Saturday, 12 April 2008

Teacher Man - Frank McCourt

As a (former) teacher, I can't help but be attracted to teaching memoirs and biographies. They hold a strange fascination for me. Some describe tales of woe, where the classroom was a place to hone your survival skills far more savage than any reality tv show could offer. Others gloss over these experiences and emerge with deep pedagogical discussions which only mean something to those in the education profession. I loved To Sir, With Love (1967), read Learning Our Living (2000) with interest, and enjoyed Never Lost For Words (2001) about a NZ author who frequently wrote for the School Journal. I have dipped in and out of the biography of Sylvia Ashton Warner these past months, but have found the writing style awkward and am instead looking forward to reading Teacher once I've finished this one.

I'm now reading Teacher Man (2005), the third memoir from Pulitzer prize winning author, Frank McCourt. McCourt is best known for his first memoir, Angela's Ashes (1996), which took the world by storm, and its sequel, 'Tis (1999). The first book tells the grisly story of a poor Irish family growing up in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, while the second details what happened once the poor Irish boy finally made it to the United States to claim his fame and fortune. Predictably, neither were waiting for him and McCourt instead carved out an extensive teaching career and matching alcohol problem.

Some readers and critics wanting more of the poor-boy-surviving story from McCourt's first two memoirs were disappointed with Teacher Man. They claim it was too much about teaching and the rest of the world couldn't relate to the content. Well, duh! That is precisely the reason I am enjoying it; McCourt makes no attempt to disguise what this book is about: his teaching career. In his typical self-deprecating style, he manages to laugh at himself and his gaffs along the way (as we all have to, or else we'll just go nuts in the process that is teaching) yet, to a well-trained eye, describes a constructivist pedagogy, albeit with far less planning and pre-meditated thought than he'd get away with in today's schools.

Basically, if anyone can survive the classrooms of New York for 30 years and still live to tell the story with such humour, they deserve a medal and whatever else is coming to them. I wonder if Frank McCourt has any more memoirs to offer the literary world?

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