In this tribute to teachers everywhere. McCourt records the trials, triumphs and surprises he faces in public high schools around New York City. His methods anything but conventional, McCourt creates a lasting impact on his students through imaginative assignments, singalongs and field trips. As he struggles to find his way in the classroom, he spends his evenings drinking with writers and dreaming of one day putting his own story to paper. The book shows McCourt developing his ability to tell a great story as he works to gain the attention and respect of unruly or indifferent adolescents. His rocky marriage, his failed attempt to get a Ph.D. at Trinity College, Dublin, and his repeated firings due to his propensity to talk back to his superiors ironically lead him to New York's most prestigious school, Stuyvesant High School, where he finally finds a place and a voice.--From publisher description.
McCourt has an affable, lyrical voice and is very honest, even when it reveals him warts and all. Yet there is just not much of a story here. I picked it up thinking that I was going to read an inspiring story of an Irish immigrant teaching inner-city kids in New York City about the power of books and writing. Although there are occasional glimmers along these lines, instead you’re left feeling that you’ve read the autobiography of a mediocre schoolteacher who basically advanced from being useless to marginally adequate. How underwhelming!
I can’t imagine that this book would have been published if it weren’t written by someone who already had a best-seller under his belt.
McCourt bemoans the fact that his teacher-training course did not prepare him at all for the realities of the classroom. But there's no-one-size- fits-all-quick-fix for teachers that you can pass on in training, and it takes time and hard-won experience to find out who you are in the classroom. (Took me years and much pain.) McCourt lays out his own personal journey for us, detailing nearly 30 years of teaching in American high-schools and eventually discovering that his stock of stories about growing up in Ireland was his greatest classroom resource. That and the kind of quirky imagination that dreams up assignments like getting students to write their own excuse notes and obituaries!
And empathy. Of course, empathy. What teacher can survive without it? McCourt has bucket loads of it.
I'd love to see this book made compulsory reading on all teacher training courses, but the book is a damn good read even if you don't have a particular interest in things pedagogic. It's beautifully written, moving and funny by turn.
Would you expect anything less from the author of Angela's Ashes?
Teacher Man is -- well, it's just not that good. The pointedly Irish mannerisms that were charming in Angela's Ashes and tolerable in 'Tis here come off as grating. McCourt has become a persona rather than a person.
Teacher Man starts off rambling, in unremarkable language, about McCourt's success as a writer, and then proceeds to flash back to his teaching days in New York City. McCourt writes with a wink and a nudge about what a terrible teacher he was. His audience (and he does perform as though for an audience, rather than write for a readership) is expected to heartily disagree with him and affirm that he was a wonderful, if zany, shepherd of children.
This audience member didn't much feel like clapping when presented with his incompetence.
There are a few interesting stories here if you can tolerate the story-teller. I was particularly moved by the student who, growing up in the teeming city, wanted to be a farmer. It's telling that McCourt only found out about the student's ambition years later, when meeting him by accident on the street.
McCourt doesn’t write fiction, at least I have come to conclude. He writes his memoirs, his childhood growing up in Limerick though he was born in New York. Returning to America, he was cast as an outsider, a bitter irony that he resented deeply though that did not stop him. He finally became an English teacher, teaching high school kids about a language that they have taken for granted. If that wasn’t hard enough he had teenage angst, rebellion and lack of ambition to contend with. But McCourt pulled through and there were many moments in this book that reaffirmed his career choice, for like his students, he knows what it feels like to be a misfit, never quite blending into the background and finding that everything is one big struggle.
I took this book with me when I went away for work. Since I had many moments to myself, I found myself easily drawn into McCourt’s world. I saw him working at the docks to pay through his college education. I felt like I was in his class when he was trying to describe sentence structure aided by a ballpoint pen. I wished I was there when his students read recipes from cookbooks to the tune of various musical instruments, thus a reading of Eggs Benedict was elevated into an opus of some kind.
Read this if you’re a McCourt fan, or if you’re a teacher wanting a shot of inspiration. Or simply if like McCourt, you’re a tough mick trying to make it through but finding it hard and the whole world is against you. McCourt doesn’t use big words, or vague analogies to drive his message. Instead they’re everyday scenes, proving that greatness is achieved not through ingenuity or that rare streak of talent, but through sheer perseverance and finding inspiration in ourselves and within each other.
This leads into what is probably more of an issue for me personally. I hoped to learn something from this book; at the least, I expected to be impressed by another teacher. Instead, I was disappointed. McCourt's overly cynical attitude (from the beginning of his career) would be the last way I'd want an "exemplary" teacher to be portrayed. I have a great deal of respect for my own profession and for the teachers I know, and I'll tell you--most of us became teachers because we wanted to, not because we didn't know what else to do with ourselves. It may be hard work, but we Enjoy it. This might be an amusing book for teachers to read, and may well be familiar at times, but it is far from inspiring or a picture of someone I'd look to as a mentor. As for politicians, it certainly could do some good for them to see in the classroom. But for my part, I don't think things will change if they get the idea that all teachers are like McCourt.
In any case, I'm sure that this is a wonderful book...if you're the right audience. For me, it took a long time to get through even though it is extremely readable and at moments engaging. It is a quick read--I just got so frustrated with McCourt and his character at times, that I simply had to put the book down and find reading elsewhere.
From another review, "McCourt throws down the gauntlet on education, asserting that teaching is more than achieving high test scores. It's about educating, about forming intellects, about getting people to think." And from his own book, "I was uncomfortable with the bureaucrats, the higher-ups, who had escaped classrooms only to turn and bother the occupants of those classrooms, teachers and students. I never wanted to fill out their forms, follow their guidelines, administer their examinations, tolerate their snooping, adjust myself to their programs and courses of study." Sadly, I get the notion that this process took him half of his teaching career. I enjoyed the way he connected with some challenging and difficult students. He seems like the kind of teacher we all would have wanted at one point in our education, however, having all teachers like him would be difficult as well. It is clear that we need teachers of all talents, interests, and passions. Many times McCourt's lessons reminded me of Mark Twain's quote, "Never let schooling interfere with your education!"
The book jacket quote indicates this is a book to be read by teachers and politicians . . . add school administrators and Board of Regent's members to that list. McCourt might agree with the quote from critics of the No Child Left Behind legislation requiring more testing. "The drill and kill curriculum that accompanies high-stakes, one-size-fits-all testing programs undermines rather than improves the quality of education," explained Dr. Neill. "Once again, independent data demonstrate that the nation cannot test its way to educational quality. It's time to abandon the failed test-and-punish quick fix and get on with the hard work of identifying the real causes of student learning problems, then addressing them effectively. Congress should follow the lead of the more than 60 national education, civil rights and religious organizations that have come together to call for an overhaul of this damaging federal law." Some things students learn in school just cannot be objectively tested. I think the book will leave most readers wanting more stories from his years at Stuyvesant High School. Perhaps McCourt's next book?
So it is with Teacher Man, in which we get perhaps not quite "the best self-portrait of a public school teacher ever written," but an exquisitely detailed and appropriately cynical memoir of a man finding his way in his profession and his life.
The characterization is spot-on, the stories endlessly entertaining. And most comforting of all, McCourt gives off the sense of a man that should be as world-weary as any ever born, but is not -- and is, instead, appreciative and receptive of all he's seen.
A great treatise on life, on education, and on learning that the two can never be mutually exclusive.