One major theme of Teacher Man by Frank McCourt is the teaching profession and the perceptions of society regarding teachers. There are many people who view teaching as a stepping stone to a better profession. However, Frank McCourt viewed teaching as an esteemed calling and spent is career using different strategies to encourage his students to learn and persevere. His methods weren’t always welcome and McCourt was fired from several teaching assignments over the course of his career. However, he didn’t give up on being a teacher and influenced many students he had the privilege of teaching. Student diversity is analyzed as it relates to the experiences Frank McCourt had over his entire teaching career. His unconventional teaching methods will be discussed to show evidence that his students responded and learned when exposed to these learning experiences. An analysis of how Frank McCourt handled off topic discussions by students will also be offered. Finally, insight from Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators will be applied to McCourt’s teaching experiences.
Stereotyping different backgrounds is an issue that comes up often in Teacher Man. Frank McCourt comes from Ireland and this influences how he behaves in the classroom and what type of teacher he has become. However, the backgrounds of students are also an influential factor in the classroom. Student diversity guarantees that there will be different racial and ethnic backgrounds represented in the classroom but it also ensures that there will be negative behavior directed at one another as well. Students don’t leave their racial identities at the classroom door and neither do educators (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). The background and experiences of the students may differ from that of Frank McCourt but ignoring these differences guarantees a one sided education that doesn’t prepare students for the real world (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). However, incorporating these differences into classroom discussions as they relate to curriculum can provide valuable opportunities for growth (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006).
Frank McCourt had an uncanny ability to allow students to feel safe discussing sensitive issues in the classroom. He used stories of his own past to show students that despite the differences among humans, everyone has the ability to teach something to everyone else (McCourt, 2005). A large part of why McCourt was able to rise to such popularity among his students was ability to show them his own life as an outsider. These experiences as someone who doesn’t fit in allowed McCourt to use unconventional methods to encourage his own students to learn. Students responded because they began to see McCourt as a human being going through similar struggles because of his own background (McCourt, 2005).
Teacher Man chronicles the teaching career of a man who was able to teach students required material while also building relationships with them. He was also able to teach outside the security of mainstream schools by incorporating methods that were interesting to students. His first teaching assignment was at McKee Vocational and Technical High School in Staten Island. The students he came into contact with were unmotivated to receive an education and improve their chances of a future. He was met with great resistance when he tried to teach them how to write. However, using an unconventional method of allowing them to write excuse notes provided an opportunity to teach them the fundamentals of writing. He kept these notes in his desk and referred to them as “filled with samples of American talent never mentioned in song, story or scholarly study. How could I have ignored this treasure trove, these gems of fiction, fantasy, creativity, crawthumping, self-pity, family problems, boilers exploding, ceilings collapsing, fires sweeping whole blocks, babies and pets pissing on homework, unexpected births, heart attacks, strokes, miscarriages, robberies? Here was American high school writing at its best—raw, real, urgent, lucid, lying” (McCourt, 2005, 85). As a result of these impressive writings, McCourt designed a lesson plan where students were required to write excuse notes for some of the most famous bad guys from history. In order to meet the needs of such a diverse group of students, McCourt took a great risk in devising such a lesson but he had found something students were willing to write and he felt as if the risk was worth the reward.
This risk taking on the part of Frank McCourt enabled his students to also challenge themselves. Creating classroom environments that encourage students to creatively express themselves encourages more authentic learning experiences (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). In this way, McCourt’s writing lesson plan method was enormously successful. It encouraged students to write which was the purpose of the whole class. While many in the education field would disagree with this type of unconventional lesson plan, McCourt realized the importance of capturing the attention of his students if he ever hoped to teach them anything. Further, the more options students have to express their diverse views the less chance they will engage in dangerous risk taking behavior outside of the classroom (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). McCourt undoubtedly realized the dangerous and unmotivated group of students he taught during his first year of teaching didn’t care much for current accepted teaching methods. Even if McCourt simply wanted to teach his students something he was also preparing them for the real world by allowing them to express themselves at school rather than on the streets. In this case, his methods are far better than standard practices.
It was generally considered impractical to take a group of unmotivated high school students on a field trip. However, Frank McCourt agreed to take twenty-nine obnoxious high school girls to see Hamlet. These girls were black and they were upset that the white girls were invited to see Hamlet and they were not. McCourt learned from these girls to have the same expectations of them as he would anyone else (McCourt, 2005). This lesson shows readers another issue that diversity brings to the classroom. The students certainly have the chance to learn important lessons about growing up by being presented with discrimination as was the case with the group of black girls not invited to the play. At the same time, Frank McCourt had the potential to guide these girls through growing by taking appropriate action but he also grew a little bit himself. This is important when forming a teacher student relationship. Teachers must be open to learning from the diverse backgrounds of their students in order to form a bond that fosters a willingness to learn on the part of the students (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). This specific assignment (in the form of a field trip) helped the young black girls negotiate their way through a difficult situation in order to emerge as more well rounded individuals at the end of the lesson (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006).
The most important part of addressing diversity in the classroom is for an educator to bring aspects of his own background into his teaching style. This provides students an opportunity to see their teacher as a real person (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Additionally, teachers, such as Frank McCourt, who care more about the students than grades and homework provide powerful motivation to students (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Through the use of unconventional methods, Frank McCourt is able to foster a tight bond with his students. It may appear to conventional instructors that he was compromising the integrity of the required curriculum but the opposite is true (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Instead, McCourt utilized his own background in encouraging his students to challenge themselves through lessons that addressed curricular guidelines but that also appealed to each particular group of students (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). As a result, students will improve their own self confidence because they will begin to realize they are capable to excelling academically while also finding more motivation to keep trying (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Frank McCourt may not have had this particular goal in mind when he set out to be a teacher. He certainly wanted his students to meet curricular guidelines but he quickly realized that standard lesson plans weren’t getting this job done. Risk taking allowed him to show students that they were capable of finding their own motivation and this is why his unconventional methods turned out to be so successful and why he was one of the most popular teachers among many of his students.
One of Frank McCourt’s students’ favorite things was to hear stories of his background and growing up in Ireland. Often, questions surrounding his background would distract the students from the goals of learning for that day. However, McCourt loved sharing stories about his childhood so he often allowed himself to get off task with his students (McCourt, 2005). He is quick to admit that he doesn’t know everything and this endears him to his students through his recollections of experiences throughout his own life. McCourt realized that allowing himself to share stories from his own life removed the mask that many teachers wear in order to keep their private life away from the students. In contrast, McCourt felt that showing up in the classroom as himself was more important to authentic learning than was posing as a character in order to educate children.
“You have to tell the truth or you’ll be found out” (McCourt, 2995, 113). This sums up McCourt’s willingness to regale students with stories from his past. His uncanny ability to captivate his students with these stories leads to a treasure trove of information about his students. This information then leads to lesson plans designed to capture the attention of students by engaging them in things that interest them while also ensuring that educational objectives were being met. For example, through the relationship he formed with his students he found out that all teenagers love food. As a result he focused lesson plans on food. He required students to critique the writing of restaurant critics (McCourt, 2005). Ignoring the opportunity to learn more about his students by refusing to share personal stories wouldn’t have achieved the same educational outcomes that McCourt was able to get from his students when he showed them that he was a real person.
Frank McCourt was able to build on his relationship with his students so that each of them was able to identify his or her strengths (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Instead of focusing on standardized testing and mandated academic outcomes, McCourt was able to see measurable growth in his students by forming relationships built on trust so that students felt comfortable enough to challenge themselves and grow as individuals (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Being a teacher is so much more than teaching a prescribed curriculum. It is also about teaching students to grow as human beings so that they will be prepared to face the real world (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). McCourt was able to do this for his students by often allowing the class to get off topic. While he often went home and drank as a result of his regret for allowing his students to push him off topic, he continued letting them quite frequently (McCourt, 2005). Perhaps what he didn’t realize was how much he actually taught his students through these ramblings because they were able to see him as a confidant in the classroom.
The most important way that teachers can handle off topic conversations is to realize the potential for learning that these discussions present. They can be used to build upon topics that need to be addressed in order to meet educational goals while also allowing students to gain some control over their own learning. When students are interested in the material being discussed in class they are more likely to channel their own internal motivation towards education and end up learning more (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Therefore, off topic discussions should be viewed as an incredible opportunity to gather information straight from the minds of the students and incorporate this information into creating meaningful lesson plans that will capture the attention of all students. This type of risk taking on the part of the teacher will prompt students to take risks with their own learning (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006).
The willingness of Frank McCourt to allow his students to push him off topic served the purpose of building a relationship with students but also in gaining the respect of his students. From his first day of teaching, McCourt had the ability to command respect from his students through his unconventional methods. When two students got into an argument over a bologna sandwich and if flew the air, McCourt simply picked it up and ate it (McCourt, 2005). Instead of worrying about how his students would think of him, he did what came naturally and this garnered the respect of his students. The same was true during the sharing of stories from his past. His willingness to share something of himself that didn’t directly relate to required classroom material resulted in the respect of his students because it showed them that he cared about what they were interested in.
Teenagers rarely respond to excessive control (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Instead, they are more open to teachers who treat them as individuals and allow them some freedom over their own education. These are the teachers who are able to reach the students and motivate them to learn (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). Frank McCourt was able to give his students control over their own learning by showing them connections from real life to material required at school. He did this through his own sharing of his life but also by allowing students to incorporate aspects of their own lives into his lesson plans. At the same time, he was also able to provide the structure and discipline students need in order to get the maximum benefit from attending school. Students want to work with teachers who respond to their differences and challenge them to push the limits of their own abilities (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006). McCourt was able to form these types of relationships with his students through his willingness to let them guide some aspects of what was presented as learning material.
Several insights can be gained through reading these two books. The textbook provides compelling evidence that shows the nature of teenage schooling and what these young adults bring to the classroom. At the same time, it is able to provide teachers with anecdotal and accurate information about why teenagers need to be educated in certain ways. It proves that educators must work on building relationships built on mutual trust with adolescent students if they hope to see measurable growth. Finally, teachers learn that the most important requirement is to listen more, talk less and focus on possibilities rather than problems (Nakkula & Toshalis, 2006).
Teacher Man is an often humorous and frustrating account of one popular teacher’s career in public schools in New York City. What emerges from the memoir is a clear picture of what type of teacher students respond to. It is not necessary for all teachers to eat their student’s bologna sandwiches or take apart ball point pens to teach sentence structure, but it is necessary for teachers to remember that each group of students is made up of diversely different human beings and education shouldn’t be a one size fits all approach. Instead, teachers should allow students to see who they really are so that authentic relationships can be formed that provide students with the motivation necessary to succeed in school. Each teacher needs to develop his or her own style if they hope to reach their students (McCourt, 2005). When all else fails, teachers can do what McCourt often does and suffer through the low points while enjoying the high points. “You know your role: if the little buggers piss you off from time to time, suffer, man, suffer. No one is forcing you to stay in this miserable underpaid profession” (McCourt, 2005, 152). Instead, teachers do what they do because they love it.
McCourt, Frank. (2005). Teacher Man. New York: Scribner.
Nakkula, Michael J. & Toshalis, Eric. (2006). Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development
for Educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.