What Teachers Make

The title for this post comes from a slam poem by Taylor Mali. I haven’t watched in years but saw it as The Message when I was introduced to it in my first (second?) undergrad education class. Parts of it have rung in my ears ever since.

But I know a lot more now. And I know that what Taylor Mali missed is that teachers make choices. People make choices.

Thinking simply, teachers make the choice to teach or to educate, to validate young people or to turn them away, to take a stand or sit back and watch, to be vulnerable and human or indifferent and robotic.

They make the choice to act or avoid responsibility.

Teachers, educators for some, are people. Some do the best they can with the time and resources they have. Some spend hours upon hours doing work that isn’t theirs because it’s the right thing to do by the young people they serve. As soon as teachers neglect that education is a social contract, they’ve neglected a lot.

If you’re willing to let it, educating can be a political act. (Note the pronoun shift here.) And it is hard. It is hard to do the right thing and to do it well. It is hard to ask yourself, “What do I want young people to understand if they never step foot in a classroom again? Who do I want them to be?” It is hard to take responsibility for cultivating, encouraging, building young people into adults who are committed to making the world a better, more peaceful place.

And it is hard to think critically about what that world looks like. It’s hard to make the world a better, more peaceful place.


You, the reader, might be asking with good reason, “Don’t we all make choices? Don’t we all want to do good things? Aren’t we all responsible for our actions?” Yes, we all make choices. No, we do not all want to do good things. Yes, we are all responsible for our actions – but only some accept responsibility, own it, do something with it. But I’m not talking about everyone. Please excuse me. I’m talking about educators and people who claim to be so.

“You’re ranting,” you might say. “It’s not becoming. It’s not fun to read. Write this elsewhere.”

But I can’t. I can’t because educators make choices every day that directly impact the lives of others. I can see it because I work with them and I can only speak honestly about what I know and have experienced.

Perhaps context is appropriate.

I spent the day working on a job that isn’t mine because it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time. I’m willing to do work that I think is important because I know what’s at stake – the well-being of adults I care about and young people I have a social contract with. If that’s not a reason to give my time to something meaningful, I don’t know what is.

But I’m getting a little tired of others’ excuses. I’m getting a little tired of, “I can’t help because I’m doing this other thing.” I’m sure you are. But so am I.

And I’m not angelic or perfect or a martyr, not by a long shot. As I said above, I make choices, too, and sometimes I take the easy way out. But I have also seen the damage that my easy way has caused others and I’m willing to acknowledge that and choose differently. This is what it means to take responsibility and it’s hard. It’s hard to make choices that set me at a crossroads between wearing my educator hat and wearing my friend/colleague hats.

I made that choice today and I don’t know if I did the right thing. But I know I did what I could and I have to close this day feeling at peace with a difficult choice that has very sharp edges on all sides.


All of this makes me only human, doesn’t it? And a vulnerable one at at that. If this is what it takes to make the world a better, more peaceful place then at least I know I’ve done whatever it is that I can do.

Today.

Tomorrow is a different day.

And I’ll keep trying. I don’t always do the right thing but I try and this is my public commitment to continue doing so.


Sometimes I take a moment away from my focus on young people and ask myself the same questions, “Who are you? Who do you want to be?” I don’t always know the answer to the former but the latter is quite clear: I want to be an educator and I want to be a good person. Owning this makes sense to me.

Why publish this post? Because I’m human, too, and an agent in constructing a world. I know that I make choices. And I’m trying damn hard to make the right ones.

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