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Taylor Mali and “What Teachers Make”

English: Taylor Mali at the international scho...
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My good friend, David, introduced me and my classmates to this poem a while ago.  I still love it and thought I would share it with you, along with the link to the YouTube video in which he recites the poem.  I asked Mr. Mali’s permission to publish this poem here and he granted it this morning.

What Teachers Make

What Teachers Make
by Taylor Mali

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?

Mali. Taylor. “What Teachers Make.” What Learning Leaves. Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. Print. (ISBN: 1-­?887012-­?17-­?6)

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It’s been a while…

Yes, I know, it’s been a while since I posted.  In fact, the last post talked about some rather depressing situations I have found myself in as a substitute teacher.  I’m only writing now so I can move that post down a bit, to be honest.

Opening and closing question marks
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Since I last wrote, I have reflected often on my goals as a teacher.  Substitute teaching has afforded me many opportunities to meet more experienced teachers, practice classroom management, investigate the texts available in the classroom, and see how other classrooms are set up.  I have enjoyed these experiences.  While I ache for my own classroom, I know that this … apprenticeship of sorts is necessary, so I am trying to get the most out of it that I can.

This experience has taught me that the novel I wrote as a visualization exercise was way off-base.  My idealism and optimism about my character’s impact on the students rings hollow now.  The main question I have is this: How can a teacher positively affect students who have disastrous home lives?  I have met students in the last four months who come to school tired, hungry, dirty, and / or emotionally traumatized.  Their parents or guardians have neglected them for reasons I know not.  How can a teacher surmount those obstacles?   In the novel, Njka (the main character) opens her own wallet to purchase food for the students that she can keep in her classroom.  Her friend Koda warns her that she is going to go broke if she keeps doing this, but she doesn’t care.  Then, after finding out that the students did not have enough time to get breakfast provided by the school and get to class on time, she takes over the Home Ec room and cooks for her students.  Finally, she arranges for brown bag breakfasts (like the type you can get at Hampton Inn if you need to rush to work – I loved them) that students can pick up and take to class with them.  To help a student, Peter, who seemed to be lost in anger and frustration, she visits his home and discovers that his parents are so busy working multiple jobs and caring for five children that they simply don’t have time for him.  He resents this very much because he is the oldest and wishes they had not had more children.  If only they had stopped with his birth, they would not have to work so much and would have time for him; instead he is forced to raise his siblings and has developed a deep hatred of them and his parents.  He is also quite cynical about life in general.  In response, Njka purchases a sketch book and high-quality pencils for Peter when she notices that he is a great artist.  Peter starts to journal as the other students have done and shares his illustrations and stories with his teacher.  Njka has time for him and he appreciates this so much that his attitude at school and home changes.  He becomes hopeful and social for the first time in a very long time.  She also refuses to allow students to use their home lives as an excuse for doing poorly in school.  The students work hard, performing Shakespearean plays (a nod to Rafe Esquith) and writing their own plays, for example.  She encourages them to do community service and support each other as well. She also makes the read a book a month and write a paper on it, an assignment that goes beyond anything they have had before.  Yes, she makes them research the book and provide citations in MLA format.  🙂

Can things like this happen in real life?  Of course they can!  The schools I visit offer breakfast to their students daily.  The nutritional value of that meal is suspect; although I haven’t seen the food offered in the morning, I have seen the lunch fare and it’s terrible.  Teachers do not have to worry about students coming to school hungry unless those children do not arrive at school in time for breakfast.  Can teachers reach out to students as Njka did to Peter?  Well, that is another story.  Legal issues abound in this area and Njka could have been accused of trying to become too close to Peter by buying him gifts and taking such an avid interest in him.  Teachers cannot visit students’ homes anymore, either.  In many ways, teachers’ hands are tied when it comes to improving the lives of their students.  It is frustrating, I am sure.  How can we change that?  Do teachers want to change that?

My original question remains unanswered to my satisfaction.  It is the one that weighs most heavily on my mind.  Any insights you might have are welcome.

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