GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, you are listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
The profession of teaching has come under fire in recent years. Teachers are blamed for low test scores or called lazy, even greedy. Most people assume their workday is short and their vacations are long.
But teachers also have their defenders, perhaps none so passionate as Taylor Mali. He was once a full-time teacher. Now, he calls himself a teacher-poet, and he's just released a new book. It's called "What Teachers Make," and it explains his journey from educator to advocate. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Taylor Mali says he went to graduate school for poetry and came out a teacher. But during his years in the classroom, he never stopped writing poems. That came in handy after an unpleasant encounter with an obnoxious lawyer one night at a party.
TAYLOR MALI: He insulted me and the entire teaching profession by essentially saying that anyone who wanted to become a teacher obviously didn't have the intellectual capacity to be allowed to be one. And then he probably did ask me what my annual salary was. And I probably looked down at my shoes and said $27,500. And so it was probably a week or two later that I wrote the comeuppance that I wish I had been witty enough to deliver that night.
NEARY: Mali poured his anger into a poem he called "What Teachers Make." When he began performing it at poetry slams, he realized he had hit a nerve.
MALI: I mean, you're a teacher, Taylor. Be honest. What do you make? And I wish he hadn't done that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MALI: Asked me to be honest because, you see, I have a policy about honesty and ass-kicking, which is, if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
MALI: You want to know what I make? I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could. I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor, and I can make a...
If you've ever been to a Poetry Slam, you know that the highest scoring emotion is self-righteous indignation. How dare you judge me? So in that way, the poem "What Teachers Make" is a absolutely formulaic slam poem designed to allow me to get up on my soapbox and say, let me tell you what really makes me angry.
Let me break it down for you so you know what I say is true. I make a goddamn difference. Now, what about you?
NEARY: The poem catapulted Mali into a new life. A video of his performance went viral. He started to get invitations to speak on behalf of teachers and in front of teachers. Without exactly meaning to, he became an advocate for teachers, a profession he truly believes doesn't get the respect it deserves.
MALI: The subtitle of "What Teachers Make" is "If Things Don't Work Out For You, You Can Always Go To Law School." And too often, people have been saying that about teaching. You know, if you don't know what you want to do, you can always, you know, any idiot can teach for a while. That's just not true.
NEARY: There are a lot of good teachers out there, says Mali, but the very best have a talent for making students want to do well.
MALI: The best teachers that I had were always the ones I never wanted to disappoint. And I worked harder than I thought I was capable. And one of the most important things that teachers teach students is you can work harder. You are mentally tougher than you think.
NEARY: Mali is no longer a classroom teacher, but he still remembers those extraordinary moments when one of his students suddenly got it. He recalls one time when a student was struggling to understand a mathematical concept.
MALI: And this kid looked up at me and said: Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait. Are you saying that 13 and a half times one-third times 11 times zero is going to be - and I said: What do you think? And he said: Zero? I went: Yeah. And he went: Ah, this changes everything. That's the great joy of being a teacher, when you realize that the lesson you have just sunk deeply into the clay of their brain has changed everything.
NEARY: Mali writes about those moments in a poem called "I Teach for the Fire."
MALI: (Reading) I teach for the fire, the moment of ignition, the spark, the light bulb of cognition going on in the dark over the adolescent's head. Oh, beautiful incandescence, dazzling the dead air all around the room. He tries and he tries and he tries and, boom, he gets it, and you can see it in his eyes. I teach for that moment.
NEARY: But even Mali admits that a teacher can sometimes abuse the power he or she holds over a class, and he's been criticized for his tough, sometimes angry, defense of the teaching profession. But he's not about to back off, and he sees no need to apologize.
MALI: The poem "What Teachers Make" is not without its detractors. This one person wrote to me and said: Gee, Mr. Mali. You don't possibly have a teacher-God complex, do you? And that was the first time I'd ever heard of that expression. So, yeah, I'm sure I have a teacher-God complex.
NEARY: Mali believes the best way to train teachers is to put them in a classroom and watch them teach. Instead of obsessing about our worst teachers, Mali says, we need to start a new national conversation about what it takes to be a great teacher and how to attract more people with that potential to our schools. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.