Poems By and For Teachers: What Teachers Make (Taylor Mali)

The following brief resume is taken from Taylor Mali’s website:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching everything from English and history to math and S.A.T. test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his 12-year long Quest for One Thousand Teachers, completed in April of 2012, helped create 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion, and perseverance,” an achievement Mali commemorated by donating 12″ of his hair to the American Cancer Society.

Mali is the author most recently of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” (Putnam 2012)….

 

What Teachers Make

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­‐kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­‐ feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.

I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.

Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?

I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

You can watch Taylor Mali recite his poem on YouTube.

**************************************************************

Kevin Hodgson, an elementary school teacher in Southampton (MA) had this to say about the poem:

A few times a year, I play poker with a group of lawyers, businss owners, federal government employees and software developers. No long ago, one of them turned to me and asked: “So, what’s it like to be a public school teacher?”

The question was asked innocently enough, but the emphasis on “public” and the unspoken meaning–“Why would anyone be a public school teacher?” –thre me off balance. I would have loved to have had the wit of poet Taylor Mali and launched into a ferocious comeback worthy of his poem “What Teachers Make.”

I didn’t.

Instead, I gave a passionate defense of the impact I have on the lives of young people every single day and then proceeded to win a few rounds of cards. Still, I could hear Mali’s poem ringing in my ear.

I’ve shared Mali’s poem with other educators in many professional development sessions, and I’ve given the poem as a gift to colleagues. With it defiant tone, the poem becomes a token of solidarity, and I am reminded of a quote from Charlie Parker that I use as a tagline for my blog: “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” The poem resonates with a similar message: as educators, we need to be proud of what we do and boldly confront misconceptions that surround us.

It’s almost as important as the work we do each and every day in the classroom.*

 

*Both the poem and Hodgson’s remarks come from Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner (Eds.) Teaching with Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage To Teach (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), pp. 18-20

5 Comments

September 9, 2014 · 6:46 am

5 responses to “Poems By and For Teachers: What Teachers Make (Taylor Mali)

  1. Ann Staley

    This is a remarkable poem I’ve admire for many years. Thanks for sharing it. Ann

  2. Reblogged this on Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher and commented:

    I first heard of, and heard, Taylor Mali while attending Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) in 2010-2011. His passion and raw truthfulness resonated strongly with me as I watched a video of him reciting this poem at a slam poetry competition. In fact, it struck such a chord in me that for my capstone assignment at the end of the program, where I elected to create an audio video collage speaking to my experiences with the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTPs) as a student teacher and teacher candidate, I included two clips from Taylor’s recitation along with other clips from Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, and To Sir ,with Love.

    Mali exemplifies the zeal I bring to my second career in a way that still gives me goose bumps when I watch him recite “What Teachers Make.” Bravo, Taylor!

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