Teacherscribe’s Teaching Tip #57
When did you “become” a teacher?
Here is Frank McCourt’s breakthrough moment when he really became a teacher. This is taken from his excellent book ’Tis.
From 'Tis: A Memoir -
I followed the teacher’s guides. I launched the prefabricated questions at my classes. I hit them with surprise quizzes and tests and destroyed them with the ponderous detailed examinations concocted by college professors who assemble high school text books.
Everyday I’d teach with my guts in a knot, lurking behind my desk at the front of the room playing the teacher game with the chalk, the eraser, the red pen, the teacher guides, the power of the quiz, the test, the exam. I’ll call your father, I’ll call your mother. ,I’ll report you to the governor, I’ll damage your average so badly kid you’ll be lucky to get into a community college in Mississippi. Weapons of menace and control.
A senior, Jonathan, bangs his forehead on his desk and wales, Why? Why? Why do we have to suffer with this shit? We’ve been in school since kindergarten, thirteen years, and why do we have to know what color shoes Mrs. Dalloway was wearing at her goddam party and what are we supposed to make of Shakespeare troubling deaf heaven with his bootless cries and what the hell is a bootless cry anyway and when did heaven turn deaf?
Around the room rumbles of rebellion and I’m paralyzed. They’re saying Yeah, yeah to Jonathan, who halts his head banging to ask, Mr. McCourt, did you have this stuff in high school? and there’s another chorus of yeah yeah and I don’t know what to say. Should I tell them the truth, that I never set foot in a high school till I began teaching in one or should I feed them a lie about a rigorous secondary school education with the Christian Brothers in Limerick?
I’m saved, or doomed, by another student who calls out, Mr. McCourt, my cousin went to McKee on Staten Island and she said you told them you never went to high school and they said you were an okay teacher anyway because you told stories and talked and never bothered them with these tests.
Smiles around the room. Teacher unmasked. Teacher never even went to high school and look what he’s doing to us, driving us crazy with tests and quizzes. I’m branded forever with the label, teacher who never went to high school.
So, Mr. McCourt, I thought you had to get a license to teach in the city.
Don’t you have to get a college degree?
Don’t you have to graduate high school?
You mean graduate from high school, from high school, from from from.
Yeah, yeah. Okay. Don’t you have to graduate from high school to get into college?
I suppose you do.
Tyro lawyer grills teacher, carries the day, and word spreads to my other classes. Wow, Mr. McCourt, you never went to high school and you’re teaching at Stuyvesant? Cool, man.
And into the trash basket I drop my teaching guides, my quizzes, tests, examinations, my teacher-knows-all mask.
I’m naked and starting over and I hardly know where to begin.
There is so much I love about this passage. First, I love how McCourt finally listens to his students. Better than that, he learns from them and adjust his methods. Talk about getting buy in from the students!
Second, he begins to let his freak flag fly (see teaching tip #7) about teaching high school though he never went to one! Notice how the students relate to him when he lowers his guard and is honest with them.
Third, he realizes something very important: we teach students first THEN the curriculum.
Finally, he begins to confront the all important question - why do we have to learn this? Once a teacher can begin to honestly answer that (and McCourt doesn’t here, but this sets him on the course to answer it), the closer they are to winning over their students.
Tomorrow, I’ll begin a long installment of the moment I became a teacher.