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Teacher Man

Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, recollects his 27 years as a New York City public school teacher in a new memoir called Teacher Man. McCourt, a lifetime union member, talks with NEA Today writer Mary Ellen Flannery.

In Teacher Man, you write that teachers are the “downstairs maid of professions…told to use the service door or go around the back.” 

Tell us how you really feel!

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt sat down with NEA Today to discuss his book Teacher Man.

McCourt: Teachers are dismissible! They’re almost second-rate citizens. The attitude is that if you’re a teacher, you’ve somehow failed at something else. When I’m on my book tours, and doing my talks, I tell people to imagine this: Your son or daughter attends Cornell or Michigan, or someplace like that, and they come home and say, “Dad, Mom, I’ve decided what I want to do with my life.”

“Yes, honey?”

“I’d like to be a teacher.”

The eruption at the dinner table! “Are you kidding me? I worked my a** off to send you to college and you want to be a teacher?”

That’s the attitude!

You retired from the classroom in 1988, before the so-called No Child Left Behind law and its high-stakes tests made your colleagues miserable. As one who measured success in less orthodox ways, what do you think about this new direction?

McCourt: The politicians have stuck their noses where they shouldn’t be. Can you imagine a politician interfering with doctors? Going into the operating room and saying, “Stand aside! Let me see what you’re doing!”

Everybody feels free to interfere with teachers—telling them how to run the classroom, what to teach, and how to teach it. And do you know what’s at the bottom of it? The refusal to recognize that teaching is a profession; teaching is an art, teaching is a science. There’s no other profession like it in the world, where you’re in the trenches every day, dealing with flesh and minds. It requires tremendous energy and then great skill and scholarship.

I used to sidestep and bypass all the rules. And I was producing results. My kids were winning poetry contests. My kids were being published in Seventeen Magazine and the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

But today, it’s nothing but testing! I don’t know how this country got to be so powerful as it is without testing. How did we win wars? How did we win Nobel Prizes?

You’re not a fan of high-stakes testing?

McCourt: It kills the whole idea of what education could be. It has nothing to do with the sense of wonder and awe and curiosity that kids have, and it’s all in the guise of raising standards. But whose standards? The politicians are responsible, and the NEA and the AFT have let them get away with it. There should be a massive walk-out in this country: “Take your test and shove it!”

But “No Child Left Behind” aren’t the only four words that you hate to hear, there are others...

McCourt: All That Time Off! I don’t know how many times people have said that to me, “You get all that time off!” I want to ask them to step outside.

So how do you rescue the profession?

McCourt: There’s one word that will eventually save the teaching profession: Sexy.

Look at what’s happened to the Irish in this country. Thirty years ago, the Irish were kind of simple-minded, brawling, mercurial fighters and drinkers. They’re the ones who brought in the water and cut the wood. And then something happened. Now Ireland is the economic miracle, it’s booming, and the Irish are on the international entertainment scene [with] Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. Now the Irish are sexy— they’re fashionable—and that one word has changed everything.

Part of the lack of respect for teachers may stem from the idea that anybody can be a teacher. Clearly that’s not true. What do you think it takes to make great teachers?


Read an excerpt from Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man"

McCourt: New teachers need other teachers, and I don’t mean college professors talking about pedagogy and philosophy. Teachers should be hired right from the classroom, at a professorial salary, to teach at NYU or Columbia for a year or two. Practical stuff. And bring the future teachers into the classrooms, not just for observation, but to associate with hardened, professional teachers.

At the beginning of Teacher Man you write, “I’m told I should keep a red pen to record the bad things...because the red pen for bad things is the teacher’s most powerful weapon.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference, but I wonder—what really is the teacher’s best weapon?

McCourt: Honesty. To say, “No, I don’t know.”

“But you’re the teacher.”

“Yeah, I don’t know everything. I didn’t take the course in Everything.”

They’ll drive you to honesty—”Oh, well, Mr. McCourt, that’s not what you said last week.”

So, if you do lie, you’ll have to be a very good liar.

What about this idea that teachers also have to be performers? To keep their class interested and engaged?

McCourt: The performer thing is OK in the beginning, to put on expressions of shock and so on. But it doesn’t work. If you’re putting it on, they know. They know you’re putting on a mask. The sooner you can bridge the classroom and be your absolute self, the better.

And how long does that take?

McCourt: Fifteen years—it took me that long to begin to feel comfortable in the classroom, so that I could enjoy myself. And I think that’s much more intensive than any doctor’s internship.

What’s your best advice for new teachers?

McCourt: As I said at the end of Teacher Man, “Find what you love and do it.” I had a student teacher who was expert in the esoteric—strange religions, tea-leaf readings, and so on. I said, “Why don’t you do that? Begin with the vocabulary of astrology.” But she hid behind the desk...and it didn’t work at all.

And would you advise students to go into education?

McCourt: You’ll never make much money or drive a Jaguar, but you’ll never be bored. If you are bored, it’s never anybody’s fault but your own. I can’t think of anything in life that would have given me the same satisfaction. But when you knew you hit a nerve in class, the atmosphere was electrifying—like everybody in the classroom, you and those 35 kids, all understood the same thing at the same time. To use an overused word, it was awesome.

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Photo by Erin Patrice O’brien

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