McCourties of the world rejoice! You have nothing to lose but your tears of woe anticipating when he'd return with his next book; the foremost memoirist of our time is back. Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man" is a spellbinding lyrical ode to the craft of teaching. It is a rollicking, delightful trek across nearly thirty years in New York City public school classrooms that will surely please his devout legion of fans, and perhaps win some new admirers too. Truly, without question, it is a splendid concluding volume in his trilogy of memoirs that began in spectacular fashion with "Angela's Ashes". Indeed, we find much of the same plain, yet rather poetic, prose and rich dark humor that defines his first book, along with his undiminished, seemingly timeless, skill as a mesmerizing raconteur. Is McCourt truly now one of the great writers of our time if he isn't already, with the publication of "Teacher Man"? I will say only that he was a marvellous teacher (I still feel lucky to have been a prize-winning student of his.), and that this new memoir truly captures the spirit of what it was like to be a student in his classroom.
"Teacher Man" opens with a hilarious Prologue that would seem quite self-serving if written by someone other than Frank McCourt, in which he reviews his star-struck existence in the nine years since the original publication of "Angela's Ashes". In Part I (It's a Long Road to Pedagogy) he dwells on the eight years he spent at McKee Vocational High School in Staten Island. It starts, promisingly enough, with him on the verge of ending his teaching career, just as it begins in the lawless Wild West frontier of a McKee classroom (I was nearly in stitches laughing out loud, after learning why he was nearly fired on two consecutive days, no less.). Frank manages to break every rule learned in his Education courses at New York University, but he succeeds in motivating his students, raising the craft of excuse note writing to a high literary art. He finds time too to fall in love with his first wife, Alberta Small, and then earn a M. A. degree in English from Brooklyn College.
Part II (Donkey on a Thistle) has the funniest tale; an unbelievable odyssey to a Times Square movie theater with Frank as chaperone to an unruly tribe of thirty Seward Park High School girls. But before we get there, we're treated to a spellbinding account of his all too brief time as an adjunct lecturer of English at Brooklyn's New York Community College, and of another short stint at Fashion Industries High School, where he receives a surprising, and poignant, reminder from his past. Soon Frank will forsake high school teaching, sail off to Dublin, and enroll in a doctoral program at Trinity College, in pursuit of a thesis on Irish-American literature. But, that too fails, and with Alberta pregnant, he accepts an offer to become a substitute teacher at prestigious Stuyvesant High School (The nation's oldest high school devoted to the sciences and mathematics; its alumni now include four Nobel Prize laureates in chemistry, medicine and economics; for more information please look at my ABOUT ME section, or at history at [...] or famous alumni at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stuyvesant_High_School or Notables at [...]
Surprisingly, Part III (Coming Alive in Room 205) is the shortest section of "Teacher Man". After having spent fifteen years teaching at Stuyvesant High School, you'd think that this would be this memoir's longest section, replete with many tales rich in mirth (Room 205, located a few doors from the principal's office, was Frank's room throughout his years teaching full-time at Stuyvesant High School.). Indeed I'm surprised that it is so brief. Yet there is still ample fodder for Frank's lyrical prose to dwell on, most notably a hilarious episode on cookbooks and how he taught his creative writing class to write recipes for them. He describes with equal doses of hilarity and eloquence, his unique style of teaching at Stuyvesant, which he compares and contrasts with math teachers Philip Fisher and Edward Marcantonio - the dark and good sides of Stuyvesant mathematics education in the 1970s and 1980s (I was a student of both and will let the reader decide who was my teacher while I was a student in Frank's creative writing class.) - but he still implies that his students were having the most fun.
Will "Teacher Man" earn the same critical acclaim bestowed upon "Angela's Ashes"? Who knows? Is it deserving of it? I think the answer is a resounding yes. Regardless, Frank's many devout fans - his flock of McCourties - will cherish this book as yet another inspirational tale from the foremost memoirist of our time.
(EDITORIAL NOTE 7/22/09: Elsewhere online I posted this tribute to my favorite high school teacher, and I think it is worth noting here:
I've been fortunate to have had many fine teachers in high school, college and graduate school, but there was no one like Frank McCourt. Without a doubt, he was the most inspirational, most compelling, and the funniest, teacher I ever had. I am still grateful to him for instilling in me a life-long love of literature and a keen interest in writing prose. Am still amazed that he encouraged me to enter a citywide essay contest on New York City's waterfront, and would, more than a year later, in my senior yearbook acknowledge my second prize award by thanking me for winning him money (His was also, not surprisingly, the most eloquent set of comments I had inscribed in my yearbook from teachers.). He is gone now, but I am sure that for me, and for many of my fellow alumni of his Stuyvesant High School classes, he will live in our hearts and minds for the rest of our lives.)
on December 7, 2005
Almost 30 years ago I was a student in Frank McCourt's creative writing class at Stuyvesant High School. He was one of the most memorable teachers I have ever had. The class had a wide range of talent and he treated both the good writers and the weak ones with the utmost respect. After he won the Pulitzer for Angela's Ashes, I thought about how it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy or a better teacher.
In "Teacher Man," Frank McCourt sheepishly looks back on his thirty years of teaching, and admits that he wasn't always comfortable educating adolescents. He candidly states in his prologue, "How I became a teacher at all and remained one is a miracle." This memoir is a bittersweet look back at McCourt's not entirely successful career in the New York City Public High Schools, and at the often hilarious goings-on in his classrooms.
As he made clear in his Pulitzer-Prize winning "Angela's Ashes," McCourt had a miserable and impoverished childhood in Ireland. His alcoholic father walked out when Frank was ten. Three of his siblings died. Frank's schoolmasters were always quick to beat their recalcitrant charges with sticks, straps, and canes. He left school at fourteen and fled to America, where he worked as a manual laborer. McCourt was a man with horrible memories, low self-esteem, and no goals.
After he served a stint in the U. S. army, McCourt dozed through four years of New York University on the GI Bill. At the age of twenty-seven, he became a teacher after barely passing his licensing examination. When he began his first teaching job at McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island, it didn't take long for him to realize that he was in way over his head. Merely getting the kids to pay attention to him would count as a major triumph.
"Teacher Man" is a story of survival. McCourt basically threw out the standard English curriculum and played it by ear. He told stories of his wretched years in Ireland instead of diagramming sentences and discussing great works of literature. He had the students talk about their experiences and make up original stories. He instructed his pupils to bring in cookbooks and read recipes out loud, which they did, accompanied by music. Some parents complained about McCourt and he was shown the door a few times. However, he bounced back long enough to collect his pension and go on to do what he truly loved--writing.
"Teacher Man" is an offbeat, steam-of-consciousness book about a man shuffling through life, drifting into marriage and parenthood, and eventually finding himself. Frank McCourt is honest and self-deprecating, freely admitting that he was chronically disorganized and lacked self-discipline. He tells poignant and funny tales about the women he loved, his supervisors and colleagues, and most of all, his students. In his last teaching job, at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, McCourt faced bright and upwardly mobile college-bound teenagers. There, he says, "I was finding my voice and my own style of teaching." He still shunned traditional teaching methods, but the students in Stuyvesant had so much energy that they inspired him to reach higher than he ever had before; he enjoyed his greatest success in his creative writing classes. McCourt himself might admit that he should have heeded the advice he once gave to a prospective teacher: "Find what you love and do it."
TEACHER MAN, Frank McCourt's third and latest memoir of Irish-American immigrant life, is by all accounts a marvelous summary of thirty years in the teaching profession. At the same time, it is so much more. Possessed of what has to be one of the most massive inferiority complexes in the history of memoir writing, McCourt tells the tale of a rebellious, feisty, anti-authoritarian young man in search of himself. That young man struggles through the blue collar world, enters the teaching world almost as a last resort, battles his lack of self-confidence as much as he battles successive school administrators, and ultimately discovers himself in the mirror of his own students.
TEACHER MAN is not just another tale of the "my two years in an inner city school" variety. Mr. McCourt's story ranges far and wide through both his personal and teaching lives, intertwining the two in ways that lend understanding to his development (and, often, failure to develop) in both areas. We follow the author as a dock worker, as a new teacher at a vocational technical high school in Staten Island, as a successful master's student at NYU and a failed doctoral student at Trinity College in Dublin, as a struggling teacher at Fashion Industry and Seward Park high schools in Manhattan, and finally, as a Creative Writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School, arguably the finest public high school in New York. As the years progress, he learns how to "read" and motivate students, respond to troublemakers, and capture their imaginations through non-traditional, frequently offbeat teaching approaches.
Mr. McCourt hardly seems discreet in discussing his life and his classroom antics. He is far from saintly - sometimes loose living, always hard drinking. He describes classroom events for which he is lucky not to have been fired or sued or both, such as pulling a student's legs out from under him and causing him to hit his head as he fell to the floor. Yet for all his human frailties, McCourt ultimately comes across as a caring teacher who learns that his greatest strength is challenging his students to think differently. He compels his students to look inside themselves. He encourages them to pay attention to the details of their lives, learn their grandparents' stories, and see the richness in even the most mundane aspects of their family lives. His students don't just read novels and poems, they sing cookbooks and practice writing excuse notes, first from their parents, then from Adam and Eve to God.
Throughout this charming and eminently readable book, Mr. McCourt maintains a self-deprecating and irreverent style. His approach is at times humorous, sometimes touching, and often inspiring. While he might not always have stuck to the prescribed lesson plans, he understood how to open young minds and get them to question their assumptions. He captures the essence of the teacher/student relationship with perfect pitch.
Ever the iconoclast, McCourt demonstrates through his life's story that, at least for the great teachers, the saying "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," should be modified to read, "Those who can, teach; those who can't, never experience the joys of those who can." Mr. McCourt proved himself to be a teacher who shaped and changed students, the kind whom students remember their entire lives. He also manages to turn the two words, "I'll try," into an entire chapter, and a profound one at that. He seems to have spent his entire life trying, and succeeding as often as not.
TEACHER MAN is a wonderful and compelling story, a captivating read from cover to cover. It may well be the best "teaching memoir" ever written.
on December 12, 2005
The familiar lilt of Frank McCourt's voice (somehow you can hear it even on the printed page) from the previous book "Angela's Ashes" is now applied to McCourt's years as an English teacher in the public high schools of New York City. In reading this endearing combination I've learned more about teaching than I ever could from a textbook, and been quite entertained in the meantime.
The backbone of the book are McCourt's stories about the classroom - the romances, the games students and teachers play to see who's boss, the sheer creative force and improvisation a good teacher must develop in order to make something good happen in the classroom. Clearly McCourt started with great instincts and became a master: a student drops a sandwich in defiance, McCourt picks it up and eats it. Students provide a prodigious number of forged excuse notes "from their parents," McCourt gets them to write excuse notes from characters in history (Adam and Eve to God, for example).
Around this backbone McCourt fleshes out the story with his personal history - his marriage, his failed attempt at getting a PhD at Trinity College, his daughter, his own struggles to write. These stories are well told (although they don't have the pathos of his "Angela's Ashes" childhood), but McCourt seems most alive in class.
This would make a great gift for any McCourt fan, but particularly for any teacher you know. I particularly recommend the audiobook form, which is read by McCourt himself.
on November 27, 2005
As a life-long educator (middle school, high school, graduate school, and seminary), I found Frank McCourt's personal account of his thirty-year teaching career to be mesmerizing. He is on target with his philosophy of teaching people to think, not simply teaching them what to think. He's also insightful in his use of "out of the box" methodology that fits his diverse students rather than a "one-size-fits-all" model.
Unfortunately, he's also totally correct in his assessment of the bureaucratic fights that a creative teacher must face when teaching in a public educational system that demands conformity and group think.
For teachers, "Teacher Man: A Memoir" is a refreshing challenge to fight for your students by fighting against a system that tends to reward mediocrity instead of meritocracy. For all other readers, this memoir will inspire you to adventurous living regardless of your vocational context.
Reviewer: Bob Kellemen, Ph.D., is the author of "Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction", "Soul Physicians," and "Spiritual Friends."
on August 1, 2006
Many readers will remember the impressions left by movies like To Sir With Love or Blackboard Jungle-both descriptions of school systems gone wrong. Indeed, there have been a few since then but each story tells the sad state of formalized education. Frank McCourt's Teacher Man compared to the above titles is as different and refreshing as Black Forest cake is to white sliced bread.
Teacher Man is a biography of an Irish immigrant to the United States who becomes a teacher in New York City. It is also the story of his travails and those of his students told as only somebody could from a nation of story tellers.
Strip away the Irish perspective and concentrate on what it is to teach and one sees what it actually is to teach. It is no exaggeration to say that a teacher can be expected to be a drill sergeant, disciplinarian, clerk, low-level scholar, referee, a traffic cop and more. McCourt's story of a boy named Kevin who ignored the principal's request to remove his hood and about whom a guidance counselor admitted he did not know what to do with him rings true. The hood came off when McCourt found something Kevin liked to do in the classroom. A small victory that eventually led to Kevin's induction into the U.S. Army.
Of course the attitudes and practices of those in and around the profession are included, the learning on the job, the parental indifference, teen unhappiness and bravado but it is the humour and McCourt's unorthodox methodology that keep one reading. How many teachers would eat a student's sandwich that had been thrown onto the floor? Or see ending up with the mind of an adolescent as a potential job-related hazzard?
McCourt relates stories concerning his teacher preparation course, a fling, searching for a teaching position, "real" work experiences, parent-teacher interviews and much more- and all ring true, especially the field-trip to see a production of Hamlet.
His personal life was not always a success. His attempt to up-grade fails and he starts moving from school to school upon his upon his return to New York City. Then his marriage fails as well.
Nevertheless, McCourt has succeeded. He succeeded in teaching and molding recalcitrant students who came to him with hopes, baggage and challenges. And he has taken a potentially dry subject (Who wants to read about a teacher's life?) to the New York Times' Best Sellers List.
on May 29, 2006
I will first admit that I am, most likely, the only reader of Teacher Man that has not yet read McCord's Angela's Ashes. I have no excuse except that that I heard so much about it that I thought I had heard the story before. Even Teacher Man held little interest when my wife brought it home from a recent book buying binge. She even manage to get Mr. McCourt to sign the book at the Los Angeles Times book fair at UCLA this year. Then while searching the aisles of the library for a book to listen to while on a business trip I saw Frank McCord had recorded his own book and I thought maybe this would be interesting. Well it was more than interesting, it was amazing. All good fun, and illuminating told with charm and warmth. Stories of a career choice he might not have chosen, students he remembers, and lessons that teacher and student both learn.
Here is where I admit that I too thought I would become a teacher. I didn't. Student teaching taught me one thing. This was a damned hard profession and I had no taste for the discipline one must keep in the classroom. McCourt re-enforces my decision was correct. And I recommend his book to anyone who has the notion they want to enter teaching. This is simply the best book on teaching I have ever heard and read (as I found myself reading large sections of it later).
I really recommend if you can, to listen to the book. McCord has a way of putting you into his story. His writing and reading are simple and declarative which much humor and insight. He says in the text he felt it was his job to open up the path from FEAR to FREEDOM in his students. His latest book is a monument to all the Teachers who attempt to generate creative thinking and know that true education is more than a test score. I doubt McCourt left any students behind. I highly recommend this fine recording and the book.
on November 20, 2005
If you pay attention to the Irish, you will soon learn that the greatest compliment that can be made is that simple word 'Brilliant'They tend to use it more often than others who speak English, and they use it with great flair.Frank uses it perfectly on page 254.
Before I started to read this book,I was feeling that maybe it was not going to be as good as Angela's Ashes or 'Tis and probably just taking advantage of the unbelievable successes that they were.I was only a few pages into the book and my fears were gone.This book is even better than his others.
As others said, Frank relates his experiences since his first days as a school teacher until his retirement.I'm not sure if he realized it or not,but this is much,much more than that.He really gets into what the whole business of teaching is all about.As you read the book, you can't help thinking about your own experiences as you went through your own school days and even advanced education at college or university.Sure, he writes from a teachers viewpoint, but he clearly understands that the point of all teaching is the student not the teacher and even more so ,not the system.
I always felt that teaching leaned too much on correction and not nearly as much on inspiration.Frank understood this in spades;and for that reason he became a great exception.
Reading the book,brought me back to a discussion I once had with a retired university president.I was saying that in all the teachers I came across in my school days and later in university,I can only think of a couple who ever inspired me.In response he said that if I had encountered a couple,I should consider myself very fortunate,many are not so lucky.It is obvious that Frank was one of those rarities.Generally, teachers dish out the material,ask it to be returned and then correct it and evaluate the student.If you really believe the object of education is to inspire the student,maybe it is the student who should be heard as to whether or not inspiration has been achieved.All arguments against this are really arguments in defense of 'the system'.
It is obvious that Frank believed if he was going to succeed with his students he, more than anything else, had to inspire them.The students saw through this,became inspired,and learned.There is no doubt in my mind that his students would have graded him as the best teacher they ever had.I know I would have loved to have him as my teacher or the teacher of my kids.
I've lived long enough to know that nobody learns unless they are motivated,and conversely anyone who is motivated will learn regardless of the obstacles placed in their way.
This is going to be a book that will be a beacon for teachers and students alike.In my opinion it surpasses his Pulitzer winner because it was really just about him.This book is very different ,it is about him as well,but it is about all of us ;be it teachers or students.
Every student deserves to encounter someone like McCourt,and if they do,they will recognize it,and be affected the rest of their lives.
I predict this book will be a prize winner and a classic on teaching and learning.
on March 20, 2006
I was very eager to read this book since I am a teacher myself and have enjoyed other work by McCourt. I began to read it and found it amusing and entertaining. The stories he began to share about his days in the classroom certainly gave me a little laugh. I was about 100 pages into the story when I began to really get bored, though. All the anecdotes seemed the same, all the events were similar, and it was the same thing over and over with no real direction. Cute, funny anecdotes only take you so far. A book of this length needs to show some progress over the pages and needs to be moving in some direction. That is where McCourt fails in this writing. It appears he wrote this book for the sole purpose of writing another book. If I knew I could write a book and sell a mountain of copies, I would do the same thing he did. Unfortunately it lacks what Angela's Ashes had. As much as I enjoyed his previous work, Frank McCourt produced a real disappointment with this one. As I said, it is good for about 80-100 pages, then it just gets old and stale from the same jakes being repeated over and over.