Yo, teacher man

Practice makes practice is a book about what learning to teach does to student teachers. It examines the various voices that find their expression through the student teachers and their interactions with others.

When we learn to teach, we are also trying to make from this uncertainty narratives of education: our own and those of others. It is not just that we must put into words how we thing about our learning …The existential tension is that just as we try to make from our learning a narrative of what we think has happened, we are also learning the happenstance of narrative. We try out a series of story lines that may or may not be acceptable, useful, or intelligible to us and to those who surround us.

Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man is a riot of heteroglossia. Being at first almost incapable of teaching, he resorts to the only thing he knows well, true stories from his own past, many of them of life in Ireland.

Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep them quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning. And you called yourself a teacher? I didn’t call myself anything.

Britzman, in describing her two student teachers, writes of their chronology of despair and hope in trying to learn to teach in public secondary high schools. Supervisors, administrators, university lecturers and principals are also interviewed. Some describe student teachers as “accidents waiting to happen.” …

(From Teacher Man): You think you’ll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name, write it on the board, proceed to teach…. On the first day of my teaching career, I was almost fired for eating the sandwich of a high school boy. On the second day I was almost fired for mentioning the possibiity of friendship with sheep.

Britzman: Some will blame theory and judge university course work in education as pretentious, useless, and idealistic. For others, the problem is with the student teacher who seems to be a wrong-headed idealist or cannot control a tendency to over-identify with the plight of her or his students, and, consequently, under-identify with the authority of the school.

McCourt: Then I met the new principal in the elevator, the department chairman who had fired me from Fashion Industries High School. I said, Are you following me? and when his mouth tightened I knew, once again, my days were numbered. A few weeks later I sealed my doom. In the presence of other teachers, the principal asked, So, Mr. McCourt, are you a father yet? No, not yet. Well, what do you want, a boy or a girl? Oh, it’s all the same to me. Well, he said, as long as it’s not a neuter. Well, if it is, I’ll train it to grow up and be a principal. The letter that I was “excessed” soon followed….
Augie was a nuisance in class, talking back, bothering the girls. I called his mother. Next day the door is thrown open and a man in a black T-shirt with the muscles of a weightlifter yells, Hey, Augie, come ‘ere. You can hear Augie gasp. Talkin’ a yeh, Augie. I haveta go in there you gonna wish you was dead. Come ‘ere…. The man ignores me. He is busy banging his son so hard against the wall that Augie hangs limp in his hands…. On the way out he slams the door so hard chalk dust slides down the blackboard and the windows rattle. There is a cold hostile silence in the room that says, We know you called Augie’s father. We don’t like teachers who call people’s fathers.

Britzman identifies three cultural myths: everything depends on the teacher, teachers are self made, and teachers are experts, and she follows how her student teachers struggle with these myths, not realizing they are myths. Despite the persistency of cultural myths that position the teacher as expert, as self made, as sole bearer of power, and as a product of experience, those learning to teach feel a rupture between the ethic and the experience, because learning to teach constitutes a time of biographical crisis as it simultaneously invokes one’s autobiography.

Prospective teachers… bring a dominant concern with methods of classroom discipline, because they are quite familiar with the teacher’s role as social controller… An implicit theory of teaching… based on the assumption that without first establishing control and being able to establish it without help from colleagues, there is no chance of being able to put across the subject matter of the lesson, and consequently, little chance of being regarded as a competent member of the teaching profession…. students daily observed the consequences of the teacher’s private battle to maintain classroom control.

McCourt: In a minute the bell will ring. They’ll swarm in and what will they say if the see me at the desk? Hey, look. He’s hiding out. They are experts on teachers. Sitting at the desk means you’re scared or lazy. You’re using the desk as a barrier. Best thing is to get out there and stand. Face the music. Be a man. Make one mistake your first day and it takes months to recover… In the teachers’ cafetaria veterans warned me, Son, tell’em nothing about yourself. They’re kids, goddam it. You’re the teacher. The little buggers are diabolical… They can smell it when you’re going to teach a real lesson on grammar or something, and they’ll head you off at the pass, baby. Watch ’em. Those kids have been at this for years, eleven or twelve, and they have teachers all figured out. … The advice was wasted.

Teacher Man is McCourt’s story of how he finally found himself, found his voice: in teaching creative writing, and being a writer himself, thanks to a sympathetic principal and supervisor who trusted him, saw good promise in him, and left him free to his own devices. I was finding my voice and my own style of teaching. I was learning to be comfortable in the classroom.
The time McCourt taught a class of 29 black girls and 2 Puerto Rican boys is worth the price of the hardback book all by itself:

The girls ignored me, white guy standing up there trying to get their attention. They had stuff to talk about. Boy. Boys. Boys. Serena said she didn’t go out with boys. She went out with men. … She was fifteen and the center of the class, the one who settled arguments, the one who made decisions… They complained to me, We don’t do nothin’ in this class. Other classes do things. I brought in a tape recorder. Surely they’d like to hear themselves talking. Serena took the microphone. My sister was arrested last night. My sister is a nice person. She was only liberating two pork chops from the store. White people take pork chops an’ everything all the time but they don’t get arrested… Now my sister in jail till she go to court. She stopped, looked at me for the first time and handed back the microphone. I dunno why I’m telling you this. You just a teacher. You just a white man. She turned away and walked to her seat. She sat primly, hands folded on the desk. She had put me in my place and the class knew it… On the train they squealed and pushed and fought for seats. The passengers looked hostile. Why aren’t these Negro kids in school? No wonder they’re ignorant. At West Fourth Street an obese white woman waddled onto the train and stood with her back to the closing door. The girls stared at her and snickered. She stared back. What you little bitches lookin’ at? Serena said, We never seen a mountain get on a train before. Her twenty-eight classmates laughed, pretended to collapse, laughed again. Serena stared, unsmiling, at the large woman, who said, Come over here, honey, and I’ll show you how a mountain can move. I was the teacher. I had to assert myself, but how? Then I had a strange feeling. I looked at the other passengers, their frowns of disapproval, and I wanted to fight back, defend my twenty-nine. I stood with my back to the large woman to keep Serena from coming near her. Her classmates chanted, Go, Serena, go. The train pulled into the Fourteenth Street station and the large woman backed out the door. You’re lucky I have to get off this train, honey, or I’d have you for breakfast. Serena sneered after her, Yeah, fatso, you really need breakfast…. I followed them to the balcony, where they pushed and fought for seats and disturbed the other customers. An usher complained to me, We can’t have this, and I told the girls, Please sit down and be quiet. They ignored me. They were a tight pack of twenty-nine black girls at loose in the world, raucous, defiant, flinging bits of popcorn at one another, shouting up at the projection booth, Hey, when we gonna see the movie? We not gonna live forever. … I pleaded with them. Girls. Please be quiet. Management is on its way. They turned it into a chant: Mangament on it way, Mangament on it way, Hi ho the daddy o, Mangament on it way. They said management could kiss their ass and that upset the usher. He said, OK. That’s it. That’s i-t, it. You are out, o-u-t. Oh, man. He know how to spell an’ everything.

3 thoughts on “Yo, teacher man”

  1. I don’t think Japanese teachers are trying to be perfect in the sense of striving for excellence: they seem to me more motivated by a fear of embarrassment, of being shown up. They feel they must know everything, and will even criticize students for asking questions because this shows up the teacher’s lack of knowledge, as well as being a brazen suggestion that the teacher’s lecture was somehow lacking!

  2. After reading the McCourt book, I showed students in one of my classes the parental letters about the lost homework and we all got a good laugh from it. Since homework was due that day and about 5 of the 20 students had not done it, we divided into 5 groups of four and each group penned a letter from the parent of their classmate whose homework had suffered some terrible fate.
    Changing the subject, I think Brtizman’s analysis is relevant to teacher education in Japan. Teacher trainees are under the impression that they have to strive to be perfect like their supervising teachers when there really is no such thing as a perfect teacher (of course, there are some darn good ones).

  3. Coincidentally, your reading and mine seem to have explored parallel themes with different authors lately. I picked up Maxine Greene’s Teacher as Stranger off the shelf at the library while on another errand and have been wading through it. She talks about the teacher “choosing himself” and invoking his personal history in doing so. By becoming, so to speak, wide awake, or self-conscious…”the person who chooses himself authentically as a teacher is, in a sense, choosing himself as a rebel agains attempts to condition; and it is well for him to do so openly, with full awareness of the responsibility involved as well as of the risks.

    What any of this says about teaching in and of itself, rather than the emphasis the teacher puts on particular forms is best summarized with her statement, “Teaching, in fact, may be said to begin at the point at which the student (having mastered the fundamental skills) goes beyond what he has been trained to do or drilled to do.

    It’s a shame that Greene’s book is out of print, and so expensive. I’m going to find out what the library’s maximum number of allowed renewals is.

    I like the way you weave McCourt’s tale with Britzman’s analysis here. McCourt, in finding his voice as a teacher, could speak for me, now, as I seem doomed to continue doing so after 23 years in the field. I suppose that, as the questions we ask change, the demand for new answers remains charged and volatile as a problem for deciding how to be.

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