truly change our trajectory in life,” said Marshall.
In addition to serving as a teaching professional, the multi-talented educator is a rapper who grew up in a family of musicians, including his grandmother’s brother–his great uncle– who sang with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. His mother frequently sang background for the Blue Notes. During the 1970’s, his father sang with a group called The Village Soul Choir. The elder Marshall also played at the Apollo, where Patti Labelle opened for his Dad. (AS a young musician, the jazz saxophonist Kenny G played for Marshall’s Dad as one of his first professional gigs.) So it should come as no surprise that Marshall is advancing the family’s legacy as a musician whose work has reached Billboard’s Top 100 status.
Marshall began writing music and rapping in the fifth grade, never considering it just a pipe dream. His current music catalog numbers thousands of pieces, and he says that if he never wrote another song, he could produce multiple albums from the library he’s created.
Marshall said his work as a producer and musician has elevated his acumen as a business teacher. There are life lessons he teaches based on his own experiences.
“At Lakeview, like at any other school, the three R’s are important, but students are either getting bad information or none at all. I try to teach them the importance of listening, being disciplined, and being consistent.”
Like most teachers of excellence, he is inspired by his students.
“Students are inspiring because they are at an age that allows them to believe they can do or be whatever they want. They are all dreamers. Many adults stop dreaming and settle into a life that they are not 100% happy with. I am a dreamer and it helps me to relate to the students on a different level. My maturity however, helps me teach them how to turn their dreams into goals and then take the goals and make them reality.”
Bringing those dreams to fruition takes work, he tells them.
“Through my conversations with students, I want them to know that things are hard but not impossible. Success looks different from everybody. You don’t have to make a million dollars to be successful. Treat it as a business,” he said.
He further teaches his students that if you treat your goals like a business, you must be willing to work at it. He then asks them if they have the ability to discipline themselves enough to do the things needed to be successful.
“That’s the way it is in life. Will you hang out with friends, or do whatever you need to reach your goals?” he said. “What I enjoy most about teaching is helping the students understand how the world actually works. It’s important to me for them to understand how the world sees them so that they understand how to position themselves to win.”
Consistency in and of itself is a lesson, said Marshall.
“Sometimes you have to get by yourself to stay on track—not alienate yourself, but truly focus,” said Marshall.
Although always immersed in music, Marshall said his focus was sharpened when the pandemic shutdown occurred.
“As a rapper, COVID was pivotal. I had more time to sit with myself and think about it. I realized what was important. I realized how important it was to me. I began to think about things that I wanted to accomplish in life,” he said.
Marshall ultimately wants to offer a 24-hour place for kids to feel safe after school using the proceeds from his musical ventures.
“I want to be able to help kids the way that people helped me,” he said, sharing that there were times when he didn’t want to be home but had nowhere else to go. “Sometimes, the home environment can be distracting.”
“It’s kind of crazy when I see somebody that I don't have a class with and they ask me if I’m the teacher that raps,” he said. That there is a common thread among them “gives them comfort,” he said.
Marshall says his music continues to evolve as he matures with age. His self-identity has changed now that he’s not lived in his former community for more than 20 years, and he writes about “the now.” Two of his more popular and current songs were written from his perspective as an educator, “Educators’ Anthem” and “Beautiful Struggle,” which was written to pay homage to young people. He says “Beautiful Struggle” is one of his favorites.
“I recorded it a year ago, and it never gets old,” said Marshall.
“Educator’s Anthem” honors his colleagues.
“I wanted teachers to know that somebody hears you, and wanted to give my piece of the world and share what we go through,” he said.
A Surreal Experience
Marshall practices what he preaches. Although he performs at a plethora of venues, he was told that modeling after the famous “chit’lin circuit”—while still alive and well—was no longer enough. He’d have to boost his own music and use electronic advertising to bring attention to his work. He was a quick study. He reached out to different people he’d met in the business and told them he really wanted the project to count. During the pandemic, he was online for as many as four hours a day promoting his projects. He made pre-sales, teasing the music to known and unknown music aficionados before an official release date. He used message boards, encouraging people to pre-order his music, engaging with prospective customers. And that’s not to mention the music videos he produces with his colleague Mitchell Langley, also an educator who works at Brogden Middle School.
And that’s not all.
He uploads his music to social media platforms because “somebody is going to watch them,” he said. He even engages with those who listen.
Then randomly (but not really) one day while on a grocery store run, he received a phone call from someone who had messaged him on Facebook. He hadn’t given the FB message much credence. But after receiving an email and the phone call, he picked up. It was an actual Billboard representative calling to inform him that his music had earned a spot on the Billboard Top 100. This is the music industry standard record chart in the United States for songs, published weekly by Billboard magazine. Chart rankings are based on sales, radio play, and online streaming in the United States. He was now in good company with rappers like Nas, whom he knows, and others who have reached that pinnacle of familiarity.
His latest project “Teacher Turnt Rapper”, will debut in June, and he’ll take it on tour.
“I’m still a believer in real-world touches as well,” said Marshall.
As for the privilege of sharing his real-world knowledge with students, Marshall says he tells young people not to squander their time.
“We only get one life so please go find that thing that you like to do and go do that,” he said. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I do.”