A Poem about Teaching and A Critique (Taylor Mali and Joe Bower)

Like doctors, lawyers, architects, and therapists, teachers disagree about the nature of teaching and the ends that teaching and learning should attain. Such disagreements go back millennia and it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of these honest and deep disagreements that exist among teachers. Consider the following poem (“What Teachers Make”) by Taylor Mali and a critique of it written by Joe Bower.


Taylor 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)…. (From Taylor Mali’s website)


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?


Canadian teacher Joe Bower replied in 2010.

Let’s take a look at Taylor Mali’s little poem:

“I can make kids work harder” – Kids don’t work, they learn. Making education metaphorical with business is precisely what has gotten us in the mess we are in today. Policy makers that are pedagogically further removed from the classroom than they are geographically are responsible for too much of what is wrong with school today.

“I can make a C- feel like a congressional medal of honor, and I can make an A- feel like a slap in the face.” Of course you can, Taylor. This is true because grades can only ever be experienced by children as a reward or punishment. Do you really want to take credit for that? Extrinsically manipulating children to coerce them to learn with carrots and sticks is hardly something to brag about. You’re a bully.

“How dare you waste my time!” That sounds awfully conditional, Taylor. You realize that kids don’t need their teacher to be a judge-in-waiting that they must learn to keep their distance from, right? You realize that what they really need is a teacher who will unconditionally accept them for who they are, right? Right?

“I make kids sit through study hall for 40 minutes in absolute silence.” Learning is a social exercise – it isn’t often that we learn best in isolation – and in the real world collaboration is not cheating. Beyond that, what are they studying for? The state-mandated, high-stakes standardized test? Taylor, are you really proud of wasting 40 minutes of study time when your students could have been doing real learning?

“No you may not work in groups?” Why not, Taylor? How will children learn to collaborate if you arbitrarily decide they can’t. And then when you do provide them with the privilege of working together, and they screw it up, you’ll blame them because they don’t know how to work together. Be honest, Taylor, the quiet classroom is more for you than it is for them. Cui bono?.

“No you may not ask me a question.” Again, why not, Taylor? Are you their teacher who is there to guide them and coach them to better learning or are you just a supervisor? The more I listen to you, the more I believe it is the latter.

“No you may not go to the bathroom.” Taylor, as an adult, when was the last time you had to even ask to go the bathroom? And as an adult, when was the last time you were told that you couldn’t go? And, as an adult, if you were told ‘no’, what would be your reaction?

“You’re bored and you don’t really have to go to the bathroom.” Taylor, I’ll give you 3 guesses why they are bored. I’ll give you a hint. It has something to do with that 40 minutes of solitary confinement you love so much.

“I make parents tremble in fear when I call home.” I have no idea how this could possibly be a good thing. EVER. Shameful.

“To the biggest bully in the class, he said…” Was this boy speaking to you, Taylor?

“I make kids wonder.” No Taylor, at best you make them want to wander. As in wander out of your classroom because you can’t make someone do anything and make them like it.

“I make them apologize.” Yes, you made them say the word ‘sorry’, but ‘sorry’ isn’t a word. It’s a feeling. I doubt you were ever able to make someone feel sorry… in a good way.

“I make the write, write, write. I make them read.” If they could spot a comma splice or a Shakespeare quote from a block away, but they swear to God they’ll never pick up a pen or book again, what have you accomplished? Where there’s interest, achievement follows. Where there’s disinterest, boredom and misbehavior sets in. Montaigne once wrote if students lack “appetite and affection” for learning, they become little more than “asses loaded with books.”

“I make them spell…” Sounds like you make your kids sit down for a spell. It also sounds like the real choice you give kids is that we either let them use invented spelling or we don’t let them write at all. Wow, how honorable of you.

We can’t test our way to a better education, nor can we bully kids to better learning, while our fixation on quantity and control continue to do a massive disservice for our children….




Filed under how teachers teach

10 responses to “A Poem about Teaching and A Critique (Taylor Mali and Joe Bower)

  1. Chester Draws

    At the end of the year, most students don’t thank the teachers that didn’t drive them to work harder. That didn’t worry that they got an A- when they are an A+ student. That didn’t keep them quiet when they needed to work. That let them chat in groups when it wasn’t appropriate, just because they wanted to.

    They appreciate the teachers that taught them the most, and that drove them to learn more. They might not like them, but then being liked is not really that important for a good teacher.

    Making a kid sit quietly and study is not “bullying”. I’ve never known a boss just let me sit and talk as much as I like — and that isn’t bullying either.

  2. Alice in PA

    I think both the poem and the critique are on the extreme opposite ends of the “goal of teaching” spectrum of ideas. Nothing the in the poem or critique is necessarily good or bad. Students need different things at different moments…moments inter life, moments in the school year, moments throughout the day. But maybe that’s just where I am on the spectrum.

    One thing I really just flat out disagree with is ” Kids don’t work, they learn. ” Learning is difficult and it takes work, even under the most motivating circumstances.

  3. Sandy

    Joe has a rep to live up to…while “kids first” is a model to follow, I’m not swayed that structure isn’t important and that established procedures aren’t positively reinforcing for students whose chaotic home lives are the opposite. He’s also Canadian, maybe that’s why I don’t always appreciate Joe. 😉

  4. Chris Wejr

    Thanks for sharing this, Larry. Joe lived his words in and out of his classroom. We lost Joe to a heart attack in early 2016… This has been devastating to many of us but we need to keep his legacy going through sharing his many posts that continually challenged so many to reflect and be better. Thank you again.

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