Frank McCourt and The Whole Teacher Respect Issue - The Jose Vilson

Frank McCourt and The Whole Teacher Respect Issue

by Jose Vilson on July 20, 2009

in Jose

Frank McCourt

Frank McCourt

Today, I read a great article from Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters via the Huffington Post in which she lauds the virtues of the recently late Frank McCourt, former great NYC public school teacher and author of Angela’s Ashes. In the article, I found this point by McCourt particularly poignant:

When did you last see a teacher on a talk show? Movie stars and athletes and politicians — criminals! They all get on the talk shows. But not the teachers. They are regarded as dull people. The ones who take care of the children every day. Almost like super babysitters. That’s the way they are treated.

And then when you do see something on television, a panel on education, you see someone from the board of education, you see a professor of education, or you see a bureaucrat, someone from a think tank, a politician, but never a teacher. Never. Imagine a panel on medicine without a doctor? The uproar there would be from the medical profession!

But all the politicians think they own education. Just the way the pope and the cardinals think they own the [Roman Catholic] Church. Which they do, of course. We don’t get the keys. The politicians have the keys to the educational system, they control the purse strings, and they don’t have a clue about what education is. I know they’ve been to school and all themselves, but what goes on in the classroom is another story.

Of course, my reply had less to do with the rantings and ravings of a madman as it had to do with trying to seek McCourt’s spirit:

I found the point about expertise and teachers particularly poignant. When do teachers like me or the other teachers I know actually get tapped as experts of their own experiences? I can’t remember the last time I saw something on a national scale that let teachers just talk about their experiences in a panel. With that said, I also know that when teachers DO get documented, it’s always in the classroom and it’s usually not about anything abstract like policy, but more concrete like the day-to-day stuff, as if we’re that simple. Unfortunately, even with all the teachers that blog and write, we still have this idea that teachers are indeed boring and one dimensional.

Now, let’s not be confused. A part of me feels that those of us in social services ought not to delve too deep in the realm of stardom as it detracts from the constituents you’re trying to serve. Yet, a larger part of me says that it’s about time teachers stop being relegated to fairy-tale movies, political ads, and instructional videos. All three of these forms of the teacher image do nothing more than limit the dimensions of the spheres of influences we have. Even the bad news about teachers across the nation tends to be of a strictly sexual nature, so there’s a limiting of dimensions.

Honestly, those of us who are teachers or care about education have to ask ourselves a bunch of questions about the profession. Those of us just starting the teaching profession and eventually the education track (because there’s a difference between a teacher and an educator, in my opinion) should pay close attention. For one, if we’re talking money, do we think that if we got paid 100K to do our jobs, we’d have an elevated status as a result when we can’t really advocate for ourselves and our supposed advocates just let people talk crap about how ineffective we are?

Not saying we shouldn’t get paid more, but it’s a good question to raise. That’s why I believe so much in the work so many of us are doing on the Internet and out there on the turf. We need more of us who have talents outside of the educational realm to inject that into their teaching, thereby stretching the margins of what a “teacher” looks like. Like writing a tale of what it’s like to suffer in Ireland. Like teaching for decades in NYC high schools and still have your head high. Like giving inspired lectures about education.

Like Frank McCourt. Teach In Peace, Mr. McCourt. Here’s hoping you get your own lecture hall somewhere in the sky …

Jose, who’s still having lively discussions about this in various message boards …

p.s. – Feel free to disagree with me. Honest.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Cassy July 20, 2009 at 11:11 pm

“We need more of us who have talents outside of the educational realm to inject that into their teaching, thereby stretching the margins of what a “teacher” looks like”… a powerful statement.

That speaks to me… where I’m at. Trying by way of example to bring back respect for this profession… I’m a learner, a reacher, a teacher, a pusher, a writer, a fighter.

BTW, I was rocked by the last chapter of McCourt’s Teacher Man, and by lots of what you say here. Gracias…


MarcyWebb July 20, 2009 at 11:26 pm

“For one, if we’re talking money, do we think that if we got paid 100K to do our jobs, we’d have an elevated status as a result when we can’t really advocate for ourselves and our supposed advocates just let people talk crap about how ineffective we are?”

I agree, Jose. A salary of 100K means little if there is no respect or support.


Tracey July 21, 2009 at 12:38 am

I have a theory about this whole respect and pay for teachers issue. When I stop to think about who really influenced the kind of person that I am today (the good points, anyhow!) I can count on one hand the important ones who left a mark on me. The ones I would credit with my successes but never my failures. With the exception of my parents, the rest are teachers. I don’t for a minute expect that every student I see will count me on their lists, but I would imagine a few probably do. That kind of power is HUGE. If even half of those making the policies and controlling the purse strings in education have that sort of a list in their minds, they couldn’t possibly risk giving people who already have that kind of influence more money or respect. Whether they mean to or not, it is safer for them to not acknowledge something that could be so powerful. Just my opinion.


AngelaMichelle July 21, 2009 at 2:06 am

i am soooooooo glad you liked that book. *lol*


liz July 21, 2009 at 9:03 am

I had the great good fortune to have Frank McCourt as a teacher, and he influenced me immensely. Not just in my reading and writing, but also in how I look at things, how I think about what others say, how everything is a story, and everyone is the protagonist of their own story.


Elissa July 21, 2009 at 11:08 am

What is your opinion on the difference between a teacher and an educator?


Jose July 21, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Wow, ladies and gents, my thoughts fall squarely on all of us who’ve commented about this idea of getting the image of “teacher” out there. A big part of our work as people here means we need to carry out McCourt’s messages and do it in our own significant ways. Our work will speak for us in my opinion, if we’re doing it right.

Elissa, let me get back to you on this, cool?


Elissa July 22, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Cool. =)


Theresa July 23, 2009 at 1:31 am

One thing that has been preying on my mind since Mr. McCourt’s death (he was my 10th and 11th grade English teacher, and I always called him “Mr”) has been Michael Bloomberg’s lavish praise of him. He could never have really known Frank, because Frank was a perfect example of a teacher Bloomberg would never tolerate– independent, unorthodox, resourceful, spontaneous. Frank could never have thrived, and deeply affected so many of us– and we are a huge fraternity– in today’s micromanaged, test-obsessed classroom model.


Jose July 24, 2009 at 1:50 pm

I’m surprised so many of Mr. McCourt’s students have been commenting on here. I would love to hear more of your thoughts about the man. Nonetheless, time are indeed different.


Tek-Pheung Chuan September 5, 2009 at 9:50 pm

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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