National Teacher Day lands on May 5 this year, marking an invitation to acknowledge all the hard work that teachers do. The average teacher impacts 3,000 students throughout their career, with 75 percent of those students designating this impact as positive and long-term. In particular, an educator’s guidance, encouragement, and inspiration can deeply affect poets and writers. From poet Maggie Nelson’s gratitude toward her teacher Eileen Myles to the relationship between Brenda Shaugnessy and her mentor Lucille Clifton, today’s poetry owes many of its strongest voices to education. These poems honor teachers and uplift their important voices.
In this slam performance from Button Poetry, Kay shares an exuberant ode to the principal at her elementary school. In it, she highlights one of teachers’ many superpowers: their ability to make kids feel like they matter. “She visited every classroom, knew every student by name,” Kay marvels. “She spoke to us like we were scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. / Musicians. And we were. My world was the size of a crayon box, / and it took every color to draw her.”
Later in the poem, this stanza becomes an inverted refrain, representing Kay’s step into a teacher’s responsibility and power. An alumna of Brown University’s school of education, she founded Project VOICE, an organization that brings poetry into classrooms around the world through performances and workshops. “I tell them, listen. Listen to one another like you know / you are scholars. Artists. Scientists. Athletes. Musicians. / Like you know you will be the ones to shape this world. / Show me how many colors you know how to draw with. / Show me how proud you are of what you have learned. / And I promise I will do the same.”
This poem by Sanchez, an antiracist activist, a follower of Malcolm X, and trailblazer in the field of black studies, expresses an intense, unabashed love for black educators and black students. In it, she pushes back against the many narratives that often befall inner-city schools. A life-long teacher herself, Sanchez has spoken at more than 500 universities and spent decades as a professor at Temple University.
“This is not a small love / you hear,” Sanchez insists in the poem. “this is a large / love, a passion for kissing learning / on its face. This is a love that crowns the feet with hands / that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails / mends the children, / folds them inside our history where they / toast more than the flesh / where they suck the bones of the alphabet / and spit out closed vowels.”
“This is a love colored with iron and lace. / This is a love initialed Black Genius.”
The whole literary world remembers Elizabeth Bishop as a remarkable, genius poet, but in this poem, her former student, McPherson, gives this legacy a personal touch. McPherson studied with Bishop at the University of Washington, a connection so long-standing that she still refers to Bishop as one of her “literary mothers.” Now, McPherson has published more than 20 collections of poetry and taught at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
In “For Elizabeth Bishop,” McPherson focuses not on the time she spent in Bishop’s classroom, but her presence afterward—namely, how Bishop would visit McPherson and her young daughter. “Still, it pleased you / To take credit for introducing us,” Bishop reminisces, “And later to bring our daughter a small flipbook, / Of partners dancing, and a ring / With a secret whistle. –All are / Broken now like her globe, but she remembers / Them as I recall the black madonna / Facing you across the room so that / In a way you had the dark fertile life / You were always giving gifts to. Your smaller admirer off to school / I take the globe and roll it away / where / On it now is someone like you?”
Gail Mazur, who teaches in the MFA program at Emerson College, reflects on the cyclic nature of teachers and students in this compassionate, voice-fueled poem. The poem’s title character, Christian, could be a stand-in for many students: He’s passionate but indecisive and unsure of the future. In fact, Mazur asserts in the work, Christian perhaps reminds her of an earlier version of herself.
Mazur gives a compellingly specific description of Christian: “On the brink of graduating with an engineering degree (not, it turned out, / his forte), he switched to English, / his second language. It’s hard to swallow / the bravura of his academic escapes / or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face. / Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon / he’d picked on campus; once / a poem / about an elderly friend in New Delhi. / … He appears at my door, / so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him / now.”
Feeling inspired? Write a poem about your favorite teacher or a meaningful moment in your education. If you’re a teacher yourself, check out Read Poetry’s article on the importance of poetry in the classroom. Thank you, teachers!