Back in eighth grade, when I had just started learning that not all poems came in rhyming four-line stanzas, I came across a slam poem by Taylor Mali entitled “What Teachers Make”. With my laptop speakers on full blast, I recall playing the sound bite at least three times in a row and feeling so drawn to it (for those of you who are curious, this is the amazing poem slam performance I’m talking about and highly recommend you watch). The words, which were so simple yet so compelling, spoke of the value of teachers in a way that made the hair on my arms stand.
Now an incoming senior in college thinking of pursuing a career in education, I recently listened to the poem again and understood better what Mali was trying to get at. Faced with the daunting idea of graduation and with my looming job hunt, I often find myself asking the very question that the poem ridicules: What will I make?
The Hardships of being a teacher
For teachers, the monetary answer to this question is quite simple: not a lot. Teaching is notoriously known as a thankless, payless, promotion-less profession. Just last week, I overheard two elementary teachers at the school I’m working at worrying about the rising cost of rent in the Harlem area. “Pretty soon, we’re all going to have to move if we want to keep working here!” one of them half-joked.
True enough, concerns over salary and prestige are what prevent many recent graduates from choosing to go into teaching every year. What’s the point? Why waste precious years in a low-lighted classroom in a dingy, run-down building with next to zero government support, frustrated parents, and barely enough pay to foot the bills?
Back in high school, the principal at a school I volunteered at told me that the government sent them only P15 per student each year. She told me that this was barely enough for one month’s worth of chalk, and that teachers had not been able to hand out report cards because they did not have funds to buy paper. It was already the third quarter.
Despite a moral calling to be educators, external structures like these drag our good intentions into the mud. As a result, we’re living in a day and age where the most coveted post-college jobs—big corporate positions with six-figure salaries—are drawing the best and brightest away from where they are really needed most: public school classrooms.
The Teacher’s Path
I have always been an idealist and will probably stay that way, so I am one of the few who might stick to the teaching path. I want to do something that won’t just put food on the table, but will constantly keep me hungry for more. In my heart of hearts, I’ve always known that I would find this metaphorical hunger in a classroom, surrounded by little kids and storybooks, glitter on my fingertips and stickers on my arms and legs, always eager for the new day. But even my unconditional love for teaching is oftentimes drowned out by the very voices that tout the importance of education.
Here’s my problem: we are all quick to say that education is one of the key solutions to a bright and healthy future. We care immensely about where our children go to school, what they’re being taught, and who is teaching them. We hand over our kids, who we love infinitely, to schools that we trust will look after them well. And yet, as much as we rely on them to do for our kids what we cannot, we disrespect and under appreciate the very teachers who we entrust our children with.
We pay them poorly and stick them in resource-starved work environments, but blame them when our children do not learn. We look to teaching as a second-class profession instead of the incredibly challenging vocation that it is. Ten minutes trying to teach Math to an overly energized bunch of kindergarteners is more than enough time to prove the latter. We need to drastically change the way we view and treat our teachers.
Today, I watched the fourth graders of the KIPP Academy in New York graduate from elementary school and move onto middle school. As each student came onstage to receive their certificate, I was prepared for a long list of unrecognizable names and the feeble applause that would ensue. Instead, teachers who had taught the kids from as early as kindergarten came up to the podium and delivered beautiful, moving speeches about each child before they received their diplomas. Many of their voices cracked mid-sentence, overwhelmed as they were with pride and joy for their students. I watched as kids hugged their teachers fiercely and thunderous cheers erupted from both parents and students alike. I had never seen a graduation quite like it.
Sitting in that auditorium, I almost forgot that these were teachers speaking, not parents. The pride, joy, and love they showed seemed almost indistinguishable from that of moms and dads. These were the people who had the courage to go against the grain, drown out all the negative voices, and do what they believed was worth doing: teach. To me, there is nothing more admirable than that.
So when you think about going into teaching and find yourself asking what teachers make, always remember that, in the wise words of Taylor Mali, teachers make a goddamn difference.
Michi is an incoming fourth year student at Harvard University studying Sociology and Global Health and Health Policy. Since moving to the U.S., she has become a prouder and more nationalistic Filipino, creating Harvard’s first organized service trip to the Philippines, and co-founding a college mentoring program for aspiring local high school students called CAMP Philippines (http://www.campphilippines.org/). Michi’s biggest, but simplest, dream is to one day return to the Philippines to teach in a rural public elementary school, and to see every student’s hand raised during her class. Check out her Tedx talk Balikbayan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cgIslzZE5c and witness her overflowing love for her country.