Scar Tissue

One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories.  While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks.  “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.

One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.”  I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another.  We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails).  But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.

You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril.  It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip.  For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple.  Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare.  I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?”  I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.

I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities.  We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem.  Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.

Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.

I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment.  And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so.  I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me.  Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher.  Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion.  Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth.  After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?

I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy.  There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul.  Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain.  And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.

Don’t Break the Ice

I hate the first day of school.

That’s not a sentence you expect to hear from a teacher. In fact, if I said this sentence out loud in the confines of edutwitter, I’d probably get a ton of responses that wondered why I am a teacher, some platitudes that people would retweet, a few quotes in pictures, or be edusplained to by someone who hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for more than five minutes since the 1990s (yet is a “Thought Leader” in education). So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll say it again.

I hate the first day of school.

Some teachers walk into the first day with the energy of those really chipper people who were your freshmen orientation staff at college. They want to do cheers and play games and willingly embarrass themselves by acting silly. In the lead-up to the first day of school, they burst with enthusaism about all of the money they spent on school supplies for the kids and how they’re so excited to meet all of them. And on that first day? Well, I guess you call it “teaching like a pirate” or something? I don’t know. What I do know is that they bring to their classrooms the enthusiasm equivalent of the pyrotechnics at a KISS concert.

I am not like that. It’s the second day of school and I was just in my advanced English class and we were doing some of our initial discussions of the summer reading (Into the Wild) and I was not a bundle of enthusiasm and rah rah this is exciting and teaching like a pirate but instead was just a bundle of nervous energy. In fact, the only thing that I will ever have in common with Lloyd Dobler is that when I get nervous, I have that talking thing … I just ramble on and try to fill quiet space/awkward silences with something so that the silence isn’t there. I know that I’ll settle down in a few days or maybe a week and will feel more relaxed in front of the students, especially as I get to know them more, but these first few days take so much out of me because I have to make a real effort to seem outgoing and wanting to get to know the students when my instinct is to put my head down and work quietly.

It’s not because I hate students or anything like that–I actually like spending my days surrounded by sophomores (most of the time, anyway). It’s that I’m way more of an introvert than I let on, and those people who know me well see a little more of my personality than those who are getting to know me. Not only that, I also tend to overanalyze my interactions with people I don’t know well or encounter in social settings. For instance, if I go to a party, I will spend the entire drive home replaying the entire evening and searching for moments where I may have done something stupid or embarrassed myself. And that’s pretty much how yesterday went as well. I spent my entire drive home replaying the day to see if I said anything or did anything that might have left a bad impression on my students and wondered if I handled every classroom management situation well. You know, on a day where we did introductions, went over the course guidelines and did a small activity.

Other people don’t have this issue. They will come home on the first day a little tired because they’re not reacclimated to the routine of the school day, but they will be so enthusiastic about the kids they’re teaching and feeling even more excited for the next day. I come home exhausted, with my voice shot, and wondering whether or not I have already ruined their lives because the first day was too teacher-centered or something. And yes, I realize that this isn’t all about me and it’s about my students and all of the other supposedly selfless things that teachers say, but I’m not afraid to admit that I constantly worry about what I’m doing and if what I’m doing is the right way to do it. And the time when that’s the worst? The first day of school. When we hit the middle of September and I’ve got my rhythm down and I know the students and their traits and quirks very well, I won’t have as much anxiety about all of this and I won’t feel so exhausted when I get home because I feel like I have to pretend that I’m that constantly psyched all the time.

I also won’t have to constantly remind myself that I can do this.

I have a lectern in the front of my classroom and taped to the top of the lectern are notes students have left me over the years as well as a Post-It with the phrase “You’ve got this.” Now, I wrote that and put it there, but I did it because it was one of the best things any colleague has ever said to me in my nearly twelve years of teaching. It was about two years ago and I was getting ready for our school’s Poetry Out Loud assembly; I was running around the stage area like a complete nutcase, stressing out over every little detail because I had about 600 students who were about to come in to watch eight of their peers recite poems for a contest. My partner in the assembly and someone who was one of my best friends here, saw that I was basically about to pop a blood vessel, put her hand on my shoulder, and calmly said, “Hey. You’ve got this.” And I know that it was probably just her way of trying to calm me down because I was probably driving her nuts, but it worked and any time that I am super stressed out or wondering if I’m screwing everything up, I take a moment and remember that.

Because she’s right. I’ve got this. And even though I may not be completely on point with my enthusiasm, cheerleading, or teaching like a pirate-ness from minute one of day one, I know that when it comes to the long game, I’m going to have no problems. And I guess it’s kind of my hope that someone is reading this post (not likely, I barely get any traffic here) and can completely identify with my nervous energy and the exhaustion that comes from being introverted and forcing yourself to extrovert until you are comfortable. I don’t see many discussions about that when I read about making an impression on the first day, which maybe is one we should have so that we’re not all nervous wrecks and feeling guilty about hating the first day of school.

What I tell myself and what I am afraid to say

So the other day I got a message on Facebook from a former student.  She had just finished a placement test in writing at her new college and wanted to message me to tell me that she got a perfect score.  I congratulated her and wished her luck this year while also telling her that it’s going to be weird to not have her stopping by my room on a regular basis.  At some point during our quick chat, she said, “It’s because of you.”

I share this anecdote not to brag or hoist myself onto a pedestal, but because while I sent a message thanking her, my internal reaction was, “Really?”  I mean, I run into students all the time and am even friends with some on Facebook, but our conversations often have to do with catching up on how they are doing since I last saw them or heard from them or maybe something a little more random.  Most of the time, I walk away from the conversation feeling glad that I ran into him or her, and there are even times when I’m genuinely impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish beyond their time in my class.

But over the years I have had a hard time believing that I really had a hand in that person’s success.  Their talent and their ability all comes from within and I just get the feeling that if their teacher had been someone different, the results would have been similar.  They still would have succeeded and still would have gone on to lead good lives no matter whose classrooms they passed through.

It’s the teacher’s constant existential dilemma–do I really make a difference?  Does it really matter if I’m here?

And then there’s the other dilemma–am I allowed to admit that I’m a good teacher?

Now, my internal monologue (as it was) probably just comes from my own feelings of anxiety and oft-bruised self-esteem, and I certainly am not indicative of most teachers out there.  And while I usually am proud of what I’ve accomplished, I learned at an early age not to express that pride too much lest I be called an egomaniac.  In short, this is my own hang-up that I’m expressing here.


Whenever I read the comments on an article about teachers or teaching, I see people who want to set me on fire or run me out of town.  I’m their tax burden.  I’m a lazy waste.  I’m the source of the problem.  Whenever I go on edutwitter, it’s either platitudes in pretty boxes or statements about what I “should” be doing or what I “don’t” do.  I’ve even see Very Important Education Thought Leaders get in on the act and advocate all sorts of alternatives to what I do for a living, then claim to be supportive of teachers.  Everywhere I turn, it’s a reminder of what I’m doing wrong, and honestly, that gets to me.  I think it will get to anyone.

I realize that part of this profession is being humble and that students succeeding on their own is an indicator that they have received an excellent education, but I wonder when that translated into not being allowed to admit that you’re a good teacher.  I’m serious here–I’ve never actually said that to myself or out loud because I’ve more or less convinced myself that I’m not.  And I’m not writing this to fish for compliments or anything like that, just to say that I wonder if I’m the only person who goes through phases like this, where despite all evidence to the contrary, they think they’re not doing enough or not doing enough the right way.

I don’t wish to take credit for any of my students’ accomplishments. I’ve been fortunate and grateful to teach some amazing young people during my eleven years as a high school English teacher.  I’ve also had the misfortune of teaching some young people who were very much the opposite.  But I want to be allowed to take the opportunity to look at what I have done or how far I’ve come since I started teaching and say, if only to myself, “You’re a good teacher” and not feel that I’m being arrogant or putting myself before my students.  Maybe I’ll earn that one day.

Fear of Being Liberal

Last week, I watched the Democratic National Convention.  For the first time in what seems like many years, the party I follow and support inspired me.  I turned the television off each night feeling hyped up and even more ready to support Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.

Yet something did not sit well with me.  I thought her acceptance speech on Thursday night was superb.  It was the type of intelligent, thorough speech that I have come to expect from her, to the point where the English teacher part of my brain clicked into gear and gave her an A+ according to my rubric.  MSNBC’s after-speech commentary group, however, seemed less impressed.  They called it a “good closing argument” but didn’t like how much of it was a response to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech from a week earlier–you know, even though the person who closes second always has the luxury of tearing apart the argument the other side just made.  The other complaint was that it did not appeal to Republicans and was “too progressive.”

Now I guess I should set aside that  had she done exactly what the commentators were criticizing her for not doing, they would have criticized her for not being progressive enough or not directly addressing Donald Trump.  Picking things apart to get an audience reaction is what cable news talking heads do.  But the “too progressive” comment bothered me because it made me think about how for a long time I’ve hidden my own liberalism.

Okay, I haven’t exactly hidden it away and pretended to have conservative views, making my support for abortion rights my dirty little secret or anything.  It’s more like I was a liberal hiding in plain sight.

I grew up in an extremely white, extremely middle class town on the South Shore of Long Island that while not wholly conservative, has its fair share of conservative-minded people.  I went to a Jesuit college in Baltimore.  I teach in a rural and “red” county in Central Virginia.  This means that many members of my family, some of my friends from high school and college, and many of the members of the community in which I teach are conservatives.  If you combine that with my general non-confrontational nature (read: I don’t like to upset people or get them mad at me), I tend to keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics.  And I’m especially quiet at work–yes, I will put a bumper sticker on my car for the candidate I support, but I only volunteer my political views if asked and even then, I don’t say much.

There is so much wrong with those last two sentences that I don’t even know where to start.  Okay, I want to start by apologizing, but I’ll hold off because i think a diagnosis would work better.  I’m quiet because of a combination of a few things:  fatigue from years of having my conservative friends imply that I don’t like America because I never liked George W. Bush and I didn’t support the Iraq War; years of hearing tales of teachers fired for their views or because they spoke up; people above and around me making blanket statements about having to “watch what we say;” oh, and that one time I did get into a political argument with a student and two of his friends went to guidance and said that I “made them uncomfortable” in class (the student simply came to me and we talked it out).

I have, for so long, been a fraud.  I have encouraged students to speak their minds and yet am a wimp about speaking my own.  i have repeatedly qualified or apologized for my political views so that I would not be accused by a student or parent of pushing “liberal indoctrination.”  I have kept my mouth shut in the name of being polite while so many others just went off without any regard.  And I even feel uneasy writing this because it is  whining from the very seat of privilege.

And yet, I worry about my fellow teachers as we head back to school in a very heated election season.  I have no problem calling out those students who are bigots or racists–I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again–but what about the student whose views are opposed to mine but clearly based on inaccuracies micsonceptions fed to them by their parents or friends?  Can I fully engage them in a debate without being sent to the principal’s office for making them feel “uncomfortable?”  And even if I do, then, so what …?  Some of the best teachers I ever had were the ones who shook up my views just enough to make me think twice about who I supported or what I believed.  I never considered it “liberal indoctrination” just like I don’t think it’s “liberal indoctrination” to offer up diversity in authors read in class.  And I don’t think that my views are “controversial” because they don’t line up with a section of the community.

Over the course of four nights in Philadelphia, I watched so many different people speak and cheer.  I heard the concerns and the voices of so many who didn’t look like me or lead lives like mine.  And I walked away thinking that not only this is the America that I feel proud to be a part of, but this is America and I’m proud to be an American.  That is neither a liberal nor controversial view or an opinion to be afraid of, and while I don’t think it should be a challenge to show it, I know I should be ready to accept that challenge.

It’s Time to Put Right All The Wrongs I’ve Done

I have finally confirmed my feelings of inadequacy.  You see, my whole life, I have nothing but a cook.  Furthermore, the people whom I give credit for some of my accomplishments in life are nothing but cooks as well.  And I feel like I need to address this because I owe an apology to some and am owed restitution from others.

First, I need to take my father to task for not literally being a chef.  He was an educator himself, so he should have known better than to simply cook dinner every night.  He should have taken the food he bought at Waldbaum’s every Sunday morning and come up with creative and innovative ways of serving it for dinner instead of merely cooking it up and serving it.  Just about every meal we had as kids featured a piece of meat that was baked or grilled; a grain such as rice or starch such as potatoes, which were baked, boiled, or microwaved; and frozen vegetables, such as peas and carrots.  Clearly, he was locked into the concept of compliance and did not rebel against the system that so oppressively dictated that he provide a nutritionally balanced meal for his children.  To this day, whenever I find myself serving a meal that consists of a protein, a green vegetable, and a starch, I feel an enormous amount of shame for only having been taught how to be a cook and not a chef.

My AA baseball coach, Mr. Dimino, was a huge reason I ever hit a pitch.  Prior to being on his team, I was not only able to make contact, but I was incredibly scared of anything thrown my way.  We all took batting practice once a week and whenever I was up, he’d whing the ball over the plate and shout the same reminders of what we’d practiced in previous weeks: stay in the box, hold the bat tight, watch the ball, swing before it gets to the plate.  And no matter how many times I swung and missed, he insisted I try again until my time at batting practice was over.  I used to be proud of the fact that in my first at bat in our first scrimmage that season, I doubled into right-center field and later that season would hit the only home run I would ever hit in Little League.  But now I know that’s not something to be proud of because I was taught using drill-and-kill methods that kept me in the bottom of the order and had he let me take ownership of my baseball, I would have been a more creative hitter.  Being a solid contact hitter is neither anything to be proud of or brag about, no matter how bad I was when I started.

I played the piano consistently from the time I was in the fifth grade until I graduated from college and during that time I had two teachers: Mrs. Stein and Ms. Klosterman.  Mrs. Stein taught me starting in elementary school until my senior year, with Ms. Klosterman taking over during my senior year at Loyola.  Much like Mr. Dimino’s batting practice, every one of my piano lessons started with my working through scales and whenever I started a new piece, I had to identify the key in which it would be played.  And while I often got to choose the piece I was playing, I was never taught how to write music.  I used to count playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for my final recital in college as one of my proudest achievements in college, but now I realize that all I was doing was playing someone else’s work and not being a maker.  The lack of a maker space here means that I was cheated out of an authentic experience.

As a teacher, I clearly need to apologize for working within an abusive 19th Century industrial-based system.  I’m reminded of a student in my class a number of years ago (whose name shall remain anonymous so as to protect the dignity of my victim) who had problems with attendance and discipline that had landed her in my summer school class the previous year.  When she took my sophomore English class, we knew one another pretty well and I considered that a huge factor in her working hard and generally staying out of trouble.  When I ran into her on the last day of school that year and told her that her grade for the year was a C+, she gave me a huge high-five.  She has since graduated and I want to find out where she is so that I can tell her that I was wrong and she should not be proud of her improvement in her grade from year to year because grades are arbitrary, they send the wrong message, and don’t show anything beyond the accumulation of points for assignments that are quite often inauthentic and punitive.

The biggest shame, however, is that I have been ruining my own child.  Awhile back, I was a guest on a podcast called “My Star Wars Story” and when the host, Scott, asked me what Star Wars item I cherished the most, I told him that it was the Lego Millennium Falcon that Brett and I had put together.  My parents bought it for him when he was six years old and over the course of several weekends, we worked on the Falcon, eventually finishing it.  When he’s not playing with it, it has a prominent place on his toy shelves. Now all I want to do is smash it to pieces because of the harm I did him.  Can you imagine the cruelty of making him follow the directions?  It’s my failure as a parent to not let him create his own Millennium Falcon from scratch and I am a horrible person for thinking it would be cool to assemble the spaceship together because I’m excited that my son likes Star Wars as much as I do.  That’s not father-son bonding; it’s child abuse, plain and simple.

Thankfully, being a Connected Educator™ has shown me the error of my ways as both a teacher and a parent and I hope that I will somehow be able to make up all of this time I have lost and replace my false accomplishments in life with experiences and achievements that live up to all of the authentic innovative maker-based personalized creative endeavors that the 21st Century demands.

Edusplain, Defined.

Urban Dictionary defines “Mansplain” as: to delight in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in the conversation.

So while I was writing the draft of last Monday’s entry, I found myself in one of those Twitter conversations that I sometimes find myself in because I happen to have an opinion or point that is slightly contrary to edutwitter groupthink.  It began when I responded to someone’s point about deadlines.  He had said*:

 I’m a grant writer. My papers are due at a certain time & there is no forgiveness.

I more or less agreed and replied:

I used to be a proposal writer.  Not getting it right meant no new business.

What followed was a quick back and forth that was less of a discussion of education theory and more of two people commiserating about professional experience and work situations.  I jokingly ended with “Oh God, I’m getting flashbacks” and went back to working on my draft.  Some time later, I opened Twitter and was greeted with a ton of notifications.  Someone else had decided to respond and they were tweets that quite a number of people thought were profound because even at least two days later, they were being retweeted.  Here are a few:

 if Thomas Edison were denied redo’s, would we still be in the dark?


We’re asking tchrs 2 really teach, not play, “gotcha,” then blame students when they fail.


“One and done,” rarely leads to effective instruction. Descrptv fdbk and revision needed.


It’s hw we learn to get things right & on time. Giving F’s doesn’t build self-discipline

I responded to such profound words with my usual brand of sarcasm:

It’s not worth arguing with tweets meant to display a person’s sense of superiority.


Gee, my experience as an editor never taught that feedback was important.  Thanks.

What this confirmed was that the person I’d been talking to had been doing what so many Connected Educators™ love to do, which is edusplain.  Building off the  definition provided at the beginning of this post, here is a definition:

Edusplain: to delight in condescending, platitude-filled explanations delivered with rock-solid confidence of rightness and certainty that he/she is right because of self-professed expertise based on years of experience or number of followers on social media.

Now, if you look at my tweets, I am coming off as a big baby, and it was noted as much in the conversation:

Tom, it seems I’ve offended you in some way, and sarcasm is your response. ‘Apologies.

And I honestly find that tweet funny because of the way it tries to downplay my voice simply because I’m being snarky and suggests that I may be offended in some way.  In other words, the response re: my sarcasm was an attempt to claim some sort of moral high ground.  I also find it funny because that person doesn’t seem to know the difference between offended and annoyed, because I was simply the latter.  And I personally think my tone was wholly appropriate because what was going ton wasn’t a conversation so much as it was someone tweeting bullshit at me for the sake of offering “advice” or “feedback” or “clarification” for the purpose of getting retweets and followers.  Is the point that descriptive feedback is necessary if students are going to learn and grow a good point?  Of course it is–anyone with half a brain will tell you that.  But look at the way those tweets were phrased.  They are the Twitter equivalent of a bumper sticker–you can drop them into a number of online conversations and the same sheep will retweet them.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to have had a solid conversation on the topic of feedback and retrying after failure, but the minute anyone starts edusplaining, I push back with snark because I frankly am tired of it and I want it to be called out more.  Edusplaining is what makes people like me who are “just teachers” feel increasingly irrelevant or make us not want to participate in whatever Connected Educator™ revolution that Connected Educators™ think they have launched.  The edusplaining drowns out the actual substance of education’s social media presence and needs to stop.  Stop tweeting nonsense, stop putting quotes in pictures, and stop being son condescending to anyone who might have a slightly different take on the world just because you have “decades of experience.”  Use the greatest communication tool of our time to actually communicate for once, not to continue to pump your ego.

*Names have been withheld to protect the innocent and not give credit to the guilty.




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.”