Things I Know 349 of 365: ‘What Teachers Make’ is more than it first appears

The first time I heard Taylor Mali’s “What Teachers Make” performed live, it wasn’t by Mali. One of the other students in my undergrad program was a champion on our speech team, and he delivered a stunning performance.

Later, once Youtube arrived, I was able to watch Mali perform the piece as he intended. It was every bit as impassioned and dripping with personal experience as I imagined. I remember showing it to colleagues and shaking our heads knowingly.

Finally, someone was speaking out for us.

I looked the poem up online recently. Watching the performance, it occurred to me how complicated the piece is from a pedagogical perspective. I tear up when he says, “I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:/I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,/I just wanted to talk to you about something Billy said today./Billy said, “Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?”/And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.”

And I cringe when I hear the recorded audience cheer after, “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 get a drink of water?/Because you’re not thirsty, you’re bored, that’s why.”

For many teachers, on their first encounter with the poem, discussion turns to its encapsulation of how misunderstood the profession has become.

For me, the poem itself has become a rallying cry for the conversation we need to have about the relics of the professional past to which we cling to proudly and the changes we might be too afraid to make.

Mali has a new book due out March 29 with the same title as the poem. I’m looking forward to reading it – especially considering its subtitle – “In praise of the greatest job in the world.”

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