On a tough day in the classroom, all of us have turned to Taylor Mali‘s poem “What Teachers Make” for some solace. Last month Taylor published a book, What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World, which is the kind of book you want to have around when a tough day turns into a tough week. It’s the kind of pick-me-up all teachers need every now and again.
Taylor was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for him after I finished reading his book. Take a peek at what he said:
SAS: Your poem, and now your book, have motivated so many people to want to teach. What about your message has resonated most with people?
TM: One of the definitions of poetry that I love is “What oft’ was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” and I think that’s why the poem resonates with so many people. Because it puts into forceful words what they have always secretly wanted to say but couldn’t. At least, I hope that’s it.
SAS: In the chapter “Making Kids Work Hard,” you stated that the attributes of diligence, cooperation, resilience, flexibility, critical thinking and problem solving are the most important things to impart to children in order to get them to work hard. You and I both know that most standardized tests do not test for these things. How do you think the testing system can be revamped to assess students for these skills that they are sure to need in order to thrive in both the workplace and in life?
TM: I don’t know, but you’re right; standardized tests are a wholly inadequate measure of what really determines a student’s success: creativity, problem solving, discipline, and resilience. I heard about a strange test that simply asks you to list all the things you might do with a brick. The good standardized test takers list five things and think they are done. The more ingenious students have lists that number into the hundreds and contain things like “Use it as a stepping stone for midgets to get onto a cedar deck.” Maybe there are tests out there that measure these things. But then again, maybe we’re obsessed with tests. Maybe there is great value to skills that we do not yet know how to measure. Politicians can’t really say that. Only poets can.
SAS: On page 88, you provided us with a possible definition for what a teacher should be: “someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself.” How do you think we can make this definition a reality in America’s public schools?
TM: With great difficulty. I think the conversation is starting about what makes a great teacher. Or starting again. I heard a doctor say that the most challenging and holistic definition of a doctor is “someone who, after you talk to them, you feel better.” I’m essentially saying the same thing for teachers: contact with them increases your capacity and desire to learn. Plain and simple. How do we get there? I don’t really know, but it probably involves trying to emulate on a broad scale the work of a successful few. There are some great new paradigms out there, sometimes happening in charter schools.
SAS: You talked about the vicious climate teachers are facing in “Fighting back against the attack on teachers.” How do you think teachers can truly change the perception that they only work from 8 to 3 and have your summers off? Is there something more that you think teachers can and should be doing to get the American public to truly understand that teachers work so hard, often at the expense of spending time with their families, on hobbies, or nourishing themselves?
TM: There’s no doubt teachers could be doing a better job of letting people know just how difficult their jobs are, but the truth is they HAVE MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO! Recent movies like “American Teacher” are shedding some light on what really happens in the classroom, but it’s become apparent that if we don’t define who we are, others will do it for us, and get it wrong.
SAS: In the epilogue of your book you wrote, “Inequalities inherent in the public school system are resegregating our schools and widening the achievement gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.” Can you expand on what you wrote and share some ways that you think we can level the playing field for all children in the next five years? (Money being no object, of course.)
TM: I can try. But know that I am a poet more than an activist. Why can’t we have a law that limits the size of a class in elementary, middle, and high school. I taught English in private schools to classes of less than 20, and it was exhausting but doable. I could stay on top of each student’s progress and make sure that I got their rough drafts submitted in a timely fashion, reviewed & returned, revised and handed in again as a final draft and then graded and commented on. That’s a lot of work. But some public school teachers have 40 students in a class! Maybe even more! With that many students, a teacher almost PRAYS that some kids will never hand in the rough draft. In fact, it’s so hard to get ANYTHING turned in with that many students, what teacher has the time to comment on a rough draft and ask for another revision? We need to limit class sizes across the nation. That’s going to mean sending money from rich suburbs to poor inner city districts and rural areas. That’s a redistribution of wealth & resources, and that sounds . . . socialist! So wish us luck with that.
If you find yourself losing steam as the school year comes to a close and need to reinvigorate yourself as a teacher, then pick up a copy of What Teachers Make. It will reaffirm all of the incredible work you do with children each and every day you set foot into the classroom.
HOW TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY: This giveaway is for three copies of What Teachers Make for three of our readers. Many for thanks the Penguin Group for sponsoring this giveaway. To enter for a chance to win a copy of What Teachers Make each reader may leave one comment about this post in the comments section of this post. Feel free to share your thoughts about this interview, what you do when you’ve had a tough day in the classroom, or your thoughts on education reform. All comments left on or before Friday, May 25th at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Sunday, May 27th. I will announce the winner’s name at the bottom of this post on May 27th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address and have my contact at Penguin send the book out to you. Please note: Your e-mail address will not be published online.
Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment.
Congratulations to the following three people whose comment numbers were picked using the random number generator.
The first copy of What Teachers Make goes to AJF, who wrote:
I woke up this morning thinking about teachers – those already in the profession and those who dream of entering this wonderful profession where we really do make a difference every day by what we do. However, the intermingling of angst about restructuring teacher evaluation processes while simultaneoulsy revamping curriculum and raising levels of achievement were contributing to me being wide awake at a time on Saturday morning when I should have been asleep! Reading this interview was definitely what I needed this morning. It helped me to remember that we (teachers) need to advocate for our profession and be leaders WHILE being inspirations to our students. We guide them through the curriculum and the multiple land mines of life supporting, encouraging and caring. I must admit that I had not heard of the poem (or of his other poems) or his book until I read your interview and did a bit of a Google search a few minutes ago. NO matter what, I guess we need to have this one on the nightstand for both the hard days with the kids and the days when “others” get us down!
The second copy of the book goes to Miranda Kuykendall who commented:
I definitely resonated with Taylor’s comments about large classes. I’ve taught classes of 33 with insufficient numbers of desks, and I’ve taught classes without literature books at my disposal. Guess where this was? Yep – a low-income school. I think something definitely can be done about the issue, but it will require people in authority making hard decisions and forsaking popularity at times.
I love his thoughts about getting kids to think and work HARD. One of my goals this year was to have students work harder than they ever have before, and now that final assessments are rolling in, they are thanking me. It really works. And I’m going to have to try that brick question next week. I love it!
Jackie will receive the final copy of What Teachers Make. She said:
I appreciate the message in this book. It helps me understand why I am feeling energized about teaching next fall even though I am about to finish one lf the most difficult years I’ve ever had. I guess it’s all about the impact I’ve/we’ve had on the students and the importance of what teachers do.
I am a literacy consultant who has spent the past dozen years working with teachers to improve the teaching of writing in their classrooms. While I work with teachers and students in grades K-6, I'm a former fourth and fifth-grade teacher so I have a passion for working with upper elementary students.
I'm the author of Craft Moves (Stenhouse Publishers, 2016) and the co-author of Jump Into Writing (Zaner-Bloser, 2021), Welcome to Writing Workshop (Stenhouse Publishers, 2019), and Day By Day (Stenhouse, 2010).