In its various versions, it’s enjoyed more than a million views. I understand its popularity. What I want to explain today is why it frustrates me so very deeply.
I’m talking about Taylor Mali’s poem/performance piece, “What Teachers Make”, a powerful, clever, and moving riff on the disconnect between what teachers are paid and the difference they make. The context is a dinner party at which Mali responds to a fellow guest’s questions, “What’s a kid going to learn from someone who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?” and “You’re a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make?”
Taking “be honest” at face value, Mali proceeds to rip his interlocutor a new one. Here are a few choice nuggets:
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.
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 see their children for who they are
and what they can be.
I make them apologize and mean it.
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?
I have to admit, even as I type this, I’m a little flustered. Okay, really flustered. But not simply angry: rather, I’m saddened, and kind of triggered, by this piece. You see, I have a decent idea where this guy is coming from, having taught in conventional schools at the beginning of my career. Twenty years ago, I likely would’ve thought this was the most brilliant, eloquent defense of the profession I’d ever heard.
Because it’s true: teachers willingly place themselves in stressful environments; they paint big targets on their backs. And why? In many cases, it stems from a profound idealism, passion, and desire to serve. Not only are their salaries misaligned with the lip service they’re paid about shaping future generations, teachers are caught in the incessant cross-fire of criticism from students, parents, colleagues, administrators, and the public.
So I’ve been there, and I get it, I really do. Teachers are pursuing a noble cause, and in return they receive a mountain of shit. What upsets me is the effect this has on many of them: defensiveness too often leads to self-righteousness, even narcissism and hubris. Well, congratulations, conventional schooling: you’ve created a culture of saviors and martyrs.
Think I’m being melodramatic? Take another look at Mali’s text and bask in the naked assertion of power, the delight he takes in being forceful. I make…I make…I MAKE. There’s a glowing pride in forcing young people to sit still, to work, to apologize—essentially, getting inside people’s heads and controlling them, directing them toward ends the teacher considers worthy.
Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? I certainly hope not.
“What Teachers Make” reveals an ugly dynamic that our culture has somehow come to regard as normal, even acceptable. Conventional schools put children and adults alike in situations where they are disempowered, their relationships twisted into ego trips and power plays. No amount of “for your own good” and “teachers are heroes” rhetoric can cover the stench of coercion and disrespect emanating from the system. Indeed, what are the drive for accountability and the madness of quantified, standardized “learning” but code language for “we don’t trust you”?
This system takes people and turns them against each other. When I was a new teacher in the early ’90s, the imperative “Don’t smile till Christmas” was already an ancient proverb. From a student’s point of view, ’80s films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 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.
While I can’t blame anyone caught in this ugly scenario for lapsing into an adversarial mindset, I do call upon all of us to create something much better. No one ultimately benefits from a system in which people are assumed to be in need saving and expected to become martyrs. Children and adults alike deserve to be treated like people, as individuals with inalienable rights, worthy of trust, respect, and responsibility.
Half a century of Sudbury schooling demonstrates that not only can we trust people’s innate drives to learn, explore, and master, but that the results are even greater than anyone trapped in the dominant, industrial paradigm could dare to dream. Let’s not “make” anyone defend themselves against a system that dehumanizes and turns people against each other, that stigmatizes them as incapable, incorrigible, or incompetent. We know better.