John Spevak: What do teachers make?

John.spevak@gmail.com August 7, 2014 

A book title intrigued me when I was browsing through a bookstore recently.

The title, “What Teachers Make,” is timely, since another school year is about to begin.

I hadn’t heard of the book (published in 2012) or the author, Taylor Mali, but I picked it up, paged through it, and spontaneously bought the small paperback. The heart of the book is a poem, with the same title, which Mali wrote and first published in 2002. Although I wasn’t previously aware of it, the spirited poem has become widely known in the past decade.

Part of the poem’s fame is the dramatic oral interpretation Mali gives it in a YouTube video, which has been viewed more than 5 million times.

Mali, a teacher for nine years, invested much thought, energy, creativity and pride into his teaching. One day someone at a cocktail party, who knew he was a teacher, asked him, “What do teachers make?”

The question was asked with cynicism and sarcasm. The man asking it earned a big salary in the business world and knew a teacher’s salary was small by comparison. He couldn’t respect someone who didn’t make anywhere close to the money he did.

Mali was incensed by this clueless guy’s patronizing question, but he bit his tongue that evening. Later, after cooling down, he thought of good answers to the question “As a teacher, what do I make?” answers which became part of his poem, including these lines:

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.

He concluded by saying that, as a teacher, above all, “I make a difference.” Mali’s book includes many examples of his bringing the best out of the young people he taught. He describes the work that goes into being a good teacher, including the time spent preparing for classes, assigning and checking homework, and determining grades.

Mali also illustrates how much creativity good teachers need to be effective and make learning come alive, getting students excited to know more about the world.

He explains how a teacher needs to spend time getting to know each student as an individual and figuring out how to best motivate each student uniquely.

After I finished reading “What Teachers Make,” I reflected on how grateful I am for all the good teachers in my life, those who have taught me and those who have taught my children and grandchildren.

I realize that not all teachers excel at teaching. As in any job or career, there are some people who are not suited for the profession and others who don’t take it seriously enough. That’s why educational administrators need to hold teachers to the highest standards. But the preponderance of teachers I have known take their job seriously, consider it more of a “calling” than a job and put in many, many hours outside the classroom to ensure students learn and grow as much as possible.

I would encourage the parents of all children who are returning to school this month – from kindergarten through senior high – to get to know their teachers.

Good teachers appreciate parent participation in the teaching and learning process.

Parents should come to as many orientations, back-to-school gatherings and parent-teacher conferences as they can. In some cases, parents can even connect with teachers via email.

The more parents understand what a teacher is trying to do, the more appreciation they will have for teaching and the more they can help their children succeed in learning.

Parent-teacher interaction today may be important than ever. A new approach to teaching and learning, called Common Core, is being implemented. The key concept of this approach, encouraging students to think more on their own, is a good one.

But the implementation of Common Core in some cases is tricky. The more parents understand the approach, the more they can help their children understand. And teachers will be glad to provide parents with explanations.

Any parent who takes the time to get to know a teacher well will be much wiser than the nitwit who asked Taylor Mali, “What do teachers make?”

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association Blue Ribbon Finalist for 2013, are encouraged, and can be sent to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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