What do teachers make? They make a goddamn difference.

A classic performance by the fiery spoken-word poet, teacher, and teachers’ advocate Taylor Mali:

A more recent version, coinciding with the publication of Mali’s book, What Teachers Make:

I love this poem for what it says about teachers’ passion, commitment, and the undervalued importance of their sacred trust to help shape the next generation. But it also seems to present a one-sided version of education: the strict, no-nonsense, sit-down-and-shut-up teacher who needs to whip reluctant and undisciplined students into shape. That’s not a model that will work for everyone; why is there no mention of kindness, encouragement, and the importance of letting students ask questions rather than slapping them down? How do you get kids to love and look forward to learning, rather than view it as medicine that they have to swallow? A wise comment on YouTube (a true rarity!) points out:

I love the message of the video — that teaching is about more than just a salary, but without context, some of the pedagogy in the video is straight up flawed. Encourage group work/ collaborative learning (when appropriate). If students are constantly looking for a way out of the classroom, it’s a good indicator that you need to make your lessons more engaging. Teachers should never strike fear in parents. Parents can be valuable resources. Finally, NEVER tell students they can’t ask questions.

Yes. Mali says he makes students wonder, but I wish he’d elaborate on that. Kids are born curious and wondering; how do we avoid squashing that, and just get out of the way?

Nevertheless, point taken: Teachers have a difficult and tremendously important job, and should be valued and supported in this country more than they are. I’d add that not only shouldn’t they be judged by how much money they make, but they also can’t be judged by flawed rating systems such as New York City’s — a ludicrous calculation involving “value-added scores” that lets good teachers slip through the cracks. William Johnson, supposedly a “bad teacher,” explains:

[T]he reality [is] that teachers care a great deal about our work. At the school where I work today, my “bad” teaching has mostly been very successful. Even so, I leave work most days replaying lessons in my mind, wishing I’d done something differently. This isn’t because my lessons are bad, but because I want to get better at my job. [...]

The truth is, teachers don’t need elected officials to motivate us. If our students are not learning, they let us know. They put their heads down or they pass notes. They raise their hands and ask for clarification. Sometimes, they just stare at us like zombies. Few things are more excruciating for a teacher than leading a class that’s not learning. Good administrators use the evaluation processes to support teachers and help them avoid those painful classroom moments — not to weed out the teachers who don’t produce good test scores or adhere to their pedagogical beliefs.

And an excellent point about the student-teacher relationship:

That said, given all the support in the world, even the best teacher can’t force his students to learn. Students aren’t simply passive vessels, waiting to absorb information from their teachers and regurgitate it through high-stakes assessments. They make choices about what they will and won’t learn. I know I did. When I was a teenager, I often stayed up way too late, talking with friends, listening to music or playing video games. Did this affect my performance on tests? Undoubtedly. Were my teachers responsible for these choices? No.

Schoolteacher Laura Klein chimes in:

[W]ith teaching, it’s always hard to know just how much of the results are the result of good teaching. Perhaps it is good parenting, or the work of previous teachers. Sometimes it is just the result of a child maturing and coming into her own.

Still, when a child succeeds in your class for the first time in her academic career, it is one of the rare occasions when you can feel as if you had something to do with it. And you are probably right. There’s a good chance that the relationship that you have with that student has played an important role in her success. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. [...]

Kids who succeed because of us are not kids who have the tools to succeed in the long run.

“Don’t do it for me; care about yourself,” my co-teacher often says to our students [...]

A good relationship can change a child’s year, but it doesn’t usually change her life. For that, we have to change the way that students relate to themselves.

What to make of all this? Perhaps that Taylor Mali is right — that teachers make a goddamn difference — but also that students aren’t automatons, waiting for the right programmer. They’re human individuals, needing encouragement and direction, but ultimately choosing their paths for themselves, as we all do.

Another excellent spoken-word piece by Mali here.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “What do teachers make? They make a goddamn difference.

  1. Great post! I watched Mali’s video for the first time a few days ago, and while I liked it, there were a few bits that didn’t seem right. You’ve articulated the problems with those very well!

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