Author Frank McCourt Reflects on Teaching Career
Frank McCourt began his second career as a writer in a big way, winning the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, Angela's Ashes. But before McCourt was a writer, he spent 30 years as a New York City English teacher, an experience detailed in his book, Teacher Man. Included: Advice for new teachers from Frank McCourt.
While most of the world was introduced to Frank McCourt's poignant yet engaging memories of his impoverished childhood in Ireland with the publication in 1996 of a memoir, Angela's Ashes, his stories already were familiar to generations of New York City public high school students.
For 30 years, McCourt taught English and later creative writing in New York City schools, finishing his tenure at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a career captured in his third book, Teacher Man. He writes that his first years in the classroom were rocky, entering teaching as a recent immigrant with no experience with American high school students. To help keep the students' attention, he told them stories of his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, and used the material at hand for lessons. When it became clear to McCourt students were forging excuse notes from their parents, he assigned a class to write excuse notes from Adam and Eve to God.
Now a Pulitzer Prize-winning and internationally-known author, McCourt told Education World that he hopes his latest book helps give teachers the recognition and respect he thinks they deserve.
Education World: Can you tell me why you wanted to write Teacher Man?
Frank McCourt: Well, I'd already written the other two, Angela's Ashes, about growing up in Ireland, and then 'Tis, about coming over here, then I needed to get the teaching thing out of my system. There's very little written about teachers in the world. They need a platform. They need an outlet.
EW: How did your childhood experiences in Ireland affect your approach to teaching?
McCourt: Well, the teaching we saw in Ireland was brutality. I couldn't go that way when I started teaching. I didn't have the desire or the personality to be as brutal to the kids here as the teachers had been to us in Ireland.
EW: So what kind of teacher did you want to be, then?
McCourt: I didn't know. How do you know anything until you do it? What kind of husband do you want to be? Or what kind of wife do you want to be? You maybe have a vague idea, but circumstances and your personality and your background take over. So I became more of a permissive teacher. That's what I wanted to be. Sometimes I thought I'd want to be more tough, more regimented, but I didn't have the personality.
EW: How would you say being a teacher shaped you as a person?
McCourt: Well, it helped me to grow up. Standing in front of those kids all day, every day; I had kind of a retiring personality. That didn't carry over into the outside world. I was comfortable in the classroom, I was able to articulate what I thought about things, I was able to talk about what I wanted towhen I started telling the stories about growing up in Ireland, I was able to tell these stories over and over again, so they became more polished so when I set out to write Angela's Ashes, they were almost ready to write. Ready to be cooked.
EW: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your teaching career that became more clear toward the end of it?
McCourt: There's nothing you can know; it just takes years of experience to feel at home in the classroom.
[But maybe], how to be more natural, to be human, and not to try to put on a teacher act, to level with them, to be honest with them. But they'll force you into honesty anyway. You can't get away with anything. They'll contradict you. They'll say, that's not what you said last Wednesday There isn't anything except I tried to do things I was told to do, like teach certain things that I was neither prepared to do or willing to do. You have to go your own way. In the long run, you have to find your own style. Like a writer or basketball player, you have to find your own style. There's only one Michael Jordan. There was only one Ernest Hemingway. You're not Ernest Hemingway.
As far as teachers, there are models out there of great teachers, but they all have their own approach. Socrates sat under a tree. Jesus went around talking in parables and people listened to him. You have to hack it up for yourself.
But I didn't know that in the beginning. Nobody told me, "Look you have to find your own way in the classroom. You have to find your own style." I just stumbled along in a fog. And then after a few years, 15 years maybe, I began to feel at home in the classroom. Maybe it won't take that long for everyone; my experience was unusual in that I was an immigrant, with no knowledge of high schools or high school teaching. For me it was different. But everybody in the beginning has to work it out.
The main thing is to find what you love.
EW: When you say that, do you mean the subject that you love?
McCourt: And the subject within the subject. There were people who liked teaching grammar. Good for them; it's like teaching mathematics. But it needn't be. Kids are always resisting grammar because of the way that it's taught. But it needn't be like that. I think teachers who love a subject can find ways of making anything attractive.
EW: What sort of feedback about the book have you received from teachers?
McCourt: The [response from] teachers has been excellent. I went to address the National Council of Teachers of English in Pittsburgh -- the response was very positive. They were overwhelmingly enthusiastic. So far every teacher I've met is very enthusiastic; as are teachers' families, young people who want to be teachers, retired teachers -- they are all enthusiastic.
[The response has been good] because there have been books and movies about teachers, but they were unrealistic. All the way back to The Blackboard Jungle, Up the Down Staircase, To Sir, With Love... they were very glamorous [on television and in the movies], but you never saw anyone teaching. Just running around the hallways bothering kids who were making love in the stairways. They wouldn't leave them alone. That's all they do. They don't get involved with the kids, at home or with their parents. All very romantic, but it's not teaching.
EW: What do you hope other teachers gain from reading your book?
McCourt: First of all, to know that somebody's writing about them, somebody's thinking about them. I think the image of the teacher needs to be improved in this country. I know in Ireland the image of the teacher is much richer than it is here. There is much more respect. Teachers here are treated like second-class, third-class, fourth-class citizens. They're told to come in the back door. They don't get paid as well as truck drivers.
And usually in New York City -- when salaries come around -- they are lumped in [with the firefighters and police officers.] Now I have great respect for policemen and firefighters -- but I think teachers are a bit differentthey educate. Teachers are not lumped in with doctors and engineers and lawyers, which is where they belong. This is all a matter of class and status, and maybe snobbery. And the figures go along with this -- the lousy pay they get and the lack of respect. When did you last see a teacher on a talk show? Movie stars and athletes and politicians -- criminals! They all get on the talk shows. But not the teachers. They are regarded as dull people. The ones who take care of the children every day. Almost like super babysitters. That's the way they are treated.
And then when you do see something on television, a panel on education, you see someone from the board of education, you see a professor of education, or you see a bureaucrat, someone from a think tank, a politician, but never a teacher. Never. Imagine a panel on medicine without a doctor? The uproar there would be from the medical profession! But all the politicians think they own education. Just the way the pope and the cardinals think they own the [Roman Catholic] Church. Which they do, of course. We don't get the keys. The politicians have the keys to the educational system, they control the purse strings, and they don't have a clue about what education is. I know they've been to school and all themselves, but what goes on in the classroom is another story.
What is taught, and what should be taught and how it should be taught -- politicians think they're going to direct all that.
EW: What advice would you offer a beginning teacher now?
McCourt: There are two pieces of advice. One I could say is, "Don't do it." Because you're in for a rough time and you'll never make any money. Or if you want to do it, find what you love, and do it. That's the main thing. If you go into teaching half-heartedly, the kids will kill you. It's too dangerous for your psyche and for your general physical and psychological welfare. That's the advice. You better be prepared for less respect from society
The kids sense it right away when you don't like what you're doing. So many people went into teaching, and their hearts weren't in it, and they became what you call disciplinarians. Well, that's the last refuge of a bad teacher, being a disciplinarian. Get out if you don't like it.
I think I read in the paper that about one-third of teachers drop out and within five years half of them are gone. It's a huge attrition. We have to ask ourselves, why, what's wrong? Why shouldn't people love teaching? Because it's so hard. It's easier to go and become a broadcaster or go into communications, or have a job behind a desk, because you don't have to handle kids every day. I think it's just such a miserable existence if you don't like kids and people shouldn't do it. Because it infects the kids and drags down the whole system. They [teachers who don't like teaching] should go away and become politicians.
So find what you love and do it. If you can. You're lucky if you can. There are a lot of people who go into teaching because they don't know what else to do with themselves. Then they are in it for a few years, and they say, "I can't leave now because I'm on a pension track." So they stay in it and they hang on and hack away every day until it's pension time. And then they're glad to leaveand they sit and look back, but they don't look back with any kind of pleasure or satisfaction.
That was the best part for me that I was able to look back with some satisfaction and say to myself"I'm glad I did it. It was good and I hope I was useful." I know a lot of teachers who retired and went off and were bitter about their experiences, felt they wasted their lives, because their brothers and sisters had got into other areas and made a lot of money and were now living in splendor and the teachers were living on a less than princely pension. It's a rough decision to make when you want to become a teacher.
This e-interview with Frank McCourt is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2007 Education World
Originally published 12/07/2005; updated 04/13/2007