This book exists because of a poem.
In 1997 I went to a New Year's Eve party where an arrogant young lawyer insulted me and the entire teaching profession. Teachers are so overworked and disrespected, he reasoned, that anyone who would choose to become a teacher today must be of questionable intelligence and therefore shouldn't really be allowed to teach in the first place. It was like something a mean-spirited Groucho Marx would say: anyone dumb enough to want to be a teacher shouldn't be allowed to be one. For the lawyer, it really came down to how poorly compensated teachers are — no intelligent person would take a job that paid less than what he was making as a lawyer. At the party that night I was so furious inside that I couldn't come up with a clever comeback, so I bit my tongue and laughed politely. But the next day, January 1, 1998, I wrote a poem that was the forceful response I wish I had delivered that night. The poem was called "What Teachers Make."
"What Teachers Make" wasn't published in a book until three years later, but I did post it immediately on my website, which like many websites back then was brand-new and had a lot of pages that said either "Under Construction" or "Coming Soon!" And shortly after I posted the poem, I started to get a lot of e-mails about it.
"What Teachers Make" struck a nerve; it is about defending teachers and why we teach, and our anger at being judged by the size of our paycheck instead of by the difference we make. The poem speaks to people, teachers and non-teachers alike. Unbeknownst to me, it was copied and pasted and e-mailed around the world, sometimes without my name attached to it, forwarded by friends with apologetic disclaimers about how they "don't normally forward things, but you must read this!"
The poem was excerpted by famous people giving speeches and delivering commencement addresses. Newspaper columnists wrote about the poem and quoted from it. Seattle Public Radio did a story about it. Other versions of the poem were written, either to clean up my language — I was angry when I wrote it, and my outrage certainly influenced my choice of words — or to make it fit other professions. Eventually someone posted a video on YouTube of me performing the poem live, and that's when it really took off. Millions of people have now watched and listened to the poem. It seems I was lucky enough to capture in words what many people have thought but never quite been able to say.
In two different ways, the poem "What Teachers Make" changed my life more than it did anyone else's. First, it changed my job. When I wrote the poem I was still teaching in a regular classroom. But two years after writing it, I decided to put my teaching career on hold — to "quit my day job," as they say — to see if I could pay the bills as a touring poet and advocate for teachers. I now make my living traveling around the world teaching poetry, talking to teachers about how to teach poetry, and simply reminding teachers why the path they have chosen to walk is noble, valuable, crucially important, and rewarding, despite the snide comments they may get about their paychecks. I'm following my dream.
But "What Teachers Make" changed my life in another, more appreciable way as well. People started to become teachers after reading it or hearing it. I started getting e-mails from college students telling me they had changed their majors to education and that I was at least partly responsible for their decision. That made me feel like I was making a difference in people's lives. So after a couple dozen people told me that they had decided to pursue a career in education after reading the poem, I gave myself a goal: I would convince one thousand people to become teachers through nothing more than the passion with which I spoke about the profession. I called it the New Teacher Project. Suddenly I had a new purpose in my life. I had a vision of something larger than myself. And on a practical level, I had another reason to write every morning. And that has had a profound impact on me. I am not just writing to delight and instruct anymore, I am trying to change the world, one teacher at a time.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, even after I finally reach my goal of helping to create one thousand teachers, I will have done virtually nothing to help improve education in the United States. Serious inequalities remain in the way schools are funded, and teachers are under attack for being lazy and incompetent. These are problems that require more than poetry. In fact, sometimes I think I make the problems worse! What am I, really, but a propagandist who mollifies teachers into accepting the status quo? I sometimes feel that way when I am worn out from the fight. But I always come back to the fact that being a teacher is one of the greatest jobs in the world, and sometimes the people who have chosen to walk that noble path simply need to be reminded that there is a vast army of educated and grateful citizens who has their backs. Someone needs to remind teachers that they are dearly loved. I'm that guy.
From What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World by Taylor Mali. Copyright 2012 by Taylor Mali. Excerpted by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.