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What Teachers Make: Interview with Teacher, Poet Taylor Mali

TeachHUB Interview

Taylor Mali is a poet and former teacher that went viral when his poem defending teachers went viral on YouTube, getting millions of hits worldwide. In March 2012, Mali will release a book entitled What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World will add depth and breadth to his argument in support of teachers.

In this exclusive TeachHUB interview, Mali shares his experiences as a poet, internet sensation and most importantly, a teacher and advocate for all teachers.

What spurred you to expand your poem "What Teachers Make," which went viral online, into a book?

The poem was written over 10 years ago and has reached a wider audience through YouTube than I could ever hope to reach in my lifetime, so I have been approached a few times by literary agents who have wanted me to write a book about teaching.

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I was intrigued by the idea, but I write poetry. So I would ask "What about a book of teaching poems?" And then they would all disappear. It was an editor at Putnam, Rachel Kahan, who told me that the book could essentially be the poem explored in greater depth. 

How does the book go deeper than the original poem? What is it "about"?

Poetry is such a distilled form of writing that I realized there was an essay or two, or at least a story, behind almost every line in the poem. So throughout the book, I often use the text of the poem as a jumping off point, as an excuse for talking about my teaching philosophy.

Then there are places where I go off on rants and tangents. And—surprise—there are even a few new poems about teaching in the book

 

Can you tell us about your 1,000 Teacher Program? 

My Quest for 1,000 Teachers didn’t come about through any kind of organized process. I did not decide at the outset that I would try to inspire 1,000 people to become teachers. That just started happening. People would either write to me or tell me casually in conversation that my poems about teaching had helped them decide to enter the profession themselves.

For a year, I kept a very casual mental tally and would say, “Really? I think that makes you the 12th person to tell me that.” I don’t know when I got the idea to start keeping track in a more organized way. But it was a journalist who told me that merely keeping track wasn’t enough. It wasn’t interesting. I needed a goal. And the concomitant possibility of failure. That’s what makes it a story!

So I set myself a goal of 1,000 new teachers and gave myself six years to reach it. And I failed miserably.

By 2006, the number of people I had helped convince to enter the teaching profession barely topped 100, and I still had no systematic way to keep track of them all. I ended up turning to Craig’s List for help and found it in the form of a graduate student in computer programming named Jorge Casteneda and two young fans who were willing to do a lot of data entry for free. It took me six or seven years, but I finally had the system in place for managing the list. People went to my website, filled out a form, part of which was explaining how my work helped them arrive at their decision to teach, uploaded a photo, and clicked the submit button. It was so much more streamlined than anything I’d had before, and just in time, too.

As I write this now at a school in Honolulu where I have been teaching for two weeks, I have still not quite met my goal; I’m at 920. I plan to approve the final teacher on Saturday, April 7th, 2012, at the Bowery Poetry Club. That night, I will cut off 10" of my hair and donate it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths in honor of the end of the project.

It will have been 12 years. Twelve years of not just writing and performing poetry about teaching, but twelve years of having a higher purpose. Frankly, I think I will miss it.

What do you miss most about the classroom?

I miss seeing the difference my teaching can make on a day-to-day basis. How a single student changes from September to June. And I miss the light bulbs and lightning bolts that light up the classroom.

What were you like as a student?

I was an easily distracted student, the class clown. But I was also a risk-taker and one who believed in working hard. When I liked what I was studying, I poured myself into it.

What Teachers Make PoemWhy do you write poetry?

I write poetry because I have a short attention span and faith in what words can achieve. I write in general because I have discovered that my powers of observation combined with some a level of rumination and reflection that is entertaining and informative to others.

When did you get started with writing and poetry?

My dad wrote occasional poems—sort of Dr. Seuss meets Robert Frost—and then he would recite the poems at special family events like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays. I saw the way people thrilled to his words, and I wanted to do that, too. And my mom was an award-winning children's book writer so I came from a wordy family.

I wrote my first poems when I was very young—less than 10—then I was the editor of the high school literary magazine (called Prufrock). But it was in the summer of 1987 that I combined performance and poetry together and realized that there was a niche market for clever words performed passionately.

How did you transition from aspiring poet to teacher?

In graduate school at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS, I had to teach freshman composition, and that's where I discovered that I loved teaching. And teaching is a kind of performance. At least it is the way some people do it. You need to do what you can to make the material come alive when you can, and you need to make it as memorable as possible.

Poetry slams have been the scene for much of your success. How did you first get involved with poetry slams?

During graduate school, one of the professors on my master's committee suggested I drive over to Lawrence, KS, and check out this thing called a poetry slam that happened at a strip club on the fourth Monday of every month. And so I did, and I loved it. It combined everything I loved, and it was competitive!

What do you think performance adds to the written word?

Performance adds passion to the written word. And passion aids in understanding.

 

Learn more about Taylor Mali, his poetry slam schedule, his school visits and his new book What Teachers Make at www.taylormali.com.