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Taylor Mali changed the face of education with his eclectic poem entitled “What Teachers Make.” This middle school teacher and poet loved his job, but, like many of us, had enough of critics of our profession. The poem has become an anthem for teachers who value people over paychecks. I recently sat down with Mr. Mali, who is now a full-time poet, to discuss how his poem has changed his life and our profession.
Jake Miller, The Educator’s Room: Let’s begin with your poem, “What Teachers Make” (click here for a text version and live version by Mali) It’s become an Internet sensation – care to explain why you wrote it?
Taylor Mali: I was at a New Year’s Eve Party in 1998. The party was hosted by a lawyer, and he very charismatically made a point that any teacher choosing our profession made so little money that it proved they were lacking in intelligence and, consequently, shouldn’t be in the profession for that reason. I didn’t have a good response then – I simply told him my salary – but the next day (maybe even that night) I sat down and composed the poem.
In that moment, the lawyer tried to use me as Exhibit A, and I wanted to turn that around on him. That was 1998, so I posted it on this new thing called “my website,” and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own – especially since the advent of YouTube.
JM: Has the lawyer you mentioned ever said something to you about the poem?
TM: I don’t think he even knows; chances are, he wouldn’t recognize himself in it. As a friend-of-a-friend, he probably didn’t say exactly those words, and I haven’t seen him since then.
JM: What are some of the most memorable replies you’ve received regarding “What Teachers Make?”
TM: The most memorable come from the 1,000 people who legitimately claimed that my poem motivated them to become a teacher. In fact, it became something I called the Thousand Teachers program.
Among them, one that stands out is a young woman, who was the youngest of 14, mother of 2, and the only person in her family to go to college; I saved her as the 1,000th addition to this great group.
On the other hand, the poem certainly has its detractors. There are many people who are opposed to teachers and public education; one that sticks out is the parent of a home-schooled child who picked apart the poem line-by-line to support why she home-schools her child. She also accused me of having a “Teacher God Complex.” I don’t even know what this is, but I probably do have one!
Another one that I can remember is when I wrote to a guy who was using a version of my poem, and I thanked him for using it. However, this man spoke about how in every successful social revolution, the teachers are among the first to be shot. It was very bizarre.
JM: Can you tell us more about your Thousand Teachers program?
TM: A very casual process began here. People started saying, “You’re one of the reasons I became a teacher.” I started unofficially counting the number of people who told me this, and, after sitting down for an interview with a journalist not unlike yourself, he told me about how amazing this feat was. This journalist told me to make a bigger deal out of it by setting a goal to encourage others to join our ranks. I thought I’d have this complete by 2006, but it wasn’t met until April 2012.
I’d created high standards – even in this unscientific process – to ensure I can at least point you to a name, a photo, a hometown, and an email for each of these incredible individuals. After the goal was met with that young mother, I chopped 12” of my hair and donated it to the American Cancer Society.
JM: “What Teachers Make” has a tough, if not pointed, feel to it. Do you feel teachers should be “arming themselves” more, or should they quietly do a great job and hope public opinion turns in their favor once again?
TM: Let me take a middle view and say teachers have better things to do than “arm themselves!” However, the alternative isn’t to quietly do a better job and hope public opinion changes. I want teachers to vociferously do a better job. They can do a better job explaining how difficult and demanding this profession is.
If teachers are planning on doing nothing but fighting, your students are probably suffering. However, if they’re quietly doing their job, they’re probably suffering.
I’ll go back to my original comment – let’s vociferously change the public’s perception of the education profession.
JM: What was your career like before “What Teachers Make?” How has it changed?
TM: I taught middle school English and mathematics, among other things. I loved teaching, and as soon as this poetry thing stops working out for me, I’ll enjoy going back to the classroom. For a long time, I was a teacher by day and a poet by night. I guess I’d write my poems as a way to procrastinate from grading.
I put my teaching career on hold in 2000 to give this other love of mine a try. I quit with great trepidation, not knowing if poetry was going to work out. However, I never wanted to lament on my death bed, wondering if I’d ever be able to make it as an artist. And 14 years later, it’s working out for me.
Best of it all is I still get to teach, but I don’t have to do the grading. I’m like the grandparent of educators – all the fun, none of the paperwork.
As I was finishing the book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World, I realized that what I’ve done was just a drop in the bucket for the change that I’d like to see and the change that needs to come.
In the meantime, I’ve written 2 other books of poetry
JM: In your book, you also mention finding alternative means of funding education than property taxes. What alternatives do you think are out there?
TM: The short answer is, “I don’t know,” and the long and more difficult answer is “we need to move the money and the great teachers to the places that need them most.” The parents who move to schools in wealthier neighborhoods certainly have a point to argue – that they live there because they have great schools, and they pay for them.
However, high stakes testing and teacher turnover make it hard to reach the at-risk students who need great teachers the most.
The teacher is the biggest factor in changing any component of education; there needs to be something in place to ensure the most effective teachers go to the places that they’re needed most – probably financial incentive to do so.
JM: How else would you like to see education change?
TM: One of my favorite quotes is, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” by William Butler Yeats.
I once said to an administrator after a particularly inspiring moment of teaching, “I’ve been lighting fires all morning.” He took a step back and in that administrators-crush-your-dreams look told me that he “pays me to put fires out.” Problem is, that’s his job – and he and I both know that every fire I light is one fewer that he has to put out.
And yet, all of the tests the policymakers love and researchers drivel over, they’re all about finding out how full a student’s bucket is. My problem is that no tests for how hot fires burn. There are no tests measuring a student’s curiosity, inquisitiveness, and passion.
JM: You used to be the voice of Burger King. What was that like?
TM: I worked for BK for 10 months. It’s strange to think that I made more in 10 months saying 10 words than I did in 10 years of teaching. I don’t regret doing it – it helped me to buy my first apartment – and a year and a half later I was able to take that risk of putting myself out there as a poet.
JM: What do you miss most about the classroom?
TM: Watching the effect you have on a kid from August to June. Seeing the light bulb moments. I miss the camaraderie of commiserating with others in the profession. Believe it or not, I miss crunching numbers at the end for grade time. I loved sitting down with students near the end of the term and talking to them about how to improve their scores and salvage a “B.” I enjoyed discussing with them about why I don’t round up my grade from an 82.5 to an 83% and thus a B.
When you’re doing your job as a teacher, nobody should be surprised. The kids know how they’re going to do because they know they’re going to do a good job. I miss that give-and-take with students!
Faculty meetings, talking with parents (sometimes), administrators who feel that with their title they got where they are because they’re “master teachers” – the great administrators realized they are that because they can recognize great teachers, not necessarily believe they are one.
JM: What advice do you have for a teacher who’s feeling like summer just can’t come soon enough?
Remember the 3 reasons why teaching is great – June, July, and August! Don’t let the bastards grind you down. You’ll burn out as a teacher if you try to think of teaching as something that you do on the side; the recipe for not burning out is identifying teaching as who you are, not what you do.
Have someone you’d like to spotlight as an #InspirationalEducator? Contact @MrJakeMiller or email@example.com to make your recommendation. Just provide their name, their role in education, and contact information (email, phone, Twitter handle, etc.) so Jake can reach out to them.