July 20th, 2009

From the Archives: An Interview with Frank McCourt

( Click here to download the podcast )

Frank McCourt was a Pulitzer-prize winning author and a teacher in New York City public schools for 27 years. He passed away on Sunday, July 19, 2009 at the age of 78.

In 2000, McCourt talked with John Merrow about teaching–what it was like when he began and how it changed over the years.

Listen to the radio program above.  Below is an excerpt of the interview that first appeared on NPR.

Full transcript (PDF)


JOHN MERROW: Could you talk about those first few days and weeks of teaching where you must’ve felt like just turning and running.

FRANK McCOURT: It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I had done hard things before. The first of … surviving that childhood in Ireland, I think. But then when I came here, uh, all the jobs I had were menial jobs, laboring jobs. Loading and unloading trucks and ships. The … the piers, the warehouses, down around la– … (Inaudible) Street and Laight(?) Street. So, it was very, very hard physical work and I was in great shape but to go before five classes a day, fi– five days a week of American adolescence is the most daunting thing I’ve ever done.

JM: And of course, the kids knew it.

FM: Oh, they knew it. But the thing is, I think what saved me was … was my accent. Because if I’d walked in there as an ordinary American high school teacher, they would’ve said “Here we go again.” But, uh, the minute I opened my mouth they’d say “Hey, yo, teach, you Scotch or somethin’?” And they were interested in where I came from. And, uh, and then when one of the girls said “Hey teach, you’re cute.” (Laughs)

JM: And you turned beat red.

FM: I was very … I didn’t– I didn’t know anything about American teenagers. They’re a dangerous species. And I … I have … sometimes I have to look back on that and give myself credit for survival. Just in a kind of a dogged, desperate way going in there everyday.

JM: You didn’t … you didn’t get much help from supervisors.

FM: Oh, you got no help at all. No. You were thrown into the classroom and that was it. And they’d come in and observe you. They … if you were a … if you were a substitute teacher, as I was, you were observed three times a term. So that’s six times a year. And generally, their observation reports were negative. And of course they were negative. How could you … and they themselves, the supervisors and the administrators were generally people of limited teaching experience.

JM: Let … let’s connect this conversation to teaching today as we go along through your own memoir. I mean, do you suppose it’s that much different for a new teacher today? You were thrown in, sink or swim.

FM: No. It’s not much different at all because first of all, human nature doesn’t change. Kids are the same. Kids are tough. And kids are constantly seeking out your weaknesses. That’s their business anyway. They pit … pit themselves against you. And the people who were … who are the supervisors generally, I’d say, 95 percent of them have had that limited teaching experience. And all they do is sit there and they’ll … they’ll write up an observation report…

JM: So it’s a kind of “gotcha” attitude?

FM: It’s “gotcha,” yeah. Because and they … they have … they have less teaching experience and they get higher salaries. That’s the craziness in the education system. That the farther you get from the classroom, the more money you get. The more … the more you’re rewarded.

JM: You get rewarded for getting out of teaching.

FM: You get, yeah, you get your reward for leaving the classroom. And there’s something wrong with that. It would be like to saying to a brilliant surgeon “Leave the operating room and take this desk and we’ll give you much more money.”

JM: Crazy system. Do … do you miss teaching?

FM: Oh, yeah. I miss it because well, I wouldn’t have the energy for it now. Uh, I miss it because of the immediate … the immediate results you get for it. You don’t know about the long ranges of it. You don’t know what you’ve done for them or to them. But you see, you know, when the– when a class is going well. You’ve had that experience yourself. You know what it’s clicking. And you see from … and you see them sit up. And you see kids with the … with the short attention span. They’re paying attention because whatever is going on in the classroom is magic. That was the part that I loved.

JM: What was your way in teaching?

FM: My own way, you have to discover your own style and that … that takes a long time (Inaudible) nearly 30– really 30 years in the classroom consid– with … with … community colleges and so on. And it took me 15 years to … to become a teacher. To fi– to become comfortable in the classroom. To … to find my own style. To go my own way and to do … and they did leave me alone at Stuyvesant. I had to say that for the … the principal and the … academ– the chairman of my department.

The main thing that the kids taught me was to tell the truth. And just to say “We’re in this together.” Because you’re learning about teaching, you’re learning about your subject and you’re learning about the human heart and you’re learning what the chemistry of your class. All of this is going on, and it’s very complicated, and nobody’s ever written about it.

JM: But you say, to find your own way. But you’d been to college… and you’d been told about teaching. There’s a teacher training…

FM: Well teachers … to teacher train … they … these are professors who … who wouldn’t know what to do in a college … in … in a … in an English high school class. They wouldn’t not … they have all kinds of theories of … there was a … a course down at NYU called “Principles and Practices of Secondary Education” taught by a high school principal who is now an assistant professor or something like that. He didn’t know anything about teaching. You couldn’t … you … you have to get into the classroom. It’s like, uh, Michael Jordan in college was not given great credit. He was not … an A player. But then, he went to the Bulls and becomes the … the greatest basketball player ever. He had … but he … and there are kids in … who imitate him. You can’t imitate Michael Jordan. You can imitate Hemingway but you’ll never be Hemingway.

JM: But does this mean that you … you just don’t believe in teacher training?

FM: It has to be done by teachers. It has to be done by in the classroom. It has to be an internship. That you can’t sit in the … in the college classroom and talk about teaching unless you have teachers come in, veteran teachers, who will come in and talk … well, what’s it like. What the chemistry of a class is like. And how to open up the kids and how … and then a lot depends on yourself. How you open up yourself. I know it’s a … it’s a bit of a cliché, this opening yourself up. But you have … you have to do something like that. You have to do something that’s individual.

JM: So you … can a good teacher be trained? A good teacher is born, not made?

FM: Well, it … a good teacher … can you teach somebody how to write a poem? You can’t. You can help them. You can suggest and hint and suggest but, uh, I think … I think there are … a good teacher is … you can’t make a teacher. I think … there is an innate quality, there’s a personality … but then, I think the only way of … of finding out is to be in the classroom three or four years in front of the kids and you’ll find out.

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[...] When I interviewed Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes, back in 2000, the issue of expectations came up. Here’s part of what he said: One parent in my 18 years at Stuyvesant (High School), one parent said to me, “Is my son enjoying school?” And I was up to say “I think he is.” Only one. Because the rest say, “Oh God, is he doing his work? I’m worrying about his PSATs and his SATs and his application to Yale and Cornell ” and the rest of it. And that forced me to think about what the hell was I doing in this classroom? And then I had to say to myself “Well, it sounds banal, but you’re doing it for freedom. To go from fear to freedom, because we all suffer from some kind of fear. To have the kids think for themselves and not to be afraid to think for themselves. But they’re discouraged from thinking for themselves because they’re told all the time “the test, the test, the test.” We don’t, in any Socratic way, pursue wisdom. And I think that’s what it’s all about. The pursuit of wisdom. [...]

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