Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Teacher Man: a Memoir by Frank McCourt

My dad brought this book with him the last time he came to visit. As many books as my mom and I read in common there are not that many that my dad and I share. But the theme of this book is something that bring he and I together. It is a topic that we can chase around for hours. It is, for both of us, the reason we go to work: teaching. As I read the book I caught myself thinking about my own students and my classrooms. But, more often than not, I found myself thinking about my dad's experiences, his classrooms, the students that he has taught. Like McCourt, my father has stood in front of thousands of high school students - from the lowest level students who are forced to take English to the Harvard driven, parent pushed stressed out teenagers - teaching English.
If the name Frank McCourt is familiar it is probably from his extremely popular first two memoirs Angela's Ashes and 'Tis.Teacher Man begins by reflecting on the unexpected popularity of the first two installments of McCourt's life. He never expected to become a best-selling author at the age of sixty-six. He then proceeds to explain how, through his thirty years in a classroom, he decided to write what would become a Pulitzer Prize winner, a National Book Critics Circle award recipient, a feature film, and the subject of a Spark's Note edition. Not to mention, there is an Angela's Ashes walking tour of Limerick. I've never read McCourt's other books nor have I seen the movie version. After reading Teacher Man I don't know that I feel a need to either.
What I really loved about this book was the nitty-gritty details of teaching in a high school classroom. The derision that students heap upon the teachers. The feelings of inadequacy new teachers experience. The sense that the students can smell a teacher's fear and turn it against them. There were anecdotes that made me howl with laughter. There were moments that students shared that brought a tear to my eye. I have significantly fewer years teaching experience and almost all of mine have taken place in colleges. But, I still identified with much of McCourt's emotional turmoil about teaching and the feeling of elation over classroom successes.
I also found myself inspired by McCourt's creative writing advice. The further his book progressed the more he shared the practical advice he gave his students about finding a subject, writing a story, becoming an author. It is not giving anything away to let it slip that the book ended when McCourt chose to take his own writing advice and write a book.
Much of McCourt's memoirs center around his personal angst and his feelings of inadequacy surrounding his Irish-American ancestry. His first ten years of teaching - really much of his career - he felt as though he was not successful and kept wondering when he would get fired. While some of the psychoanalysis was worthwhile and interesting (and his experiences with psychiatry downright hysterical) there were times when I felt he wandered down the garden path into self-analysis and unnecessary self-reflection. I wanted to read about McCourt the teacher, not about McCourt the pained Irish immigrant.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is pondering a career in a classroom. McCourt does not hold back in talking about how incredibly hard it can be to stand up in front of five classes of resentful students five days a week. But, by the end he also makes you realize what an incredible career teaching is.


bill said...

I agree with your analysis of McCourt's accurate portrayl of high school teaching. I also got a lot of laughs. My problem with him is that he seems to focus on the creative side of teaching to the detriment of the discipline side. He lets students baffle him when he doesn't need to. Students can develop their creative sides in a disciplined learning environment.

AvidReader said...

He did seem overly clueless. You would think after that many years of teaching he would have figured out the finer side of dealing with high school students.