Teacher Man

I just finished listening to Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man, his memoir recounting 30 years as a New York City public school teacher. I’ve really enjoyed the few audiobooks I’ve read in the past, but this one is especially good, considering McCourt reads it himself. There’s something satisfying about hearing a writer read his own words, and McCourt’s Irish accent, his tired and bemused voice, combine to create the sense of sitting in a pub listening to the tales spun by a wise old drinking buddy.

He shares his agonizing days as a novice teacher who didn’t know what he was doing and hoping his kids – and principals – wouldn’t figure him out, and brings the reader on the long road to experienced and (mostly) confident teacher who has found his niche.

Over time he seems to get comfortable with the fact that those lessons invented on the fly often seem to reach students far more effectively than the ones we plan weeks – ok, days – no, hours – ahead. He begins to understand that storytelling is a worthwhile thing for teachers – especially those who teach writing – to do.

He thinks school should be fun, that students should enjoy it, and that makes him something of a quiet and slightly insecure radical. He feels almost guilty about this, and that tension between wanting to do things the tried-and-true by-the-book way vs. doing things in a way that is honest and meaningful to his students generates the angst that he humorously battles throughout the book.

Listening to McCourt, I found myself smiling as I drove to and from school, remembering my earliest days in the classroom, for I had been in his boat once. When I started teaching, I felt underprepared and unqualified. So I faked it. I told stories and tried to make it fun for the kids.

Now that I’ve been doing this for 9 years, I’ve realized that I can be the strict grammarian by-the-book traditional English teacher, but no one enjoys that. Not me, not the kids. School should be fun. For kids, for teachers. Oh, Kids should learn, no doubt; they should be equipped to think and have the skills they need to survive on their own, but it shouldn’t feel like jail. Of course, I teach in what is essentially a jail, so it’s especially important that my kids feel free, at least when they’re in my room. As McCourt says, there is a line between fear and freedom. Education should push us toward the freedom side of the line.

Anyone interested in teaching or who is a teacher would get a kick out of Teacher Man. Not only is it full of interesting – and often wickedly funny – stories about life in the classroom, it is also one of the most honest portrayals of teaching I’ve ever read. Or, rather, I suppose, heard.

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