There’s a problem with “What Teachers Make?”

So yesterday during my district’s annual convocation, the teacher of the year gave a short speech and she ended it by reading Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make.”  Well, she didn’t read the exact poem–it was a rather watered-down, cleaned up version, but the message was still there.  Most of the people in the auditorium knew exactly what she was talking about when she mentioned the title because I’m pretty sure at one time or another, we’ve all seen it.  It has several versions (Mali’s a spoken word poet and performs quite a bit), but whenever I do want to hear the poem I watch the following clip:

The video I linked to was posted in 2012 but I know it’s much older than that because I’m pretty sure that I heard it somewhere during my first few years of teaching.  I was pretty empowered by it at first but over the years its effectiveness on me has lessened a little, but that’s typical with a lot of performance pieces–you’re blown away the first time but once you see it again, you know what’s coming–and it hasn’t made me like the poem any less.  I will say, though, that a couple of years ago, I was watching the video (I had fallen down another one of my spoken word poetry rabbit holes) and the thought occurred to me that the edutwitterati would haaaaate him as a teacher because of the way he asserts himself and because he won’t let kids go to the bathroom.

No, I’m serious.  Here’s the part I’m talking about.

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’ve seen long, drawn-out Twitter conversations and blog posts that belabor the point about classroom rules and letting students go to the bathroom (my rule is simple: one at a time and you need a pass), and in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure that at some point, I’d see a takedown of Mali’s poetry.

This week, the Internet didn’t let me down because someone shared a post from June 5 by Bruce L. Smith, the author of the Write Learning blog called “What Does This Teacher Make?  Me, Frustrated.”

I embedded the link there because before you read the rest of this post, I’d like you to read that post.  It’s a well-written post with a lot of salient points.  I also think he’s missing the point and leaving out some things, though, and his tone throughout doesn’t really help.

In fact, I’m going to only briefly talk about how he repeatedly uses the phrase “conventional schooling” to describe the type of teacher of whom Mali speaks and whom loves this video.  It is incredibly condescending and serves to perpetuate one of the major problems in the national conversation about education, which is that teachers don’t know what they’re talking about because, after all, they’re just teachers.  I teach advanced English and general English (actual course names, not my labels) and if I condescendingly referred to the students in those general English classes as “General students” I’d probably hear it from a number of people (and rightfully so).

But let’s move beyond tone to the actual poem.  Smith talks about how the poem drives home the notion that our current system is one of saviors and martyrs, as if our students are the ones in need of saving and we will constantly fall on the sword and bleed for them, working for less and less as we’re asked to do more and more.  There’s definite truth here and the way people in my field act as if they’re saving the future of the country can get incredibly overbearing and I’m not a fan of the notion that I’m not doing my job unless a year in my English class can be turned into the next Freedom Writers.

Another thing that Smith points out is that Mali’s poem is another in a long line of pieces that perpetuate the “us vs. them” notion of teachers and students.  He cites The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as other examples, saying that they are “are celebrations of sticking it to The Man, those deadly dull and/or obsessively controlling educators who hold arbitrary power over us throughout our childhoods.”  On one hand, he is right; however, his point is a too simplistic look at those movies.  Yes, both movies are teenage fairy tales, but  Ferris is deliberate over-the-top farce, an exaggerated satire of suburban culture, so Ed Rooney has to be awful or else the movie doesn’t work.  And The Breakfast Club has significantly more layers than just being about “sticking it to The Man” where Mr. Vernon is concerned.  In fact, I blogged about that very idea a number of years ago.  Furthermore, those two movie examples are flawed because the educators who play the “villains” (and I use the word in quotes because I don’t think that Vernon is a villain per se) are not actually teachers.  They’re administrators.  Those are clearly two different levels of authority with two different job functions, and that is important to realize if you’re going to apply John Hughes to Taylor Mali (and to add: the two times you see a teacher in either of those movies–both in Ferris–the teachers aren’t authoritarian, they’re simply boring).

Let’s get back to the poem and do what we do in my English class, which would be to break it down and find what the poet is saying and how he is saying it.  Because after all, this is a blog about teaching English.  And I apologize for the length here, but whereas Smith cherry picks a few lines from the poem, I want to do the whole thing.  I’ve grabbed the text off of Mali’s website and have edited a bit to have it reflect the version given in the video at the top of this post.

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.

Here is our setup.  Basically, the meat of the poem is a response to some jackass at a dinner party who decides to make fun of teachers, treating them as if they are some sort of unworthy peasant or plebe, second-class citizens.  What follows is a response that as you saw gets more passionate in tone and honestly … I’m not sure is meant to be said as a response.  I’ve come to wonder if this is not simply an internal monologue.  Now, based on his other poems, I don’t doubt Mali would go off on someone like this, but for the rest of us it might be like that scene in High Fidelity where Ian (Tim Robbins) walks into the record store and Rob (John Cusack) thinks of a couple of things to say and do to him but ultimately stands there and says nothing.  In other words, much like John Hughes movies are teenage fantasies about “sticking it to The Man” (as Smith puts it), “What Teachers Make” is a teacher fantasy about “sticking it to The Man.”

The rant begins …

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

This is the most quoted part of the poem in Smith’s blog post and it is actually where the teacher comes off as the worst.  The line about the bathroom is actually funny in an “I’ve been there” sort of way, and if you look at the groups/question/bathroom portion it seems like he’s talking about a study hall and not an actual class.  And study halls are different than actual classes.  But I might be splitting hairs here.

Anyway, the phrase that Smith also hates is “I make.”  Mali will use it several times over throughout the poem and Smith says that he’s taking a glowing pride in being forceful, ignoring the fact that Mali is simply using parallelism to get his point across.  The entire rant in the poem is a response to the question “What do you make?”  The use of the word “make” is obviously regarding salary.  Here, Mali is talking about what he does but uses “make” as a direct retort; furthermore, repeating “I make” several times is the very definition of parallelism: repeating the same phrasing or grammatical structure, which in speaking and argument is an effective way of not only getting your point across, but having your audience remember it (see Marc Antony’s funeral oration and the phrase “Brutus is an honorable man”).  Taylor Mali doesn’t want to force his kids to do anything; he wants to force the audience to remember his point.

He continues …

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.
He said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”
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.

Smith cherry picked the last line of this part without including what’s before it because if you look at those lines, it blows apart the argument of Mali being authoritarian and forceful.  He starts off thinking he’s going to be the jerk, making parents tremble in fear when he calls home, because most of us as parents associate calls home from teachers with bad news.  However, he turns it on his head and shares how he is proud of that kid for being compassionate and standing up for someone else.  If he cared about nothing else than being forceful or making kids do things, would he put this in here?  And those last two lines are about something we really try to do every single day–making a student’s potential something kinetic and helping them build up more potential.  And it can be anything, really.  I left high school English wanting to be a writer; I left high school Calculus not wanting to major in math or engineering but realizing I had the ability to accomplish something beyond my strengths.

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 fail to see what’s wrong with this part of the poem aside from Smith’s assertion that “I make” is the wrong message (see previous paragraph concerning parallelism).  Question? Criticize?  Apologize and mean it?  So … critical thinking, thinking for oneself, and having empathy and a basic sense of human decency and manners are wrong?  And getting students to write and read and practice that to hone their skills and broaden their minds is wrong?

Also, there has to be a reason Mali uses the phrase “definitely beautiful” over and over beyond its natural rhythm.  Why isn’t he using words like harbinger, perspicacity, or denouement? Maybe because “definitely” is a word of confidence and “beautiful” is … well, beauty … and both of those words might have something to do with self-confidence?

And showing all your work and math and hiding it on your final draft in English is just what you do.

Let’s close it out (because I’m at 2250 words here and everyone already went “tl;dr”)

I make them understand that if you’ve got this, [points to head]
then you follow this, [points to heart]
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this. [flips the bird]

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

I will admit that I am not a fan of standing up in front of a group of people and proclaiming that I make a difference in people’s lives.  Internally, I constantly worry that I’m horrible at my job and that I am a terrible teacher and that what I do makes no difference–in other words, I have an ongoing existential crisis.  But I know that I’ve made some difference because students have told me.  So there’s that, right?

But the line makes sense because it fits with the tone of the rest of the poem.  It also is a flourish at the end–there’s a musicality to this piece where Mali is obviously building toward a big ending and is not going to give us any falling action or resolution.  It’s not “Bohemian Rhapsody;” it’s “A Day in the Life.”  And he’s getting more and more flustered as he responds to the guy from the beginning of the poem, so he has to be angry and he has to be self-righteous, or else the poem doesn’t work.  Does that send the wrong message?  Maybe?  Like I said, I can’t refute the notion that people get self-righteous; that’s human nature.

I can, however, close us out with an appreciation for a teacher.  When I started teaching, I was paired with an experienced teacher in my building as part of a mentor program.  Maria Glass had decades of experience and still had passion for the job as well as for her students.  Knowing her, I would suspect that the idea of having brains,following your heart, and giving the finger to anyone who tries to judge you based on what you make would be right up her alley.  I learned a lot from her about making sure you stick to what you believe in while also keeping your mind open to others’ ideas and that you help your students do the same because in teaching them how to be better writers, you’re teaching them how to express themselves better and hopefully prevent them from being ignorant their entire lives.  Maria retired a couple of years ago but is still very active as an advocate for teachers and has never once not stood up for what she believed in.  Moreover, she has former students who look at that and see a role model.  And that’s what Mali’s describing in that last sentence:  conviction.  Passion.  Pride.  Standing up for yourself.

As much as I scream “Stop Trying to Inspire Me” on a regular basis, teachers do need inspiration.  This might not be the perfect piece for it and each individual may choose his own way to get both motivated and inspired.  But you cannot refute the power of “What Teachers Make?” with a few cherry-picked quotes and a prejudiced view about “conventional schooling.”

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2 comments

  1. A very astute, magnanimous, and in-depth reading of my poem! You have correctly inferred that this poem is not the verbatim transcription of what I said to the lawyer whose insulting remark triggered the poem 17 years ago. My “real” response? “About $28,000.” Also, yes, it was my study hall no one was allowed to leave for any reason (it was an all boys school, a fact that didn’t make it into the poem). But mostly, yes, the poem is old and does not reflect the more collaborative style of pedagogy I favor now. The poem is in need of an update!

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