A few weeks ago someone sent me this video by spoken word poet Taylor Mali entitled “What Teachers Make.” In the poem Mali, taking on the role of a teacher, is at a dinner where a lawyer condescendingly asks him, “What do you make?” Mali then proceeds to go on a rant about various things that he makes: kids sit in study hall, parents realize what their kids can do, things like that.
I’ve encountered the “What Teachers Make” fairy tale before. The scenario is always the same: a teacher finds themselves in mixed company when someone (usually a lawyer or businessman) confronts a teacher and haughtily asks him, “What do you make?” the teacher, backed into a corner, then gives various responses, such as “I make them wonder,” “I make them question,” “I make them lunches when they show up to school hungry.”
Why do I call it a fairy tale? Because it a story that’s simply not true. And it’s a story that doesn’t do teachers a bit of good.
Let’s address reality first. I suspect that for the large majority of teachers, this scenario in which a wealthy person calls out a teacher on the carpet in mixed company has never happened in any form. Or maybe I’m only speaking for myself. I have never been at any parties, bars, weddings, or any other place in which some guy is so preoccupied with how much other people make that he goes around asking people. I also get the sense that on the way home from such events no people are saying, “That David is such a nice guy. I wonder how much he makes. I bet it’s a lot less than me. I’m going to enjoy that for a moment.”
Most fairy tales that plays on the insecurities of children. “What Teachers Make” is no different: it envisions a scene that teachers understandably fear: one day, the world will judge everyone solely by their salary and that someone will make teachers face the fact that they don’t amount to much when that standard is the only one used.
However, there’s another story that makes the rounds: teachers make too much. They have cushy Cadillac plans for retirement. They continue to get raises when others are struggling. This story usually comes around when levies are on the ballot or legislation is introduced to curtail the power of unions.
So how can both be right? They can’t. And that’s where we begin to see that both stories are beliefs, not truths. And when we start treating beliefs like truths we get into trouble.
The reality is that some people judge others by what they make, but most people don’t. And pretty much everyone likes you for who you are as a person and not for what you do. Your friends and family and coworkers wouldn’t like you less if you were an architect. Or even a lawyer. Unlike the lawyer in “What Teachers Make,” who, to be honest, probably isn’t admired by many, not because he’s a lawyer, but because he’s a jerk. Who wants to be him?
As teachers we have to recognize that believing this story isn’t being kind to ourselves. We don’t do our best work as teachers when we feel like our backs are up against the wall. True, that happens sometimes, but we don’t need fictional accounts to add fuel to the fire. And we also have to recognize that if we don’t like stereotypes about teachers, then let’s stop promoting stories that promote negative stereotypes of other professions, like lawyers and legislators.
The first time I saw the “What Teachers Make” story it was in the copy room. I wonder what the person who put it there hoped to achieve. If I already agreed with it, then I would leave with a bigger chip on my shoulder, thinking about all the people who didn’t respect what I do and ignoring all the people who do respect what I do. If I had no idea that some people looked down upon me, then this person had succeeded in making me mad about it. In either case, I would have left with a negative attitude, which would certainly have affected my work that day. Good teaching comes from self respect, not self loathing, and we need to support each other instead of finding ways to create a negative climate.