Teacher Man: how we can all learn from Frank McCourt’s important lessons on life in the classroom

First posted on the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on Friday 30 August 2019

‘You’re starting your teaching career, and it isn’t an easy life. I know. I did it. You’d be better off as a cop. At least you’d have a gun or a stick to defend yourself.’

(Frank McCourt, Teacher Man).

I started my teaching career when my uncle, an experienced PE teacher, had just finished his. He had a wealth of experience and I had none. To compensate for this I read plenty of books on pedagogy, behaviour management and professional standards. Some of these books were really useful, but many were not.

However, my uncle handed me a book that proved to be one of the most beneficial books on teaching (not necessarily learning) that I have ever read. Although set in the US around 70 years ago, Teacher Man, by the Irish-American writer Frank McCourt, proved to be a real insight into the daily realities of life in the classroom.

McCourt’s book taught me three important things: that it is not always easy being a teacher; that perfection is near on impossible; and how the occasional use of personal narratives – or stories – can be used to settle and calm pupils who would otherwise be bouncing off the walls.

What is a teacher?

Teaching is not always easy. I often question what I’m doing. Why did I become a teacher? Do I actually spend most of my time teaching or does my day-to-day role in school focus more on other things, such as behaviour incidents, fallings out amongst pupils and issues with parents? In a similar vein, McCourt explains that he didn’t call himself anything – let alone a teacher – as he was:

‘…more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counsellor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.’

From experience, I now know that this is often true. We are ‘jacks of many trades’ and have to be multi-skilled whilst multi-tasking in order to create a purposeful learning environment in our classrooms.

Moreover, McCourt observes that understanding a class of teenagers and getting to grips with their strengths and weaknesses as learners (and people) is no mean feat. For example, he observes:

‘There’s one in every class along with the complainer, the clown, the goody-goody, the beauty queen, the volunteer for everything, the jock, the intellectual, the momma’s boy, the mystic, the sissy, the lover, the critic, the jerk, the religious fanatic who sees sin everywhere, the brooding one who sits in the back staring at the desk, the happy one, the saint who finds good in all creatures.’

Throughout the course of the book McCourt battles, builds bridges and learns to care for many of these characters. Often these relationships take time and some fail, but there are plenty of anecdotal ideas that I have adapted for my own charges over the years.

Yes, teaching is not easy, but it can be the most rewarding job in the world if you stick at it.

No one’s perfect

‘Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations,’ says McCourt when he starts teaching in a tough New York high school. Teaching can be unpredictable – I once heard a Herts for Learning advisor tell an audience of NQTs that teachers make more split-second decisions than any other professionals with the exception of fighter pilots (he didn’t cite any sources, however). Essentially, we have to adapt and align our teaching with our pupils needs, moods and interests.

Teacher Man makes it clear that we often question our abilities when things do not go as planned. For McCourt, ‘There was always a nagging doubt I was teaching under false pretences.’ Like religious believers, elite athletes and brooding superheroes, teaching involves doubt as it is so much more than a job – it is a vocation; and much more rests on what we do than a simple pay check at the end of the month.

Nonetheless, constantly striving to improve our practice can only benefit our pupils, which in turns heaps intrinsic rewards on us as we become aware of the massive difference we are making to young people’s lives. Whether we are aware of this or not, so long as we are always seeking ways to improve, our teaching will become more polished and impactful; regardless of experience and position.

As McCourt states, ‘You have to make your own way in the classroom,’ which he clearly does throughout his time in the classroom. By the end of the book, McCourt’s considered reflections have not only improved many of his pupils’ outcomes, but he has motivated them to aim higher. Moreover, from the start of the memoir to the very last page, he is continually learning not only how to improve, but an awful lot about himself.

Storytelling

Part of the reason for this blog is that I have often thought about Teacher Man whilst considering my small action research project for The Reach Teach Toolkit last year.

As part of a group looking at ‘hook’ strategies, especially those identified by Doug Lemov in the first edition of Teach Like a Champion, I decided to focus on the use of narrative in lessons, which are also abundant in McCourt’s memoir.

Although conducive to his role as an English teacher, McCourt states, ‘I am teaching. Storytelling is teaching.’ Furthermore, storytelling was how he realised he could finally engage pupils and motivate then to learn. For example:

‘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. I was learning.’

Again, the last part of that sentence suggests that we are fellow travellers in the classroom; learning with our pupils – it was by telling stories that McCourt learnt how to engage pupils, gain confidence and build relationships.

Maybe because of Teacher Man or maybe by coincidence, I have often told personal stories to engage pupils when they have seemed apathetic or uninterested in the topics I am teaching. These stories have tended to have a link to the content being taught (for a good discussion on this, see Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s Making Every Lesson Count, pp. 69-71 as well as Tharby’s How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone, chapter 6). Subsequently, as part of my action research project, I asked my pupils a very simple question: Do appropriate personal stories make learning more engaging? The results are below (from a Year 10 GCSE class and Year 8 Humanities class) and, I think, give an obvious indication that McCourt’s use of storytelling, particularly through personal anecdotes, is well worth considering.

Screen Shot 2019-07-27 at 17.48.01Screen Shot 2019-07-27 at 17.48.33

So, if you are looking for a book to help you reflect on not only your practice, but also your purpose as a teacher, please look no further than Teacher Man. Yes, you need to be brave enough to relate your own life or the world around to the things you teach in class. However, episodes in your life are probably far more relevant and of interest to your pupils and subject than you think, as McCourt suggest:

“You can’t teach in a vacuum. A good teacher relates the material to real life.”

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