Teacher Man

This week’s book is Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes.  It’s about his 30 years of teaching English in New York City public high schools, first in vocational schools and ultimately at Stuyvesant, one of the highly selective academic schools.  It’s a quick read, full of self-depreciating humor and well-told stories. It’s not as brilliant or compelling as Angela’s Ashes, but that’s a heck of a standard to try to live up to.

One of the ongoing themes of the book is how little respect teachers get.  More than once he points out that administrators and college professors get more respect and more money than teachers, and work a lot less hard.  He’s also somewhat sardonic about all the attention he got when Angela’s Ashes became a hit, after a lifetime of obscurity as a teacher.

The book is also an argument for teaching that doesn’t follow the curriculum, that doesn’t cover anything that’s going to be on a standardized test.  McCourt describes assigning his students to write excuse notes from Adam and Eve, of reading recipes out loud (and having a buffet of the results in the middle of Stuvesant Park).  He glories in the students who challenged him, and the bitterest passages in the book are aimed at the parents of the over-achieving Stuyvesant students, who worry about their grades, and whether his class will help them get into college.

McCourt had retired by the time I attended Stuyvesant, but his classes were still  legendary.  In spite of his complaints about the students’ sense of entitlement, a place like Stuyvesant seems ideal for a renegade teacher like McCourt– it didn’t matter that he wasn’t interested in teaching grammar, because the kids pretty much got it already.  Because of the self-depreciation, it’s hard to tell whether McCourt was a good teacher in his early years, when he started telling stories to his classes as a means of keeping bored and hostile students paying attention. 

4 Responses to “Teacher Man”

  1. Julie Says:

    Maybe I will make this book an early birthday present for my sister, a public school third grade teacher, who emailed me yesterday that her district was soon sending new computers to every teacher. She said she wished they’d pay for heat in her classroom instead.

  2. Kendra Says:

    I’ve “read” (via audible.com) all 3 of his books and I came away with the same feeling. I have many friends that are teachers who had these great dreams of being dynamic teachers and are now feeling a lot of pressure to “teach to the test.” If learning is fun, you want to learn more! We pay professional athletes millions of dollars but the teacher virtually nothing.
    I thought it was interesting that he was being encouraged at one point to get an advanced degree so he could become an administrator. Why can’t advanced degrees be used to make one a better teacher? I loved listening to McCourt read his own words.

  3. Christine Says:

    I have started this book and, although not finished, am thrilled that a notable writer and educator is opening up a positive dialogue about creative freedom in the classroom. Creative freedom should not be limited to college professors. After required observation on the middle school and high school levels and classes that taught to the NY state standards I withdrew from graduate school for education. Where are the colleges promoting innovative educational thought and producing the next Dewey, Ferrer, Ravitch and even Hirsch? It is sad that teachers are pressured to make sure the Do Now: or goal of the day is on the blackboard rather than delving right into their lesson. I mention this as one of the ridiculous tasks and beaurocracy that dominate the classroom. Even in creative classes such as art I witnessed how the standards stifle student learning. It is fine to requiring writing, but when a student writes more in art class that creates there is something wrong. I taught a few computer classes one day a week on the high school level and saw how quickly the students responded to my lessons; I didn’t follow the rigorous standards because they were not formal lessons. I didn’t overthink, I just taught. Education will always be a huge debate, but it is sad to see post-secondary educational institutions simply producing teachers who teach to someone else’s standards.

  4. Scrivener Says:

    College professors do get more respect, but not more pay. At least not in his field, English. I would more than double my salary if I taught in the public high school instead of at the U. If I were full-time at the U, I’d earn more, but still less than I’d make teaching high school English, and the high school wouldn’t expect me to be doing all that publishing too.

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