Linda Darling Hammond
Interview With Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, is a retired English teacher. He lives in New York City.
Q: What do you see as some of the major obstacles to improving public schools in our country?
We don't like our kids. This is a country, this is a nation of people who don't like their kids. Therefore, the teachers are baby sitters. We don't look at teachers as scholars the way they do in Europe. In Spain you're called a professor if you're a high school teacher, and they pay teachers, they pay teachers in Europe. We don't here. We resent if, we resent giving them pay raises. If they rise up and say we need a cost of living adjustment, [we say], "Oh, what do you mean you need a cost of living adjustment? Look at all the time you've got off. You're finished at 3 o'clock, never mind that you go home with a bag of papers to correct, and then you have the summers off. These teachers with their summers off! Oh my, I wish I were a teacher." Well, there's nobody stopping you from becoming a teacher! Go and become a teacher, dammit! All these so called professionals, investment bankers and lawyers, [they say], "Oh these teachers have their summers off." You know what most teachers do? They go out and get a job to subsidize their miserable pittance they get from most community boards and boards of education.
Q: Why did you become a teacher?
When I got out of the army I had the GI Bill. Since I had no high school education or anything like that, I came to NYU and they took a chance on me and let me in. I suppose I was what you might call a mature student of 22. And, I thought, I'd like, at one time I thought I'd like to become a journalist, but because I had no education, and because I'd come from this horrible background of poverty and so on, no education, no self esteem, so I didn't see myself mingling with two-fisted, hard-bitten journalists. I would dream of going up to the New York Times and asking them if I could please be a copy boy or let me scrub the toilets or something like that. But I couldn't rise to those heights. So the two things I liked most of all were books and children. I used to see American movies where the teacher is there in the classroom and all the kids file in -- it was usually a movie about Nebraska or something like that where everybody's white and blue eyed, and there's Doug the quarterback and Susan the beauty queen, and they sit there with their pens poised while you discourse most eloquently on John Donne, and they'd all sit there and they would love me to death and I would be the hero of the community. Well, it didn't turn out like that. I became a teacher all right. I wanted to become a teacher because I had a misconception about it. I didn't know that I'd be going into, when I first became a high school teacher in New York, that I'd be going into a battle zone, and no one prepared me for that. They're all natural enemies, teenagers are all natural enemies, they're really animals, but I love them, I love animals, and the average teenager should be sent to some remote place like Australia, till he's 20. But I like the teaching because it keeps you on your toes all the time. You can't back off, and some teachers say, "Oh, give them busy work." Well, when you're with bright kids you can't give them busy work, but..it keeps you... in a sense it's like Hemingway talking about grace under pressure. You're facing the bull, and that moment that the bull's horn comes close to you is the moment at which you could die. That's what it's like going into the classroom -- you could die in there.
Q: How did you learn to be a successful teacher?
There was what you would call a turning point in my life. I was ill-prepared and insecure -- because I had never been in a high school in my life -- in this first job. I knew nothing about American kids and their strange tribal ways, and it seemed to me that they were throbbing with sexuality, which you wouldn't find in Ireland, because they'd knock it out of you. But here, there's boys and girls in the class, and I didn't know what to do; and the only models I had for teaching were Irish school masters, and that was all threat, sticks, straps, and physical beatings. So, of course I wasn't gonna, there was gonna be no physical beating...there were kids in those classes who were on the football team, and would've broken me in two. But I would become frustrated and I would yell at them, I'd say to them, "You better keep up now, you're not doing the work, you're not bringing in your textbooks," and so on, and I'd rant and rave. 'Til one day there was a little African-American girl sitting in the front row -- Sylvia -- and she was beautiful and always impeccably dressed. And one day she said, "Mr. McCourt!" "What?" "Mr. McCourt." "What?" "Chill Out!" So, that was the first time I ever heard that expression, but I knew what it meant, so I chilled. What that meant was I became more and more of a human being. I dropped the Irish schoolmaster mask. It didn't work anymore. What I learned then was the main device, if you want to call it that for a successful teacher, was honesty. I said look, we're in this together, I'm learning, I would say that, I'm learning. This is what I discovered years and years and years later, I was the big learner out of this teaching experience.
Q: Tell us about your first teaching experience.
When I got my first teaching job, which was on Staten Island in 1958, I took over in midterm spring of '58 for an old lady named Ms. Mudd, m-u-d-d. And she was just, she just, the kids were driving her crazy. And she said to me, "They're driving me crazy," she says to me, "You look out this window," and the school overlooked New York Harbor. She said, "You look out this window in a week, and you'll see this ship passing by, and you'll see me waving from this cruise ship, and the two things I never want to see again is Staten Island and teenagers!"
She left me with mounds, piles of old papers and books, and I went rummaging through the old papers, and I didn't know what to do with the kids, so I had them reading these old papers, and some of them went back to the Second World War. And they were compositions written by young Staten Island students at that time, who later went off to war, off to the Second World War. And some of the kids in my class discovered these papers, and they were overcome: "This was my father, this was my uncle, this was my cousin Vinny," and so on. And it was so exciting, and I said to them, "This composition paper is crumbling," and they would copy them, and they were taking them home to their families, "Look what Uncle Vinny..." And this was a tremendous moment. It was my bridge to the kids. There was such a feeling of community, and emotion, because sometimes the kids, girls and boys, would come across some item from the Second World War from somebody in their family who had been a student at McKee. And, they would be overcome and have to run out of the room. That was one, I think that was my first bridge to them.
Q: How did you balance the emotional needs of students with their intellectual ones?
These girls would come from, I had one class of 35 girls come in these white dresses, uniforms or whatever they are, with hair, hairdos, these beehive hairdos, where you could raise a sparrow in each family. They came into my class and they sat, this first day they sat down, and they took out little boxes, and they started doing their nails and plucking their eyebrows, and fixing their eyelids and so on, eyelashes, and I said what -- this was a vocational high school -- I said, "What shop is this?" "Cosmetology." I said, "What's cosmetology?" "Beauty culture." And then they'd comment on me, they'd say, "Yo teach, your hair is a mess, your nails need work. Why don't you come up to beauty culture and we'll do you?" That was an invitation I declined.
But all of this was human stuff and it had nothing to do with the curriculum. In the meantime, I'm finding my way, because nobody was there to help me. I'm finding my way through this education minefield. I'd go up to the teacher's cafeteria at lunchtime. On one side of the cafeteria the old timers were gathered -- they're giving me advice, and they're saying, traditional and conservative and they've been through it, and they say you know, "You're the boss in that classroom, you tell them what to do, don't ever tell them anything about yourself, nothing private." Then I'd go to the other side of the cafeteria, and there are the younger teachers who were progressive, you know, students of John Dewey, and they'd say, "Well, you know, these kids are people. These are real people and we have to meet their felt needs." I didn't know what a felt need was, but I guess I tried to meet their felt needs. It was a long, slow process, because there's no, there's no method or technique by which you can become a successful teacher overnight. It takes years. And it's like writing I suppose, or like any art, or any human endeavor -- you have to find your own way. You have to find your own style, techniques and style. So, I found my own style after a while, and sometimes I would imitate other teachers who had certain ways of dealing with classes. Didn't work, never worked. It's like being a writer. You imitate Faulkner, you imitate Hemingway, you imitate Scott Fitzgerald, but in the end you find your own voice, and your own style, and that's what I had to do as a teacher.
Q: Describe a typical day of teaching as you remember it.
Most teachers would have, first period on the second floor, then it's up to the sixth floor for the second period, down to third floor for the third period, and in between, in between the second and third period you had what they call homeroom, official class. You had this group of kids, and you had to take their attendance, give them bus passes and food vouchers and whatever, and get excuses for the previous day's absence. You had to keep all these records. You were like a big clerk, a bookkeeper. And then you go to your next class. So there were five classes, so you'd have lunch, and then you'd have what they call, somewhere along the line, a building assignment. And my building assignment most the time was to supervise the student cafeteria. And you'd go in there and you'd hear them feeding, swilling, and whining and moaning about the food and you see kids throwing food away and you think of your own childhood when we would have eaten the stuff out of the garbage can, and I was convinced, they'd say, "Oh, this is terrible, this hot dog." I was convinced that most of these kids were gourmets. They went home to bouillabaisse every night or fine wines. Then, if you're an English teacher, if you've been foolish enough to give them an assignment, they hand it in. And you take it home in a bag. You go home and your heart is heavy because you have 170 kids. Now if you give them an assignment 250 words, multiply 170 by 250, and that's like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. And there's another book you'd like to read or a movie you'd like to see, or you'd like to talk to your wife once in a while, but you have all these papers. Sunday night comes. That's the worst night of the week for any teacher in the country because they know this stuff is piled up and they're in such a state of despair. And you try to do it, and like any kid who has homework to do, "I'll get up in the morning and do it." Well you know you're not going to do 170 papers, so you do what you can, and try to get it back to them, but the load never lightened.
Q: Why are teachers important in our society?
What's the most precious material we have in the country: children. If we don't give them the best keepers and mentors and teachers, we're destroying them. We're destroying the country. They are the future, and the teachers are there everyday with the future. And we're so careless about that. We underpay teachers, we hire poorly prepared teachers, and we don't help them. We don't go into the schools and help them, "What can I do?" We don't participate. It's a matter of taking care of the children. If you have a child who's ill, you want the best doctor. You want the best surgeon, "I want the best surgeon for my child." But do we say that about teachers? No, we don't. We know that surgeons are well paid, they better be well paid, they don't want to have worries at home. It should be the same way with teachers. They're the single most important professsion in the country because they're shaping the future. And some of them are misshaping the future or they're not being helped by us. And as I said before, we don't like our children. Because the proof of it is how we treat our teachers. That's the one fine and significant proof: how you treat your teachers. And they're treated badly.
Q: What can we do to help improve our nation's schools?
One of the reasons the schools are in such a state is no one consults the teachers. I used to watch some of these programs on television and you'd have somebody from some corporation, and you'd see some jerk from the think tank, and then you'd have a union official, and I'd call... One time I called Channel 13 in New York, they had one of these discussions about schools, and I said -- they were inviting us, calls from the outside -- and the lady said, "Well what would your question be?"
And I said, "Why don't you have a teacher on this panel?"
"Oh, that's a very interesting question..."
I said, "It's about schools, isn't it?"
But I never got through. One never gets through.