What Teachers Make| Notes & Review

Posted on August 2, 2013


Taylor Mali. What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012. (198 pages)

what teachers make

What teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If Things Don’t Work Out, You Can Always Go to Law School

He says the problem with teachers is,
What’s a kid going to learn from someone
who decided his best option in life was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue — instead of his —
and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that —
asked me to be honest —
because, you see, I have a policy
about honesty and ass-kicking:
if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.
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 an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

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 tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said, “Leave the kid alone.
I still cry sometimes, don’t you? It’s no big deal.”
And it was the noblest act of courage I have ever seen.

I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

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, write, write,
and then I make them read.
I make them spell
definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful,
definitely beautiful

over and over and over again until they will never misspell either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math,

and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you got this
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you,
so you know what I say is true:
Teachers? Teachers make a difference!
Now what about you?


Making Kids Work Hard

The whole object of education is…to develop the mind. The mind should be a thing that works. – Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)

Simply put, the best teachers are the ones you work your tail off for because in the end you just don’t want them to think any less of you. You want, and need their approval. (9-10)

When you do not submit your absolute best work for evaluation, everyone loses. (11)

…the ability to work harder than you ever thought you could may be the most important thing a teacher can teach. (11)

The real lesson here is the diligence, cooperation, resilience, flexibility, critical thinking, and problem solving you are actively using today. (12)

Your Child Is My Student

Education is too important to be left solely to educators – Francis Keppel (1916-1990)

Great teachers will never be able to make up for bad parents, nor should they ever be expected to. And yet it happens all the time. (15)

There is one thing that teachers can sometimes do that parents cannot: see a child’s potential objectively, untainted by family history and parental expectations. (16)


Imagine there’s a car competing in a 100-mile road race. Halfway through the race, the car makes a pit stop and the crew chief determines that its average speed so far is 50 mph. How much faster must the car go in the second half of the race in order to end up with an average speed of 100 mph for the entire race?…The best the car can do is to revise its expectations for the outcome of this race and promise to do better in the next one. I think of this story often when a student or parent comes to me midway through the term to ask what can be done to salvage an A for the term. Like the old farmer from Maine giving directions, I have to tell them, “You cant’ get there from here.”

Teachers have their sights set on the real goal: not to produce Ivy League graduates, but to encourage the development of naturally curious, confident, flexible, and happy learners who are ready for whatever the future has in store. (22)

A Poet Becomes a Teacher (and Vice Versa)

The task of the poet is to delight or instruct, and we must reserve our greatest approbation for those who can do both at the same time. – Horace (65-8 BC)

That’s what teaching is, the art of explanation: presenting the right information in the right order in a memorable way. (26)

…the most important work to be done in education is with the youngest possible kids, the ones in primary school and pre-primary. (27)

Calling Home

I quickly discovered three important lessons about making good phone calls to parents. First of all, those calls are easier and more fun to make; there is no threat of the parent turning against you: “Well, what did you say to my daughter to make her call you stupid in the first place?! Did you do something stupid?” Second, there is no lingering doubt that you will actually be making things much worse for the child. … But the most important lesson to be learned about calling parents at home to praise the achievements of their children is that those calls are actually more effective. (35)

Lightbulb Moments and Happy Accidents

If one could somehow graph the way a child learns, the line would almost surely not be a slow and steady climb toward knowledge and intelligence. Rather it would look like the jagged, volatile climb of the stock market in a good decade. (41)


I teach for the fire, the moment of ignition, the spark, the lightbulb of cognition going on in the dark over an adolescent’s head. O 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. I teach for the moment all the elephants realize they have wings and fly up out of the gutter, my room aflutter with a thousand hummingbirds – hovering in place, rapt expression on every face, feeding on my words for one wild minute like ideas were wildflowers. I teach for that moment. I teach for the same reason every teacher teaches. The pebble never knows how far the ripple’s reach is, but I restart my heart each day and learn things about myself like I were an empty bucket and every student a wishing well. They say that those who seek to teach must never cease to learn. I teach for the moment everything catches fire and finally starts to burn.

– Taylor Mali

Definitely Beautiful

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher – Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

We tend to think of learning in the same way that we imagine a child grows taller: as a gradual, steady process marked by occasional spurt of accelerated progress. But the process of learning is more like a series of minor and major lightning bolts that strike the brain constantly. … Teachers make lightning strike over and over again. (54)

Keeping Your Eye Out for the Teachable Moment

At times when you are a teacher life presents you with a much better lesson plan than the one you prepared, and you just have to go with it. (57)

In Praise of Thoughtful Uncertainty

[Education is]…going forward from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty. – Kenneth G. Johnson (1922-2002)

Education…has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading. – George Macaulay Trevelyan

I’d rather teach my students to be people who know how to doubt rather than people who sound as if they never had any doubts at all. (67)

…it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY. You have to speak with it too. – Taylor Mali

Encountering Genius

True education makes for inequality; the inequality of individuality, the inequality of success, the glorious inequality of talent, of genius. – Felix E. Schelling (1858-1945)

Teachers shouldn’t make the mistake of always thinking they’re the smartest person in the room. (77)

The Student Becomes the Teacher

You teach best what you most need to learn – Richard Bach (1936-?)

My Best Day as a Teacher

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself – Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

And I want to tell her…
[that] changing your mind is one of the best ways
of finding out whether or not you still have one.
Or even that minds are like parachutes,
that it doesn’t matter what you pack
them with so long as they open
at the right time.

…what greater lesson is there to teach anyone than how to have an open mind? There is no better outcome of one’s education , which the American philosopher William Durant called “a progressive discovery of our ignorance.” (87)

…a succession of eye-openers each involving the repudiation of some previously held belief. – George Bernard Shaw

I will never be able to teach anything to anyone as well as they will be able to teach it to themselves if given the opportunity. So maybe that’s what the definition of teacher should be: someone who makes learning possible, which often means simply preparing the ground for you to teach yourself. (88)

E-mail, Islam, and Enlightenment (Insha’allah)

Lessons You Can Touch

What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing. – Aristotle (384-322)

No matter what the subject or age of the students, teachers would be wise to tap into children’s natural desire and ability to build, create, innovate, and express. (99)

The Value of What You Cannot Test

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. – Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

…your progress in all of your cognitive pursuits will be greater if you work on them all simultaneously rather than focusing on one at a time. (108)

No One Leaves My Class Early for Any Reason

Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not. (Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)

My Bad (Apologize and Mean It!)

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education. – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

How to apologize when you are wrong is not likely to appear on any state’s educational curriculum, but learning how to say you are sorry is a skill and an art, and an absolute necessity. It was definitely part of the core curriculum in my classes. (115)

MEG: Mali’s Electronic Grade Book

Teachers Make Technology Work!

The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind. – Josiah F. Bumstead (1797-1859)

Thinking It Through: The Timeline at the Back of the Classroom

The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. – Mark Twain (1835-1910)

What Teachers Get: Presents from Parents

We make a living by what we get, but we forge a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Fighting Back Against the Attack on Teachers

…all the teachers I have known need at least one hour outside the classroom for every hour they spend in the classroom. (147)

Two things happen to teachers as a result of not having enough time in the day to prepare for their classes. The first is that they need to outsource most of their planning and preparation time to the summer so that during the school year they can concentrate on evaluation, grading, and counseling. (148)

…teachers burn out. They quit. Fifty percent of all teachers in the United States quit by the fifth year of teaching. It’s just too much work for too little pay. (149)

Describing teachers as greedy makes as much sense as describing profiteering as altruistic. It’s wrong and just plain mean-spirited. Teachers spend well over one billion dollars of their own money every year on vital classroom supplies that school budgets can no longer cover [2010 National School Supply and Equipment Association study.] How is that greedy? Teachers get their summers off, but unless they’re married to someone with a better-paying job, most have to work during the summer to make ends meet. In fact, it is not uncommon for teachers to have second jobs during the school year just to survive financially. [Watch the 2011 movie American Teacher to see an example of how this can destroy a marriage.] In what universe could that possibly be called greedy?! (150)

The truth is that teachers don’t teach for the money. The people who enter this profession these days do so because they want to make a difference working with children. What do teachers make? We make sacrifices. Daily. We do what we can do to make ends meet. We’re educated professionals who are passionate about what we do. We’re not tough guys like truck drivers or sanitation workers; perhaps that’s why we get pushed around more and paid less than truck drivers and sanitation workers. Teachers don’t generally go on strike, and when we do, piles of garbage don’t start accumulating immediately next to the mountains of undelivered goods. Sometimes I wish they would because then people would demand an immediate change. (152)

Where Do the Best Teachers End Up?

As long as we continue to tie the funding of public schools to local property taxes, the highest-paying teaching jobs will always be at schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods, and they will be filled by the most experienced teachers. (155)

The Importance of Mentoring

Perhaps for the last five years of a veteran teacher’s career, he or she could transition into a more of a full-time mentor role, observing new teachers’ classes often. I can’t think of a more graceful way for a teacher to transition into retirement while at the same time taking advantage of his or her decades of experience. (164)

Teachers Who Made a Difference for Me

I am not a teacher: only a fellow-traveller of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead — ahead of myself as well as of you. – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The Quest for One Thousand Teachers

There Can Never Be a “Lost” Generation

Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy. – Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

There is something that inevitably happens when discussing the challenges facing education: some people will get to a point where they want to give up on certain kinds of kids, just ignore them and focus on the ones we can help more. And I don’t mean individual kids; I mean entire populations of kids, entire generations. (191)

On a personal level, however, face-to-face with children who have names and stories, who come to school hungry and wearing the same clothes as the day before, you cannot decide that some are no longer worth your time, no matter what the statistics seem to suggest. … That’s what teachers make: the promise to leave every student they teach better prepared for the future than they were when they entered the class at the beginning of the year. On the most basic level, that’s just what we do. (193)


Artists and poets are the raw nerve ends of humanity. By themselves they can do little to save humanity. Without them there would be little worth saving. – Headstone in Green River Cemetery, Long Island, New York

So call me naive. But what if we poured trillions and trillions of dollars into into the education of our children? Would we eventually come to believe that there is no other course of action available to us? That nothing else even makes sense? Would we realize we need to spend even more on improving the quality of life of future generations? Would we come to consider children the most valuable resource on earth? Because guess what? They are. (197)

— VIA —

In a world where the value of our young diminishes with the increased value of individualism and capital gains, this is a welcome contribution to the conversation around and the inspiration for teachers.

In addition, this is actually no so much a manifesto for teachers, but a manifesto for education. There are many teachers who do not make a difference, and who do not value the youth to whom they’ve been entrusted. To them, this is a welcome “kick-in-the-pants.”