Frank McCourt, Teacher Man (2005). As jobs go, teaching is neither white collar nor blue collar; rather, it straddles the two. Teacher Man, Frank McCourt's memoir of his 30 years as a teacher in New York City public schools, is disarming in style, poignant in tale, and profound in insight on the complex relationship that unfolds between teacher and student on a daily basis.
Teaching is inherently isolating, lonely and full of self-inflicted punishment. The best teachers are their own worst bosses because the job is never really done. And setting high goals for students, who are sometimes more interested in doing as little as possible, ensures disappointment. Caring means that a teacher often goes home broken-hearted. McCourt is that broken-hearted romantic; one who has so little confidence in his own abilities that he agrees when a student's mother calls him a fraud to his face. However, his dark sense of humor belies a golden heart.
An Irish immigrant, McCourt sees a side of Americans that we often miss. He is an outsider with a strong Irish brogue who has to sink or swim without a life jacket in the classroom. He is told that American teenagers are animals who kill their elders. So, when he is challenged by examiners to suggest a homework assignment for a lesson on a Santayana, McCourt blurts out that he would have the students write a "one-hundred-and-fifty-word suicide note." This of course leaves the examiners stunned and McCourt incredulous over even being given his teaching certification. Later, he teaches grammar by having students write forged excuse notes. This innovative methodology and witty improvisation endears him to his students and is the secret to his success.
The art of teaching reveals itself to those, like McCourt, who are brave enough to be unorthodox. His most significant teacher preparation was working on the docks of Brooklyn, Hoboken and Manhattan. While in a near-deadly hook and fist fight with Italian delivery man, McCourt acquired a bugs-eye view of the American Dream and used it to teach his students life lessons. He reflected, "Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. 'And you called yourself a teacher?' I didn't call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less." It was McCourt's life experiences that connected him to students, inspired their imaginations and gave them confidence.
Teachers play for the highest stakes every day. One wrong move and that kid will spend the rest of his life hating that subject, or himself, or the teacher. Meanwhile, that student's future neighbors, colleagues, spouse and children need that teacher to teach lessons that will carry into those relationships. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt invites us into a classroom, as if for the first time, so we can recognize that it is in fact our own humanity that is the essential aspect of our jobs.
Chris Parisi is a History Teacher at Fairfield Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, CT. Photo credit: Diana Stone