McCourt regales readers with his struggles to find his way in the classroom. Almost fired on his first day for taking class time to eat a sandwich a student has thrown across the room, he has a propensity for doing the opposite of what guidance counselors, principals and other higher-ups tell him. They advise him to be strict and commanding and above all not to share anything personal. McCourt ignored their advice: "Instead of teaching, I told stories," he says. "My students didn't know there was a man up there escaping a cocoon of Irish history and Catholicism, leaving bits of that cocoon everywhere." The more McCourt teaches, the more he dreams of a school "where teachers were guides and mentors, not taskmasters." And the more impatient he becomes with the "bureaucrats who had escaped the classrooms, who only turn and bother the occupants of those classrooms, teachers and students. I never wanted to fill out their forms, follow their guidelines, administer their examinations," he says.
Despite a tendency to talk back to those in authority, a failing marriage and an unsuccessful attempt to receive a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Dublin, McCourt lands a teaching job at New York City's most prestigious public high school. Throughout his career, he encounters many who appreciate his inventive teaching ideas: having students write excuse notes for famous people in history, using cookbook recipes to spark creativity and even occasionally allowing students to play their musical instruments to accompany class readings.
McCourt draws out his students and reveals himself to them in turn. He is also a marvelous storyteller whose perfect timing and wry humor bring his classrooms and students to life. More reflective than Angela's Ashes, this witty and irreverent portrait of teaching has lessons to teach those in and outside the classroom.