Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Monthly Archives: August 2018

“Yeah, I won’t do public school. We are highly opposed.”

“Yeah, I won’t do public school. We are highly opposed.”

This was just published on a local mommy blog I belong to.  It was posted by a parent looking for Pre-K options if “money were no object” and getting ideas.  I added they should try the lottery for public school and if they don’t get in, choose private.  This spawned another parent’s response.  “I would sit in before going public. I’m a public school teacher and my kids will go private” with the following explanation:

“In private school the discipline needed for a school to run well is allowed. In public school it is not. If private schools paid well with the benefits of public, I would still be teaching private.”

Gosh, I wish a private school could pay her enough to leave her public school classroom….

The ‘public’ school is required to serve all children and that means there can certainly be discipline problems.  This teacher-parent later acknowledged that private schools are hardly immune to discipline problems but that they are much less “extreme.” So what is it about public education to which so many parents are highly opposed when children are as little as four years old?

Children who look different.

Children who don’t have as many financial resources.

Children who don’t have two parents at home.

Children who don’t have generational income or more than enough resources.

Children who don’t speak English as a first language.

Children who don’t have a parent in jail.

Children who don’t have a parent who has died.

Children whose home nurturing doesn’t match as neatly with school expectations.

Children who are resilient, children who are different, children who are invited into the public system.

Thank goodness for US policies and laws that welcome all these children and more into the public system.  What a great country we have when all children can expect to have access to a good education and that parents who want to opt out, can certainly do so. I love sending my children to a public school and giving them access to experiencing all kinds of diversities that may not be present in private options: neurodiversity, racial diversity, social class diversity, religious diversity, gender and sexual orientation diversity, marriage diversity, etc.. My public school is a “good” school, more so because there are happy teachers; there is diversity of many kinds; and lots of parents with resources who give extra in numerous ways.  Not all public schools are so wonderful, I know that.  I am privileged by my resources and neighborhood.

If parents do have extra resources and choose a private school, I am all about choice (of many kinds)! Parents can choose private school and still support public schools too!  Anyone can attend a neighborhood school’s social events and get to know one’s neighbors and community. One can pay private school tuition and give a little extra to the local public school’s PTO/PTA to improve school resources. One can visit and observe pre-K and other grade level classes at the public school, and make as informed a decision as one can before opting out to private school education–the public option may be better than one thinks! Finally, if one decides to go private, one can ask good questions about diversity in that environment: what can be done better so that all kids have access to diverse perspectives even if they are limited in what may be a more homogenous, private school environment?

Check out this awesome blog post by a Los Angeles teacher–really wonderful points discussed in relation to the Charter school movement out there.


The above blog is directed to “mostly white parents” so if you do not identify as white, I think this may not be as much interest as some of the work by Nikole Hannah-Jones about race and education specifically.


Coda: I am not changing anyone’s mind.  Anyone who believes public school = bad; private school = better, I think it’s terrific they can have that option.  But I don’t wish that option be such a financial burden that parents resent paying taxes to support their public school or vote for more resources to be funneled into private or private-like options.  I wish parents, regardless of school choice, could see support of public education as  public good that in the long run will help their child and community more than they know.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com


White Flight Justification Songs

I am so sick of White People.  I am also sick of Black people.  I am sick of Jewish people, Hispanics, Mexicans, the Irish.  I am not yet sick of Norwegian people, but I might as well be. I am sick of tribalism, the male and female kind, even the Trans kind.  And while I am sick of it, I also [ironically?] hunger for it.  I look for the me-group with the yoga mats and the quinoa, the running groups and the ‘in town’ groups; the “I read” groups and the “I write groups;” the I-have-children-in-public-school groups.

So what I am sick of is the language of tribalism, the coded ways we raise up our “in groups” and demoralize our out groups.  We use coded terms, we obfuscate and play language games.  We call one group “recipients of government hand outs” and another group (e.g. farmers) as recipients of “government assistance” for example.   One school is “good” and the other is “bad.” Can we stop the code? My head is spinning.

I’m sick of it.  I understand survivalism and I understand why we gang up on each other. This is what humans have always done and continue to do.  And we teach tribalism to our children, making educational decisions that are “best” for them, but are just replays of the same ole tribal songs to maintain unfair status quo.  We can shrug our shoulders or we can try to name the crazy. In the spirit of public schools as one of the few places with potential to bring diverse tribes together in the U.S., I wrote this poem, trying to find dizzy language through a new song.  We all want “good” schools and what is “best” for our children, but at what cost? Whose? To what end?


moreover bigger or oversizer, formerly earnest earner,
under arrest him ate him, e-race him, tear-er asunder commuter,
all burrs and tsk-tsk-ers, ergonomic errors in words, perverse
universes of his-es and hers-es, funeral service’s hesitant
compute or pardon me sir, er, murmurs preceding er, Mister?
used in place of a name we name or rename, a game of er not:
poorer, browner, blacker marker of either/or er? burned
by your-er voracious more-ers, not veracous turners
to universes of verses to aver, to declare spring, rooting
for truths, veracity digger to ver, Spanish infinitive “to see”
as in see, er, what I mean?


Poem published in Tayo Magazine here: http://www.tayoliterarymag.com/melisa-misha-cahnmanntaylor

What can we do to advocate for tribes of difference, for unity in diversity? We can support public education.  Here’s a link to actionable ideas including the very simple act of rating your child’s public school at https://www.greatschools.org/.

We can volunteer and make that school a better place.  We can dispel the myths that “good” isn’t also code for class and race privilege, that we can change what we mean by goodness.  We can talk to our neighbors, our families, our friends.  We can change the song.


Actionable ideas to support Public Education: https://fmps.org/engaging-community-partners-to-support-our-schools-2/

What University Professors Really Do

Much of the public perceives the “cushy” life of the University Professor.  My fingers ache from the keyboard and it’s only 10:34am (I’ve learned to type really fast to get more done, more quickly).  I am thinking about all the things I’m doing while I am “not teaching” and thought I’d share a little list with the great public who helps fund our public higher education system (which, yes, still costs each student too much money in the U.S.).  While I wish we were in a national system that helped pay for public education and I agree that it costs too much, I also want our paying customers to know that professors at public universities are doing a lot of work to earn our reasonable, state-provided salaries.  What work  you might ask?  Let me take a few quick minutes to type out a brief list of things I’ve been doing in my summer time “off” aside from teaching summer school:

  1. Tenure letters.  These accumulate over the summer.  Other faculty who are going up for review at their institutions require faculty of “peer and aspirant” institutions to review their cases. This requires reading several articles, books, c.v.s and then putting our assessments into carefully written language then sending shortened versions of our c.vs and signed hard and electronic copies of the letters.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  2. Reviewing articles submitted to journals.  Like the above, but you review (for free) an article written by a peer writer to determine if it merits publication and to give critique on numerous aspects of the article’s qualities.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  3. Reviewing grant proposals.  Like the above but sometimes these reviews require trips to DC or other locations to review proposals en masse and discuss in order to arrive at the winners.  This is often unpaid, at times very modestly paid, and often invisible work–though sometimes it can come with a turkey club sandwich and chips.
  4. Reviewing student work: comprehensive exams, dissertation prospectuses, dissertations, and other writing.  Faculty chair and are members of numerous commmittees for doctoral students who need similar review of their work.  Faculty prepare by helping to write questions for the students to answer; reviewing and editing the answers; authoring new questions for students to answer; helping to craft and shape a student’s ideas for their own work; sometimes co-authoring and other forms of mentorship.  Due to this being in a wide range of “instructional duties” this is often invisible work but it also can take the most and most important time. This is how we maintain and grow fields of knowledge.
  5. Writing letters for students.  Students who have (or maybe have not) taken your classes will later ask you to recommend them for jobs, educational opportunities, awards, etc.  And you will write them letters of recommendation that have various deadlines, nuanced content requirements, varied ways to send the letters, some online forms of varying lengths.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  6. Meetings.  Oh yes–meetings about things that help the university to run such as serving on the University Arts Council or serving on Promotion and Tenure Committees that help recognize colleagues as they pass through (or do not) review processes; Leadership and awards committees and many other duties that require groups to sit together; set agendas; and hopefully plan for actions to be taken outside of the meeting.  More often, these are meetings to talk about and plan other meetings.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  7. Review of research and ongoing professional upkeep.  To remain current and active as a scholar one must continue to maintain one’s own time to read and review new articles, new online resources, new books, new new new.  There’s always a new idea or new project or new publication.  Faculty spend a lot of time invested in staying current and this is why we appear to be paid for our “free time” but this is often invisible. This time becomes more visible when it results in the end products such as grants or publications.  The former is currently much more favorable to the latter.
  8. Review of grant opportunities and publication invitations–like #7, this work becomes visible when it results in a successful end product like an awarded grant or high visibility publication.
  9. Collaborations, networking with other scholars in your field–hard to explain but saying yes to various social and professional opportunities that may require a lot of personal time is also an important part of a process that can result in the visible products of grants and publications.
  10. Giving back to my community by planning with local libraries, educational leaders, and poets to offer my services to the city that I call home.  This resulted in a public poetry reading series and at other times includes guest speaking engagements in various settings related to my work as a professor and poet.  These are most often unpaid and may have some visibility with communities about which I care.


I can go on and on but I am getting anxious by all there is to do. I just finished two tenure reviews and am getting started on one of two students’ comprehensive exam question reviews.  100s of pages to read and review for meetings next week for “defenses” as well as my own classes for which to plan 15 weeks of agendas ahead of time so we all know where we’re headed, when and what to read and do for a grade.  I just submitted several poems and articles for publication and hoping some of these will result in visible products.  I just found a grant deadline I missed and worry I need to be more vigilant with my ‘free time’ to seek more opportunities.

Most professors work hard.  We don’t lift and carry and we seldom have absolute 8-5pm schedules.  But many of us never feel like we end our day and you may be surprised by how early we rise, answering emails at the crack of dawn.

Being a professor is a wonderful job.  This profession offers a unique life of the mind with greater flexibility in our schedules than many have.  But it’s not a cushy life.  It’s not ‘just’ about teaching our weekly 3 hour classses or 45 contact hours each semester.  As much as you can give to your program, department, unit or university, this will be gladly received and never enough.  It takes a great big team of hard working people to make universities run.  Universities and the people who work there can seem really expensive, but it’s important to understand the very different roles we each play in helping this beautiful system to activate the critical and reflexive thinkers of our time.  Universities help us better understand our human and non-human world–the problems, solutions, and processes by which we get living done.  We strive for a public voice, one that can provide more nuance and empirically warranted assertions that help us answer “how” and “why.” Blogs are a great stress relief and can make our private, specialized work a bit more public.

And now, back to work….!

Oh putting together manuscript #2…

How many of you, my friends, know how hard it is to land a publisher for poetry book #1? How lucky I felt when Whitepoint Press said yes in 2016 to “Imperfect Tense”–the imperfect version of a manuscript I had been revising for 10 years.

How many of you know that unless you are in the “Blessed” category of loyal and flush small or large presses, that its perhaps DOUBLY hard to get your second book of poetry published.

*do you hear the violins…….

Well, I am up for the challenge. Poetry book #2.  For the most part, my lucky response is: I don’t care if this book, as it stands, gets published.  After all, my job doesn’t require or expect me to publish poetry. I don’t “need” it….and yet.

I put poems together in a book manuscript because I love it, because the poems are like my own bone structure and when the first batches found a spine and a cover, it was like giving birth to a part of myself.  I celebrated.  I had a first birthday.  Then a second.  Now a third.  But a book of poems ages very fast and the celebrations are generally only for the newly born.

For the last 2-3 years I have hatched new poems, more of them, more constantly, urgently–but I take out most of the adverbs (as my students know).  And now I have a new book of poems! And it seeks a publisher.  My first publisher is so small and not taking a look at anything until January.  I can wait.  But what if there’s another press to take a gander between now and then? What if my small press doesn’t want this new book? How does one find a new publisher? It’s worse than buying a car….

You look at (groan) contests.  You pay (double groan) fees of $20-50 per shot, so that a small underfunded press can afford to sort through 1000s of other manuscripts who want a chance at the one publication or three that press may do per year in the genre of poetry.

How many contests do you enter? Which ones? I try to know the press, to like or love the press, to find hope that they may produce a pretty book on good (enough) paper with a lovely cover design.  I try to find lower submission or contest fees.  I try to match my poems with the press vision or with presses who have published poets who I feel a kinship to or editors I might know.  I miss deadlines.  I prepare for rejection, rejection, rejection.  Thanks but no thanks. I steel myself against feeling personally declined.  I reason: there are just too many darn good poets in the world; it’s just not the right fit, the right time, the right trigger, the right title, the right order, the right craft, the right mood, the right the wrong the in between anxiety that the poems are not good. Not good? Not good enough?  Not enough.  Not yet.  Not here. Nahhhhhh.

Read them again. Re-read them.  Read them outloud.  Take out some poems, make some edits, write some new poems, reorganize.  Wonder: am I cutting the poems like a man cutting his own moustache until it’s woefully uneven or gone?

If you are a poet with a book, published or unpublished, then you know what I’m talking about.  Here goes nothing and everything. I hope it won’t take another 10 years…..

I’m all ears for your stories and sage advice!!!

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