Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” – Intercultural Education in the Classroom

posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany

I have only just completed reading Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man. A Memoir” (London: Fourth Estate, 2005) in which he looks back at thirty years of English teaching in New York City high schools. Charming, partly irresistable, thought-provoking, slighty repetetive perhaps. Anyway, I was reminded of my own years as a secondary school teacher in Germany. The questions the book raises regarding the future of the teaching profession as a whole are fundamental and pressing. With regard to intercultural education, one of the many excellent dialogs is particularly interesting, funny and (slightly) depressing at the same time:

“Yo, teacher man. – Call me Mr McCourt. – Yeah OK. – So you Scotch or somethin’? – No, I’m not Scotch. I’m Irish. – Oh yeah? What’s Irish? – Irish is whatever comes from Ireland. – Like, St. Patrick, right? – Well, no, not exactly. – Hey mister. Everyone talk English over there in Ireland? What kinda sports didja play? You all Catlics in Ireland? Yo, teacher man. – Joey, I told you my name is Mr. McCourt, Mr. McCourt, Mr. McCourt. – Yeah, yeah. So, mister, did you go out with girls in Ireland?” (c) (2005, 20-22).

All the ingredients of trouble are visible in this exchange, and yet, there are so many starting points or critical moments for intercultural education. The question is how to exploit them in a systematic way. Classroom-based (rather than classroom-oriented) empirical research is needed which explores intercultural classroom discourse in more detail. And language teachers need to be equipped with the necessary know-how to identify these ‘fruitful moments’ or learning opportunities and react appropriately.


6 responses to “Frank McCourt’s “Teacher Man” – Intercultural Education in the Classroom

  1. Frank McCourt’s works are full of fun. His life is a great source of insights for language teachers.

    I agree with your position that classroom discourse should be approached in terms of intercultural communication. We all know that different cultures are at work in the classroom, but few can say exactly how.

  2. I agree: a great book. What impressed me most was the episode where the narrator got his pupils to write fictional excuse notes (pp. 105 ff. in the Scribner paperback ed.). Superb.

  3. I can fully agree, a MUST for language teachers. When editing Prof. Hans-Eberhard Piepho’s posthumous last publication, “Narrative Dimensionen beim Fremdsprachenlernen” (Diesterweg, ISBN 978-3-507-71210-2), I was too happy to hint at McCourt and Piepho as two great educators with a common conviction in the power of telling stories.

  4. Engelbert Thaler

    I agree McCourt’s “Teacher Man” is a must for every (future) English language teacher though it is not without its deficiencies. The longer it gets the more self-praise, repetition and lack of aesthetic value it displays.
    My favourite passage is when the narrator starts explaining the various roles teachers and students adopt in a classroom (Mea culpa … away from the bloody lesson: McCourt, 2005, chapter 1, pp. 19-21). I used this excerpt in my “Teaching English Literature” course to illustrate the six arguments for studying and teaching literature:
    1. Language development: e.g. learning new words like “jock” (so. who does lots of sport and is considered to be stupid)
    2. Intercultural learning: e.g. realizing that playing the delaying game is a universal topic
    3. Personal enrichment: e.g. comparing oneself with various learner roles (complainer, clown, jerk)
    4. Motivational value: e.g. familiar setting (school), making sense of narrator’s experiences
    5. Interpretational openness: e.g. interpreting teacher roles (collaborator, tap dancer, politician), discussing veterans‘ advice
    6. Social prestige: e.g. literature: high value, McCourt: Pulitzer Prize winner

  5. I read McCourt’s book last December because it was recomended to me highly by my parents. Although I enjoyed reading it, I found the repetition tiresome, but then maybe you don’t notice it so much if you’ve read his other books first. ‘Teacher Man’ was my first encounter with McCourt’s writing and I am intending to reading some of his other works. My favourite part was the fictional excuse notes…I think I might try that in one of my classes sometime in the future :)

  6. Tek-Pheung Chuan

    His “Angela’s Ashes” and “‘Tis” brought me back to thoughts about my family.

    “Teacher Man” brought me down to earth, that I understand my students, like me, are humans, with their own stories, and sorrows.

    TP Chuan

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