- Teacher Man (2005) is the last book of his 3-part tragicomic memoir and it is about his experiences as a teacher in at least 3 schools in New York. He spent 33 years teaching high school students before he retired at the age of 60 and wrote his first book, Angela's Ashes at the age of 66. The book changed his life tremendously.
- In Teacher Man, McCourt tries to learn necessary skills to be an effective teacher. Teacher Man is a compilation of stories to assert that teaching is about educating and helping students learn about learning. It is written passionately, with an appropriate degree of irreverence and great humour.
From Reader's Digest, Originally in Teacher Man I was in my third year of teaching creative writing at Ralph McKee Vocational School in Staten Island, New York, when one of my students, 16-year-old Mikey, gave me a note from his mother. It explained his absence from class the day before.
I am very grateful for the list of books that was shared with this class. Without it, I may never have learned about the book Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. Or, I may have encountered it after I had already started teaching. I am so happy that I have discovered this book before I have started teaching, as I found it to be very encouraging. I am excited to look at the other books that are on the list!
Teacher Man Summary By Chapters
This book captures the woes and wins of Frank McCourt during his time teaching in high schools. His voice is witty, engaging, and delightfully humorous, making it an enjoyable, yet insightful, read. It is sprinkled with personal anecdotes about his life and childhood both before teaching and as he was working towards a career in education. He taught in several types of school settings from vocational high schools, to college courses, to Stuyvesant High School. Frank McCourt spent about 30 years teaching and later became an author of the book Angela’s Ashes (which won a Pulitzer prize) and a memoir entitled ‘Tis. And, obviously, the book Teacher Man. I imagine that this book reads just like one of the many stories that Frank McCourt told to his students. It is not lecture-ish (sorry, that’s not a word 🙂 ) or technical in the least. However, the book is littered with insight and honesty, weaved into the anecdotes involving just some of the hundreds of students and lessons he taught over the years. This book describes all of the things about teaching that college often doesn’t talk about such as: How does one react when a student chucks a baloney sandwich across the room? How do you balance gaining the attention and respect of the students with trying to teach some type of lesson? It is possible to maintain sanity when you are facing a room full of adolescents who will do anything in their power to distract you from “teaching”? Although this book offers answers, it does not offer definitive answers. There is no “This is the way to respond to a flying bologna sandwich” or “You must always use the structure of a ballpoint pen in order to teach students how to diagram a sentence.” In this book. McCourt simply recounts how he responded to certain situations and, sparingly, dusts in his little bits of wisdom.
One thing that I really appreciated about this book was how honest McCourt is. He never claims to know all the answers, and on several occasions, he expresses the aimlessness and despair he often felt regarding teaching and dealing with the American youth. He expresses how often he did not know how to respond to certain situations. He discusses his frustrations with trying to create classrooms that are lively and engaged, while still attempting to teach something in the vicinity of English literature. There are a couple of situations described where I would most definitely not repeat his actions (and I don’t think he would either, if he had the chance to do them over again.) At some points, it is easy to find oneself cringing, yet sympathizing, with his reactions to certain situations. Like when his frustrations reached such a boiling point that he wacked a student across the face with a magazine that was supposed to be an instructional tool. Or the time he yanked a student’s leg out from under him in order to assert dominance in the classroom. McCourt showcases it all in this book, reflecting the genuineness and honesty that teachers should strive for in the classroom.
As I have stated, this book does not provide definite answers on “This is how you teach.” It is one person’s experience, which we can all learn from. It is difficult to find a thesis for this book, as it says so much. However, this is the thesis that I think that the book expresses: You learn “how” to teach by doing it, and if you find a way to love it and love the students, it is a rewarding career. There is no exact formula for teaching. If there is a formula, it is a vague one. It is not: X instructional method + Y behavior management system/color-coded chart + Z lesson plan = successful and enriching classroom every time. While all of these things are helpful and important considerations for the classroom, aren’t there other things to factor in? What about factoring in all of the different groups of student who will come into the classroom, where each group contains dozens of individuals whose lives you hope to at least gain a glimpse into? Is there room for a bit of leniency and spontaneous instruction? What about when you must change the lesson plan in the middle of class because something is not working? And, let’s not forget, What about you? Your unique personality? Your unique way of relating to the class? Your unique style?
Teaching is a work of art. It takes time, practice, trial and error. At first, you may sketch and etch and swipe some paint onto the page with all your might. You anticipate a masterpiece. Something you’ll present to your students so they can “Oooh” and “Ahh” at the colors! Look at the strokes! It’s a work of art that they can sit before and be both mystified and captivated by for hours, but Alas! the bell rings and the students reluctantly shuffle out of the classroom to the classes where teaching will not be of such “high art,” and they pause to take one last look at the painting, aching from the moment they step out of the classroom to come back and once again be captured and seduced by “The Art of Teaching.” Then, you teach. And after a brutal 40 minutes in your first class, you look back at your work and see that your attempt at a masterpiece is far from what you consider to be “Art.” It looks like something that you made in kindergarten that your mother tucked away in a box under her bed. You may think, 5 years in college, and I realize I’m still finger painting? How can that be? Is teaching not for me? If we ever feel like this in the future (and I hope none of us will, although I have the looming suspicion that we may at certain times) we could all use the compassion and wisdom that our mothers had when they tucked away those dry, uninterpretable pictures with the rolled up edges. They knew that it was all “Art” as it was us embarking on a journey of creating and interacting that would last for the rest of our lives. That part where we made the petal of a flower too big was a beautiful mistake: one that we would learn from as we continued in our journey of “Art.”
And so, when we look back on our lessons and cringe over the spots where we used too much blue or didn’t make that part of the scene big enough, let’s learn to view our “Art of Teaching” as a masterpiece in the making. The “Art of Teaching” is a fluid process. One that requires constant “touching-up” and adjusting. It is not a linear process, where each day is more and more “perfect” than the last. Some days we may find ourselves teaching lessons that could be compared to a painting by Van Gogh. On other days, our lessons may turn out to be more like something out of the Barney coloring book we had when we were 5. However, we strive to develop and grow and try our best. We should look at the days and the lessons that we want to mark as failures and we should instead try to see value in them. It is all part of the “Art of Teaching” and of the process. We don’t bury the catastrophes in a hole in the back yard, but we face them so that we can see our mistakes and avoid them next time. I think that McCourt really captures this is his book, and it has inspired and encouraged me.
I think that Frank McCourt’s purpose when he wrote this book was to give insight into what teaching is actually like. I think that it contains a level of honesty that both new and old teachers desperately need. It could be easy for a teacher to wonder if they are the “only one” struggling to teach a classroom and to implement all of the valuable information they learned in college. This book lets teachers know that they are not alone, and that it can take a while to get the hang of it. It was surprising to see how much trouble that McCourt encountered in his classrooms, especially as his teaching career went on. By that time, shouldn’t he have “figured it out” in a burst of inspiration during the pause between a student’s seemingly trivial question and his resulting brilliant remark.
That’s how it works right?
To be clear, this book is not pessimistic about teaching. I am not being pessimistic about teaching. I just think that it is important for teachers to go into the classroom being able to balance reality with dazzling goals that are surely worth working towards. I think that he wanted to let teachers know that it is okay if you find yourself feeling uncertain and puzzled at times. It is okay if you are having difficulty figuring out how to navigate and cultivate relationships and a type of society in the classroom (which, to my surprise, are much more fragile processes than I thought). A wrong decision could negatively impact the dynamics of the classroom. And we will learn that . . . most likely after we make one of those decisions.
I am so grateful for this book, because I tend to be a person that does not like to make mistakes. I rather learn the “wrong” thing to do so that I don’t do it. And, that has it’s place. But, when it comes to certain things, I will only find out something is “wrong” by making that mistake. Furthermore, the same thing that is “right” for one classroom could (to my shock) be “wrong” for another classroom. It is impossible for college classes to describe every scenario and every different class and every different type of student and every different type of home life they could have . . . . However, we do learn many valuable tools in college that will help guide us, and hopefully, prevent us from making too many mistakes. I am not saying that it is okay for a teacher to make mistakes, meaning that they should embrace carelessness. I am talking about the mistakes that come when we try our best and still do not succeed.
This book has profoundly impacted the way I see education, and had no doubt done the same for many others. I see how relationally based teaching is. As I stated earlier, if there is a formula for teaching, it is vague, but, somewhere in there, it includes an X. And that X stands for “strong relationships.” So much is dependent on forming a bond with the students. If you do not care about them, they are not going to care about you. And, they will resent the material. I think that this book has taught me that I really need to be in the moment when I am in a classroom. I need to be attentive and alert to the fluid dynamics in the classroom. It is imperative that I be able to assess Is this working? Do I need to break this down more? What will happen if I respond to the situation in this way? Furthermore, I think that this book has helped me realize that it is important to be understanding of the students in this class. Many of the students described in this book have very difficult home-lives, and it is important that I learn how to navigate and acknowledge that. This books has helped me learn how to to do that.
This book is a story. The idea of “The Story” plays a large role in this book. When the book begins, Frank McCourt is telling his class stories about his life. When the book ends, Frank McCourt is still telling his class stories about his life. However, somethings has changed. In the beginning of the book, the students were attempting to get McCourt to tell stories in order to avoid doing classwork. By the end of the book, McCourt has learned to use his stories to relate them to the lessons that he is teaching. “The Story” no longer becomes a way to shun work and misdirect attention, but rather, it has become a way to harness attention. I think that this book has taught me that it is okay to share personal experiences with my students (as long as all is appropriate and relevant in some way). Although students may see storytelling as a way to avoid work, I think that they do have a genuine interest in the lives of other people. We can all think of a time when somebody used a story to illustrate something. The emotions and the engagement of the story really helped us to connect with and understand what was being said. I think that the book itself is a demonstration of that. Sometimes, I think that we learn more when something is wrapped up in a story than when it is didactically explained. McCourt could have chosen to write a book on how to teach with those little nice organized chapters with titles such as “Behavior Management” and “Reinforcement.” While books like these are important, I think that there is something special about the way that McCourt’s experiences are told in the form of a story. A story reflects the emotion and the intimacy that is supposed to be present in the classroom. Therefore, a book on teaching in the form of a story is very fitting.
I think that I would like to share a quote from the book that appears towards the end. It is describing the advice about teaching that McCourt gave to a substitute teacher. It says:
“Find what you love and do it. That’s what it boils down to. I admit I didn’t always love teaching. I was out of my depth. . . . and you have to find was of saving you own life. They may like you, they may even love you, but they are young and it is the business of the young to push the old off of the planet. . . . But if you hang on you learn the tricks. It’s hard but you have to make yourself comfortable in the classroom. You have to be selfish” (McCourt 255).
Reading this book was an enriching experience, and I am grateful to have to opportunity to reflect on what I have read!
Teacher Management Information System
McCourt, Frank. Teacher Man. New York, Scribner, 2005.