reviewed by David Lee Carlson - 2006
Two years ago I left my last high school English classroom. Many of my students have graduated and moved on to college, jobs, or military service. The artifacts and letters, drawings, and projects that drape my office seem like historical pieces of a time long ago. Many of their voices reappear in my teacher education courses when I use them as examples of how to teach urban students, but they are always introduced by the prefatory phrase I remember a student. . . My seven years of teaching in urban schools in both Washington, D.C., and New York City materialize to me in disjointed flickers. In many ways, Im still trying to make sense of those years as an urban school teacher.
My initial hope, then, for Frank McCourts latest book Teacher Man was that he would help me organize some of the most emotionally intense experience of my life and, simultaneously, give a voice to perhaps one of the most underrepresented, misunderstood, yet heavily scrutinized groups in the United States: the urban school teacher. Standardized curricula in New York City and state exams speak to the lack of trust in teachers. There are so many proverbial expert cooks in the classroom, that as, McCourt admitted in his Prologue, Teaching is the downstairs maid of professions. In short, I wanted McCourt to write a political treatise couched in his own experiences; one that would suggest improvements for many of the same problems we see today in urban public schools that he describes in his book. Upon further reflection, however, what makes this book work is the same characteristic that made McCourt an effective teacher: In his wonderful descriptions of his students, an honest and courageous appraisal of his choices, and in his explicit descriptions of his experiences, he implicitly sheds light on the politics of teaching in urban schools. Urban school teachers will glean from this book creative teaching strategies, identify with the struggles and rewards of working with inner-city students, and recognize an esteemed author who champions the teaching profession.
The book chronicles McCourts journey as a teacher in various New York City public high schools. From the opening pages of the book, the reader understands that he possessed a profound respect for the teaching profession and for his responsibilities as a teacher. He begins the book as a recent graduate of the New York University teacher education program, and landing his first job at McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, New York. Whats so wonderful about beginning the book here is that the reader receives an accurate description of the trepidations and anxieties associated with the first day of school as a brand new teacher. There are the administrative duties such as recording attendance and documenting little marks when boys and girls do bad things (p. 21), negotiating the dilapidated conditions and lack of resources typical of inner-city schools, and the psychological anxieties that teachers experience when confronted with a room of 3035 adolescents for the first time, who are, as McCourt aptly describes, experts on teachers who know body language, tone of voice, demeanor in general (p. 21). Linked to the fear of facing your classroom is the courage to teach them. It is in his interaction with students and his implementation of ingenious and creative lessons that the book shines.
On McCourts first day of teaching, he receives a crash course on classroom management when a young student throws his sandwich at another student. To avert a fight in the classroom, McCourt appropriately made his first teacher statement, which was, Stop throwing sandwiches (p. 25). With no success of getting the student to pick up his sandwich, McCourt eats the sandwich off of the floor and throws the wrapper into the waste-basket. He later proclaims, So this is teaching? Yea, wow. I felt like a champion. I ate the sandwich. I hit the basket. I felt I could do anything with this class (p. 27). This moment exemplified the human component in teaching secondary school. The limits of teacher education programs, which focus almost exclusively on teaching strategies and methods, are that they can not prepare teachers to deal with the unexpected human moments that occur everyday in the classroom. This moment reminded me of my first days in New York City when my principal told me to forget everything they taught you at Teachers College in order to succeed with my students in Brooklyn. Teacher education cannot prepare preservice teachers for every possible event in the classroom and, in many ways, McCourt argues that he had to rely on his own personal wits to help him teach. As such, McCourt contends that he had to discover his own way of being a man and a teacher and that is what I struggled with for thirty years in and out of the classrooms of New York (p. 31). McCourts previous works, Angelas Ashes and Tis, serve as important companions to this book because ones past becomes just as important as a teaching tool as an English methods textbook. McCourts new work demonstrates how teaching allows one to face ones past; and, for him, that included escaping a cocoon of Irish history and Catholicism, leaving bits of that cocoon everywhere (p. 31). What he learns and his lesson to his readers is that his past experiences can be useful to his students and, through storytelling, we can gain a new perspective on our own interpretations of those moments. Perhaps, then, the main argument of this book is that using his past to teach his students, McCourt developed into a man.
Teachers will be able to identify with McCourts descriptions of his students because he doesnt proselytize. Instead, he allows for his own experiences and those of his students to speak for them. In doing so, he champions his students, just like he did when he was teaching. Throughout much of the book he describes the administrative and parental obstacles that he faced as a teacher in urban schools, where several different forces (parents, administrators, teachers) claim to possess a stake in the students future. One such situation occurred with his student Linda Sienecki, who McCourt encouraged to apply for college because she wrote well, read books, participated in class discussions (p. 139). The guidance counselor, Mr. Bibberstein, McCourt reports, stopped him one day in the hallway and scolded him for giving kids ideas they shouldnt have (p. 139), speaking specifically of Linda. This moment in the book highlights the kinds of limits administrators can place on teachers and how they try to determine the students future. Most teachers in urban schools can identify with McCourts disappointment with this exchange because many of us have or have had several Lindas in our classes, can see their potential, and work tirelessly to allow them to realize that potential. What becomes clear in this book is that teachers exist within a large bureaucratic machine. One of the beautiful aspects of this book is that McCourt continually stands as a student advocate, opening up new worlds for them to consider, while appreciating their own personal aspirations.
What McCourt found lacking in working-class neighborhoods, he discovered at Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious school. During his third year, Sylvia, a student of his, came to him after class and apologized for being mean the previous day, when McCourt lectured students about being bourgeois and comfortable (p. 234) after they complained about reading A Tale of Two Cities, McCourt learned that not every student at this privileged school is comfortable. Sylvia discloses to McCourt that she wants to be a pediatrician or psychiatrist to help younger children in her Bed-Stuy neighborhood before the street tells them that they are no good. Sylvia teaches McCourt that there are a lotta, a lot of, smart kids in poor neighborhoods (p. 237), challenging McCourts preconceived views of his students. Also during this year, another student, Ben, describes the sacrifices his family made to get him into this school. In addition to his father working six-days a week, his mother dressing the younger children in secondhand clothes, Ben competed with fourteen thousand kids to get into Stuyvesant High School. Ben exclaims that he would never laugh at a teacher trying to make students appreciate the educational opportunities they have or the comforts they have because he understands that poverty could be in China or Chinatown. We also learn that parents can be as rigid at Stuyvesant as they can be a McKee. McCourt encouraged one of his students, Stanley, to study classical guitar, but his father says that from day one he was going to be an accountant. It appears from McCourts experience that, although along different tracks, determinism does not discriminate based on class. Finally, towards the end of the book, McCourt describes this poignant moment with his student, Ken, who during a course at Stanford University, describes the tears he cried after reading Theodore Roethkes poem My Papa Waltz, which he had read previously in McCourts class. Through his tears, initiated by this poem, he was able to release the poison he felt towards his father. These moments with his students make the book really shine, where we see how McCourt as the teacher impacted the lives of his students. Those of us who have taught and continue to teach in urban schools can relate the gifts he receives from teaching in urban schools. But hes not heavy-handed, suffering from the teacher-as-savior malady, as he admits his mistakes, explaining in detail why he moved from each school; and the reasons were not always altruistic ones.
What is perhaps the most impressive part of McCourts work is his honesty about his personal flaws. He exclaims, for example, that when he began teaching creative writing at Stuyvesant he didnt know much about it, which, of course, seems a bit shocking and inspiring due to his successful writing career. Yet, the most striking and courageous personal confessions occur with his students. After eight years at McKee, McCourt proclaims, it was time to move on (p. 142) because he still struggled to hold the attention of five classes every day (p. 142). Later, he describes how students at his community college wanted to just graduate while he desired to be the Great Liberating Teacher; and then in perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the memoir, he describes his inability to teach Timmy Curry. McCourt developed a relationship with him when he asked him to clean the paint jars in his classroom. Timmy, we later learn, dies in the Vietnam War, but leaves the glass jars in his bed room in the shape of MCCORT OK. Finally, he describes how at Fashion Industries High School, he slapped Joses face with a magazine because he refused to read aloud in class. These humbling moments with students allow the reader to trust McCourts teaching experiences and his writing because they illustrate a human being who struggled with students, possessed limitations, and made mistakes. By doing so, he reminds the reader that teachers are human beings, whose past shapes their present, who are prone to error, and who often times muddle through the classroom. Even individuals, such as most urban schoolteachers, with the greatest and most noble intensions, carry out irreconcilable, inconceivable, and irretrievable injury. Yet, McCourts text reminds us that through our mistakes we develop compassion for ourselves and others; this link to each others faults is what makes a teacher effective.
Finally, McCourt provides some interesting teaching methods for teaching English in urban schools. Perhaps the most impressive is the lesson on excuse notes. Whats impressive about this assignment is that he recognized the students talent in a certain form of writing, and he used that to help them with their own writing. As he writes: When they (students) forge these excuse notes theyre brilliant (p. 109). McCourt uses this activity to exemplify the differences between dull and engaging writing. So, students composed both fictional and real excuse notes, such as An Excuse Note from Adam to God (p. 112). Other teaching strategies included using a ball-pen to teach how the parts of a sentence function together and writing recipe poems.
The divergent storylines such as teaching at a community college, returning to Ireland to start but not complete a Ph.D. in English Literature, describing his obsession with June Somers, dont get connected closely enough to his teaching life to warrant the amount of time that he spends on them. They make for a chunky narrative form, which detracts from the brilliant storytelling; however, the lessons from this book aren't lost. We learn that one can use ones past and ones personal experiences as useful teaching tools and, thus, one can be great when one serves others. It is these powerful messages, where the personal outflanks the political and the experiential overrules the expert that makes this book a valuable read for teachers.