Frank McCourt – Teacher Man: A Memoir (Scribner, 2005)

‘I never expected Angela’s Ashes to attract any attention,’ says Frank McCourt, ‘but when it hit the best-sellers list I became a media darling.’ In Angela’s Ashes – which I haven’t read – Frank McCourt told of his days growing up in poverty and won a Pulitzer for his efforts. In Teacher Man he looks back on his many years as a high school English teacher in New York, painting himself as someone lacking ambition or self-assurance and always a little unorthodox. He focuses on his weaknesses, crises and uncertainties, which is admirably honest, but can hardly be taken as modesty from someone who has written a third book about himself. Perhaps as a result of this I was left with the impression that he wasn’t a great teacher and isn’t a great man.

McCourt chooses to work in some tough schools, but his attitude towards students and towards his fellow teachers is not something I would want to replicate. I was also disappointed that he didn’t seem to have a great love for his subject – he students preferred stories he tells about himself to literature and he prefers to talk about himself. He describes a number of his less conventional lessons, backhandedly praising himself for his originality. But, having heard hundreds of stories from teachers this year, I found them consistently unimpressive. His methods may be a little bit different, but that in itself is nothing to be praised when it contributes little to learning. While reading I kept expecting him to come to a moment of epiphany where he offered real insight into why or how to teach, but it never came.

The memoir suits his style as a storyteller – at its best, his writing is vivacious and humorous – but at the end of reading Teacher Man there is little about McCourt I admire. He has had many varied experiences (mostly recorded in his other books), but hasn’t taken much wisdom from them. Looking back, he has little remorse for actions that have been harmful and he shows few of the virtues I most admire, such as faithfulness, dedication, selflessness and long-suffering.

I hadn’t expected him to be a teacher unlike any other who inspires his students and me with this flair and enthusiasm (à la John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society), but I did expect more than I got.  I don’t know how the reviewers on the blurb could have believed this is an important book for all teachers to read.
But I am sure his earlier books are worth a read.

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