Misery Memoirs and Teachers, by Benita Strnad, Curriculum Materials Librarian


Memoirs have become a hot genre in the last few years.  A recent article I read claimed that memoirs comprised the largest title list in the non-fiction area of publishing, and it is growing.  The reason:  people are reading them.

Celebrity memoirs have always been popular.  Recent memoirs written by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews were well written and reached Best Seller status.  Even “tell all” memoirs like My Booky Wook:  A Memoir of Sex, Drugs, and Stand-Up by Russell Brand and My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands by comedian and celebrity host Chelsea Handler are extremely popular.  (Both of those books were best sellers and helped to make their authors famous.)  In this type of memoir the author seems to be out to attract buyers with the use of the outrageously suggestive title.

Memoirs are not autobiographies.  Memoirs are how the author remembers his or her life.  They don’t have to be fact checked or footnoted with supporting documents.  In a memoir the facts don’t matter except in how they fit into the memories that the author is recording.   Since memoirs aren’t fact checked they tend to be vague and disputable.  It is for this reason that I don’t usually read memoirs.

There is a sub class of memoirs that those in the book world call “misery memoirs”.  They never interested me because they seem to have been written by author’s who are having a contest to see who can write about the most miserable horrible life ever lived.  If the details of the life aren’t horrendous enough some authors have even gone so far as to make up details and get away with their lying because it is a memoir and not an autobiography.  (Remember the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey controversy?)  When a book starts out with “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” The reader knows what is coming is pure misery, and probably asks why they should spend time reading such a book?  It is with that irascible series of sentences that Frank McCourt begins the first of his three memoirs, Angela’s Ashes.

Two things happened that caused me to take a second look at McCourt and his books.  I had long had in my possession a recorded version of “Angela’s Ashes” on cassette tape.  (That should be some indication of how long I had that book in my possession and put off listening to it.)  Then I read a short article about late blooming literary figures and learned that the oldest person to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography was Frank McCourt.  He was 66 when Angela’s Ashes was published.  This piqued my interest and I began to wonder about the book and the author even though the first book was more than 15 years old when I read that article.  I remembered that the book had a big impact when it was published.  People talked about it and the author had been a guest on CSPANN2 programs more than once.  Finally, this summer, on one of my trips back to Kansas, an event for which I am inside a car for nineteen hours, I hauled that copy off my copious book shelves and listened to it.  To my surprise, I liked it.  I do admit that the author had a tendency to be melodramatic and crying about “poor, poor pitiful me and my family” far too much, which lead more than one critic to blame him for starting the epidemic of “misery memoirs.”  Given my prejudices were so inclined in the other direction, I soon found myself engulfed in McCourt’s world.  On that trip home I found myself anxious to get back in the car just so I could listen to more of the book.

The second event was a discussion I had with a graduate student who had returned to UA to learn to be a teacher and was enrolled in the “fifth year program” in the College of Education.  This group of students is required to participate in a book discussion group that meets once a month.  They read books about education and educational issues as well as biographies and memoirs.  He stated that he really enjoyed this discussion group and when I inquired about what had been his favorite book, he replied that he liked the teacher memoirs the best.  Maybe it was time for me to read one for myself?

The book works on several levels.  It is written in the voice of a child.  At first it consists of short choppy segments and as the author matures the length and quality of the writing improves.  Then there was the voice.  The recorded version was read by the author and I am sure that part of the charm of the book was found in that Irish brogue whose thickness was mitigated by fifty years of living in the U. S.   It leant a degree of freshness and authenticity to the book.  I was not the only person to like “Angela’s Ashes.”  It was so well received that it was a best seller and stayed on the New York Times list for almost two years, and in 1997 it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Eventually McCourt wrote a series of three memoirs that chronicled his life.  I ended up reading, or listening to, all three of them.  They are tied together but each could be read alone.  The first was “Angela’s Ashes” published in 1996 and details his childhood in New York City where he was born in 1930 to Irish immigrant parents.  In 1936 the family moved back to Limerick, Ireland where he lived until 1949.  The second book is titled “’Tis: A Memoir” published in 2000, and tells about his life after his return and re-immigration to the land of his birth, the U. S. A.  In this book the reader learns about how McCourt came to be a teacher using the G.I. Bill and his wits.  Basically he talked his way into New York University where he earned his English degree and met the qualifications for a teaching certificate in New York State.  The third book is titled “Teacher Man” published in 2005 and recounts his career as a teacher.

In many ways I found “Teacher Man,” to be the most interesting of the three books.  It is not a memoir, but it is not pedagogy either.  It is about teaching – learning to teach, teaching, and what teaching meant to the author.  Teaching was who he was, and without it he was lessened.  For the author teaching was a noble profession and he stated so many times.  All he ever wanted to be was a teacher.  And a teacher he was.

McCourt taught in the New York City school system for 28 years and was named New York State Teacher of the Year and received the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education. All-in-all, it is quite a career for a man who never graduated from high school.  McCourt died in 2007 at the age of 78.

All three of the memoirs by Frank McCourt are in the UA libraries.  “Angela’s Ashes” and “Teacher Man” are at McLure Library and “’Tis” is at Gorgas Library.  All three of the books are also at Tuscaloosa Public Library and that library has “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis” in the recorded versions.  Both are read by the author and there is no doubt that his voice is an asset in the recorded versions.

Frank was not the only McCourt to write his memoirs.  All of his surviving brothers have written something and three out of the four of them have written a memoir.  That is lots of material coming from one family.  It is also interesting to note that for most of his life Frank was not the famous McCourt.  That was his brother Malachy.  Malachy was and still is a New York City celebrity, sometimes actor, and well known personality.  Malachy has also written two memoirs.  “A Monk Swimming” in 1998 and “Singing My Hymn Song” in 2000.  Both of these books are at Gorgas Library.

If you would like to check these books out just come to McLure library and get them or call 348-6055 let us put them on the hold shelf for you.  They should provide hours of pleasant reading and perhaps help those of us who are teachers to remember why we teach and how hard it was to get to be a good teacher.  It is interesting to note that McCourt never thought of himself as an outstanding teacher.  He said more than once that it took him five years in the classroom to learn the rudiments of teaching and that it took him the rest of his 30 year career to learn to teach.  Even at the end of his teaching career he was still learning and writing his memoirs was part of that learning.

Even though these books are founding blocks in the “misery memoirs” genre and the first one is now more than fifteen years old, they might be just the thing for the teacher who is wondering if teaching is worth it.  For a series of “misery memoirs” I found these books surprisingly uplifting.  Perhaps you will as well.

Frank McCourt, 2007

African American Women Teachers

Teacher Biographies – African American



Memories of a Georgia Teacher

Memories of a Georgia Teacher

Martha Mizell Puckett

Athens : University of Georgia Press, c2002

Education Library   LA 2317 .P83 2002

Memories of a Georgia Teacher chronicles the personal and professional life of a principled, resourceful, and deeply religious woman whose career began at a time when state support for primary education was all but nonexistent. Martha Mizell started teaching in 1913 in a one-room, one-teacher school near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia. At the time she was barely fifteen, and her formal schooling amounted to seven years.

Martha Mizell Puckett’s career paralleled the transformation of small, informal community school systems into consolidated, government supported, bureaucratic structures. Through Puckett’s eyes our own are opened–to hard times, certainly, but also to a time of notable closeness and involvement between schools and their communities.

Hands of a Teacher

Hands of a Teacher: The Alfreda Drummond Story.  Alfreda Drummond.

Yorktown, VA : Publishing Connections, 1997

Education Library:  LA2317.D622 A3 1997

Hands of A Teacher: The Alfreda Drummond Story captures the triumphant spirit of a young girl determined to make her childhood dream of becoming a teacher a reality. Beginning with her early years as sharecropper’s daughter, this heartwarming story traces Alfreda Drummond’s 30+ year struggle through text and more than 60 black and white photographs.

Hints on Teaching

Reminiscences on School Life and Hints on Teaching

Reminiscences of school life and hints on teaching / Fanny Jackson Coppin ; introduction by Shelley P. Haley.

New York:  G.K. Hall & Co. An imprint of Simon & Schuster Mcmillan, 1995.

LD7501.P495 C67 1995

This reprint of the 1913 edition, offers a brief summary of her life, and philosophy of teaching.  She was born a slave, in 1837. She worked and furthered her education at the Rhode Island Normal School and graduated from Oberlin College. She went on to become a teacher and principal at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1866 to 1901.

Marva Collins Way

Marva Collin’s Way

Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin

Los Angeles : J.P. Tarcher ; Boston : Distributed by Houghton Mifflin, c1982

Education Library  LA2317.C2 A35 1982

This book vividly reflects on Mrs. Collins’ love of teaching, her family, and of her students. It describes her stamina and determination in getting kids to believe in themselves and to learn. This is not a how to book, but an inspiring insight of one person and how she did not give up when the odds were against her. Her philosophy is unabashedly Christian; her daily lessons with students show that she uses a multicultural approach which treats the Bible as one Great Book among many. In her classrooms Marva Collins organizes her lessons and her moral principals around a core of Emersonian self-reliance, specifically Getting Out of the Ghetto. While some find her writing style repetitive, she certainly has the knack to inspire.

A Class of Their Own

A class of their own : Black teachers in the segregated South / Adam Fairclough

LC2802.S9 F35 2007

Civil rights historian Adam Fairclough chronicles the odyssey of black teachers in the South from emancipation in 1865 to integration one hundred years later. No book until now has provided us with the full story of what African American teachers tried, achieved, and failed to do in educating the Southern black population over this critical century. Teachers were part of, but also apart from, the larger black population. Often ignored, and occasionally lambasted, by both whites and blacks, teachers were tireless foot soldiers in the long civil rights struggle.

The Dreamkeepers

The dreamkeepers: successful teachers of African American children /

Gloria Ladson-Billings.

San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, c1997

Education Library: LC2717 .L33 2009

The author concentrates on teachers who have been successful at helping African-American children to reach high levels of proficiency by working with the individual strengths of each student and maintaining a rigorous environment in the classroom. Appendices list the specific methodologies these successful educators employ, the historical context of culturally relevant teaching and a list of discussion questions for students and practitioners.

Parents and student achievement

Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Amy Chua

New York: Penguin Press

Education Library:  HQ759 .C59 2011

The  adage, ‘Educate a man and you have a professional in the work force; educate a woman and you educate a family,’  has its proof in these books.

There has  has been a lot of media coverage about the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua over the weekend of January 15-17, 2011.  Book reviews, NPR, television news interviews have all described and interviewed Dr. Chua’s (a law professor at Yale) hard driving approach in instilling high performance for her two daughters, now ages 14 and 17.

I am presenting some of the academic books at McLure Education Library that relate to the topic of parents and student achievement.  These books are not all about privileged Ivy Leaguers.


Narrowing the Achievement Gap: Strategies for Educating Latino, Black, and Asian Students – 

Susan J. Paik, Herbert J. Walberg, editor; foreword by Edmund W. Gordon.

New York: Springer, 2007

Education Library  LC3731 .N27 2007

This book serves as a valuable professional tool by: Providing effective strategies from experienced scholars and professionals that can be used to improve academic achievement and well-being of minority students. Examining, collectively, three cultural groups in one concise, yet comprehensive book on themes related to diverse families, immigration issues, and teaching and learning. Conceptualizing opportunities and challenges in working with minority children in the context of the federal No Child Left Behind act, related state and local educational policies, and current social trends.


Understanding Minority Ethnic Achievement

Understanding Ethnic Minority Achievement: Race, Gender, Class and ‘Success.’


Louise Archer and Becky Francis.

London: Routledge  2007.

Education Library  LC3085.G7 A73 2007

This timely and authoritative book, written by British authors from a British point of view builds upon, and contributes to, ongoing debates about levels of achievement among minority ethnic pupils, working class pupils and more generally, the issue of boys’ underachievement.


Why Bright Kids get Poor Grades

Why bright kids get poor grades and what you can do about it : a six-step program for parents and teachers


Sylvia Rimm.

Scottsdale, AZ : Great Potential Press, c2008.

Education Library  LC4691 .R57 2008

Drawing on both clinical research and years of experience counseling families, Dr. Rimm has developed a ‘Trifocal Model’ to help parents and teachers work together to get students back on track. It is effective for a wide range of students, from preschool through college. This is more ‘how-to than scholarly, but draws on scholarly research and clinical experience.



Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay off Across the Generations?

Passing the torch : does higher education for the disadvantaged pay off across the generations?


Paul Attewell and David E. Lavin ; in collaboration with Thurston Domina and Tania Levey.

New York : Russell Sage Foundation, c2007.

Education Library  LC4069.6 .A87 2007

Not so much a how-to manual, but looks at the advantages of higher education to women and men, and subsequently their children. One chapter ‘How college changes a mother’s parenting and affects her children’s educational outcomes,’ is pertinent, as is the whole sociological profile of the book.


What Mothers Say About Special Education

What Mothers Say about Special Education: from the 1960’s to present.

Jan W. Valle.

New York:  Palgrave Macmillan

Education Library:    LC3981 .V24 2009


This book documents the experiences of 15 mothers whose children labeled learning disabled attended public schools during the last four decades. Despite the right of parents to participate in educational decision-making, these mothers describe the challenge of exercising that right. In candid and compelling narratives, mothers speak to the language of experts, conflicts in shared decision-making, devaluation of “mother knowledge,” and the influence of race, class, and gender. The constancy of issues suggests that this landmark legislation may, in fact, have engendered minimal changes in the lives of mothers and their children

Summer Reading

Most of us have an indelible experience of the first school where we had our first professional position. Ask me  (Helga) about Chanhassen Elementary School in Chanhassen, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb. The books I am introducing in this blog tell the stories of first year teachers’ experiences. All have humor in them, with a touch of sadness in some stories. Given the fact that these have been written over the past 10 years, political comments are rampant, but that’s part of the charm.

Here are a few ‘first year teacher’ experiences from the McLure Education Library’s main collection, compiled by Helga Visscher:

Educating Esme:Diary of a Teacher’s First Year. Esme Raji Codell. Algonquin books of Chapel Hill, 2001.  LB 2844.1 N4 C63 1999.

Esme Codell, Ms Esme, is a 24 year old in her first year of teaching at a new public school in Chicago. She meets the challenges of teaching troubled inner city children with the enthusiasm of youth. She learns to deal with other teachers who lack her energy and imagination, and motivate students in her off-the wall methods. She calls math class ‘puzzler time,’ and social studies ‘time travel and world exploring.’ The diary style of this book offers humorous and poignant scenes.



Ms Moffett’s first year : becoming a teacher in America.  Abby Goodnough. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.  LC 5133.N4 G66 2004.

This book began as a series of articles in the New York TImes. Donna Moffet, a 45 year old legal secretary changed her career to teaching in a program seeking ‘talented professionals’ from other careers to teach in New York public schools. The author comments that “only the ‘pathologically idealistic’ had any desire to teach in these schools. The third person description of events is not as entertaining as a personal diary, but a lot of background information about the school, and Ms Moffett’s experiences improve the understanding of the teacher’s motivation.


My Freshman year: what a professor learned by becoming a student. Rebekah Nathan. Cornell University Press. 2005.   LB3605 .N34 2005

Cathy Small, an anthropologist writing under the pen name of Rebekah Nathan goes undercover as an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University. Her plan is to figure out why students choose to just get by with minimal work. She learns that students actually have a desire to be challenged. Good reading for teachers and students trying to cope with a large university.



The great expectations school: a rookie year in the new blackboard jungle, a memoir. Dan Brown. Arcade Publishing, 2007.  LB2844.1 N4 B775 2007.

Dan Brown describes his experiences with humor, and haunting descriptions of tragic situations. Part of the book is a tirade agaisnt the system, and part of it is a story of his personal growth and gaining maturity to deal with the unfairness of life’s situations. His experiences at P.S. 85 in the Bronx, New York City, where in his first year experience has a 4th grade classroom that is the school’s informal dumping ground.

Relentless pursuit: a year in the trenches with Teach for America. Donna Foote. Alfred A. Knopf. 2008. LC 5133 .L67 F66 2008

Another journalist describes the Teach for America Program in the poor districts of Los Angeles.  Foote’s comment,’Teaching in a low-income school right out of college is a shock to the system,’ is true for all young teachers, not just those in the TFA program. The four idealistic teachers chronicled in this book offer a look at classroom experiences in LA.