Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Teacher Man by Frank McCourt








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Frank McCourt’s new book, Teacher Man, will make readers laugh, and will facilitate memories of unorthodox teachers who made time spent in the classroom engaging. Using his great skills at story telling, McCourt provides story after story of his foibles and breakthroughs over the 30 years he spent as a teacher in New York City public schools. At his best, McCourt found unorthodox ways of challenging students, getting them to think, and generally doing the work that was needed. The approved curriculum would never have called for asking high school students to write suicide notes, or to practice writing excuse notes. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, pp. 66-70:


Long after my teaching days I scribble numbers on pieces of paper, and I’m impressed by what they mean. In New York I taught in five different high schools and one college: McKee Vocational and Tech­nical High School, Staten Island; the High School of Fashion Indus­tries in Manhattan; Seward Park High School in Manhattan; Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan; night classes at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan; New York Community College in Brooklyn. I taught by day, by night, and in summer school. My arithmetic tells me that about twelve thousand boys and girls, men and women, sat at desks and listened to me lecture, chant, encourage, ramble, sing, declaim, recite, preach, dry up. I think of the twelve thousand and wonder what I did for them. Then I think of what they did for me.

The arithmetic tells me I conducted at least thirty-three thousand classes.

Thirty—three thousand classes in thirty years: days, nights, summers.

In universities you can lecture from your old crumbling notes. In public high schools you’d never get away with it. American teenagers are experts in the tricks of teachers, and if you try to hoodwink them they’ll bring you down.

So, yo, teacher man, what else happened in Ireland?

I can’t talk about that now. We have to cover the vocabulary chapter in the textbook. Open to page seventy-two.

Aw, man, you tell the other classes stories. Can’t you tell us just one little thing?

OK, one little thing. When I was a boy in Limerick I never thought I’d grow up to be a teacher in New York. We were poor.

Oh, yeah. We heard you didn’t have no refrigerator.

Right, and we had no toilet paper.

What? No toilet paper? Everybody has toilet paper. Even in China where everybody’s starving they have toilet paper. Even in Africa.

They think I’m exaggerating and they don’t like it. There’s a limit to hard—luck stories.

You tryin’ to tell us you’d go an’ pull up your pants and not wipe yourself?

Nancy Castigliano raises her hand. Excuse me, Mr. McCourt. It’s nearly lunchtime, and I don’t wanna hear no more about people having no toilet paper.

OK, Nancy, we’ll move on.

Facing dozens of teenagers every day brings you down to earth. At eight a.m. they don’t care how you feel. You think of the day ahead: five classes, up to one hundred and seventy-five American adolescents; moody, hungry, in love, anxious, horny, energetic, challenging. No escape. There they are and there you are with your headache, your indigestion, echoes of your quarrel with your spouse, lover, landlord, your pain-in-the-ass son who wants to be Elvis, who appreciates noth­ing you do for him. You couldn’t sleep last night. You still have that bag filled with the papers of the one hundred and seventy-five stu­dents, their so-called compositions, careless scrawls. Oh, mister, did you read my paper? Not that they care. Writing compositions is not how they intend to spend the rest of their lives. That’s something you do onJy in this boring class. They’re looking at you. You cannot hide. They’re waiting. What are we doing today, teacher? The paragraph? Oh, yeah. Hey, everybody, we gonna study the paragraph, the struc­ture, topic sentence an’ all. Can’t wait to tell my mom tonight. She’s always asking how was school today. Paragraphs, Mom. Teacher has a thing about paragraphs. Mom’ll say, Very nice, and go back to her soap opera.

They straggle in from auto mechanics shop, the real world, where they break down and reassemble everything from Volkswagens to Cadillacs, and here’s this teacher going on about the parts of a para­graph. Jesus, man. You don’t need paragraphs in an auto shop.

If you bark or snap, you lose them. That’s what they get from par­ents and the schools in general, the bark and the snap. If they strike back with the silent treatment, you’re finished in the classroom. Their faces change and they have a way of deadening their eyes. Tell them open their notebooks. They stare. They take their time. Yeah, they’ll open their notebooks. Yes, sir, here we go opening our notebooks nice and easy so nothing falls out. Tell them copy what’s on the board. They stare. Oh, yeah, they tell one another. He wants us to copy what’s on the board. Look at that. Man wrote something on the board and wants us to copy it. They shake their heads in slow motion. You ask, Are there any questions? and all around the room there is the innocent look. You stand and wait. They know it’s a forty-minute showdown, you versus them, thirty-four New York teenagers, the future mechanics and craftsmen of America.

You’re just another teacher, man, so what are you gonna do? Stare down the whole class? Fail the whole class? Get with it, baby. They have you by the balls and you created the situation, man. You didn’t have to talk to them like that. They don’t care about your mood, your headache, your troubles. They have their own problems, and you are one of them.

Watch your step, teacher. Don’t make yourself a problem. They’ll cut you down.


Rain changes the mood of the school, mutes everything. The first class comes in silently One or two say good morning. They shake drops from their jackets. They’re in a dream state. They sit and wait. No one talks. No requests for the pass. No complaints, no challenges, no back talk. Rain is magic. Rain is king. Go with it, teacher man. Take your time. Lower your voice. Don’t even think about teaching English. Forget about taking attendance. This is the mood of a house after a funeral. No harsh headlines today no cruel news from Viet­nam. Outside the room a footfall, a laugh from a teacher. Rain clat­ters against windows. Sit at your desk and let the hour slip by. A girl raises her hand. She says, Aw, Mr. McCourt, you ever in love? You’re new but you know already when they ask questions like that they’re thinking of themselves. You say, Yes.

Did she give you up or did you give her up?


Oh, yeah? You mean you were in love more than once?



A boy raises his hand. He says, Why can’t teachers treat us like human beings?

You don’t know. Well, man, if you don’t know, tell them, I don’t know Tell them about school in Ireland. You went to school in a state of terror. You hated it and dreamed of being fourteen and get­ting a job. You never thought about your own school days like this before, never talked about it. You wish this rain would never stop. They’re in their seats. No one had to tell them hang up their jack­ets. They’re looking at you as if they had just discovered you.

It should rain every day

Or there are spring days when heavy clothing is discarded and each class is a vista of breasts and biceps. Little zephyrs wafting through the windows caress the cheeks of teachers and students, send smiles from desk to desk, from row to row till the room is all adaz­zie. Pigeon coo and sparrow chirp tell us be of good cheer, summer is a-comin’ in. Those shameless pigeons, indifferent to the teen throb in my room, copulate on the windowsill and that is more seductive than the best lesson by the greatest teacher in the world.

On days like this I feel I could teach the toughest of the tough, the brightest of the bright. I could hug and cocker the saddest of the sad.

On days like this there is background music with hints of zephyr, breast, biceps, smile and summer.

And if my students ever wrote like that I’d send them to Simplicity School.


One of my favorite lessons McCourt taught was to have students bring in cookbooks and read recipes aloud, often accompanied by music performed by classmates. Teacher Man provides enjoyable and entertaining reading for all, and school administrators and politicians may ponder the benefits of unorthodoxy in the classroom.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2006 issue of Executive Times


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