Interview with Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali What do poetry and the recruitment of 1,000 new teachers have in common? Taylor Mali. After working as a teacher for nine years, Mali decided to step out of the classroom to make his living as a full-time poet and performance artist. He is a vocal advocate for teachers and for the nobility of the teaching profession. Drawing on his experience in the poetry slam movement, Mali has combined perseverance, eloquent powers of persuasion and a passion for education to motivate at least 1,000 people to embark on the adventure of teaching.

In 2000, Mali committed himself to what he called The New Teacher Project (since renamed the Quest for 1,000 Teachers). Why does Taylor Mali want to bring so many people into the teaching fold? In his own words, he has a strong desire to “flood the field with overqualified candidates who are in love with the idea of the job. Then we'll keep the ones who are actually good at it."

Mali has been tracking the progress towards his goal of 1,000 new teachers on his personal website, which includes a link to the teachers list. It includes people who say that their decision to become a teacher was influenced in some way by Mali. The website also includes a form where new teachers can register to be included on the teachers list. Mali's original target date for completing his quest was 2006. Like many great endeavors, the project took longer than originally planned, but this month he achieved his goal and will soon add the 1000th teacher to his roster.

Mali is the author of two books of poetry (The Last Time As We Are and What Learning Leaves) and four performance CDs. In 2001, he received a New York City Foundation for the Arts Grant to develop his award-winning one-man show about poetry and teaching called Teacher! Teacher! His poem entitled "What Teachers Make" has been called the "most forwarded poem in the world." The poem imagines Mali's response to a snide dinner party guest who asks how much teachers are paid. A video of Mali reading the poem is included on TED's Best of the Web and has millions of views on YouTube. Mali has recently expanded the poem into a book entitled What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World that is a call to arms in defense of the teaching profession.

Mali's eloquent message about education has touched a chord across the nation. Now more than ever, there is a need for great teachers with a passion for educators who can engage and inspire students. Teachers who approach their role with genuine enthusiasm and a strong desire are better able to tap into students' imaginations and energy, fostering in them a real desire to learn. These teachers are strong role models who are passionate about helping each student to realize his or her full potential. The teaching profession benefits from creative individuals who can think of new ways to motivate students and get them involved in their own education. Motivated students are more excited about learning and more willing to participate in classroom discussions. They are also better equipped to face academic challenges.

These days, Taylor Mali makes his living as a spoken-word poet, voiceover artist and audiobook narrator. He has appeared on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam and is a four-time winner of the National Poetry Slam championship. As he travels the country performing and teaching workshops, he carries the message "Teachers make a difference – what about you?"

We here at spoke to Mali recently about his role as teaching advocate and his Quest for 1,000 Teachers project. Tell us a bit about your new book. Are there anecdotes from your teaching career or is it more about the state of education in America?

Taylor Mali: It's definitely more anecdotes from my teaching career than it is the state of education in America. I don't actually feel very qualified once the topic shifts away from poetic musings on what makes teaching so fulfilling. I tell stories, recite a few old and new poems, and do a modicum of ranting.

As an advocate for teachers, what are some of the biggest problems you find yourself working to solve?

Well, as I said, I'm more of a self-proclaimed advocate for teachers. But regardless, the biggest problem is countering the belief that there is such a person who is too smart to become a teacher. I want never to hear that a smart and dedicated college graduate has been "wasted on teaching."

What would you like to accomplish as an advocate for teachers?

I would like to be the pied piper of teaching. I'd like to do for teaching what Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead did for architecture, which is to essentially flood the field with overqualified candidates who are in love with the idea of the job. Then we'll keep the ones who are actually good at it.

Tell us about the New Teacher Project. How did you convince 1,000 people to become teachers?

First of all, I can't call it that anymore. I got a call from the Executive Director of a non-profit called the New Teacher Project a few months ago. It was founded by Michelle Rhee a few years before I started my project, so they really got there first. Their lawyers wanted to send me a cease and desist letter, but they're all fans of mine, so they just asked me nicely to start calling my project The Quest for 1,000 Teachers. When I quit classroom teaching, I started keeping track of the number of people who credited me with their decision to teach. It started very informally, but now there's a computer program that helps me keep track. I'm almost there! I should be approving the 1,000th teacher on the night of April 7 at the Bowery Poetry Club.

What is your most memorable experience with convincing someone to become a teacher?

Probably the first. Her name was Noel Jones, and she was a friend of mine, a fellow poet. When she said she had decided to become a teacher partly because of the way I talk about the profession, I was so pleased that my work could have that kind of effect on someone. I suppose she is directly responsible for my quest.

When did you know you were striking a nerve with your poems about being a teacher?

When people start plagiarizing you at the same time that other start quoting you (while still others are writing you hate mail), then you know you must be doing something right. One of my favorite definitions of poetry is "what oft' was thought but ne'er so well expressed," so when people say that my poems, specifically "What Teachers Make," have given them the words to say what they always wanted to express, then I think I might be a poet.

Did that dinner conversation really happen?

Yes, except it wasn't a dinner party. It was a big New Year's Eve party. I was standing in a circle of about five people. What I don't say in my poem is that the lawyer was charming. I also don't mention that the poem is what I WISH I had said to him when he asked me what teachers make. The poem (and all poems to certain extent) are a way of rewriting history to make yourself some better than you are in retrospect.

How did being a teacher affect your performances? How did poetry affect your teaching?

To the extent that the job of the poet is to "instruct and delight" (as Horace said it was), then it's quite a bit like being a teacher. Being a teacher affected my performances because I'm comfortable standing in front of kids and I care about clarity perhaps more than most poets; I'm not afraid of being clear. And being a poet has affected my teaching because I'm particularly imaginative and I never same "um," "ah" or "er" when I speak, which tends to make my conversation sound like poetry, more heightened.