Now, his 30 years in the classroom provides material for his latest book, "Teacher Man."
"That was the big chunk of my life, 30 years," he told The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith Tuesday morning. "Because I know and you know and everybody knows teachers get very little attention in the USA. That any movie you see about a teacher is unrealistic. And I've never written a novel that dealt with the inside life of a teacher, the teacher in the classroom. And I wanted to get into the classroom and show what it's like from day to day, from minute to minute."
In the schools, he says, the students are "the veterans" and "the substitute teacher in the school system is the lowest form of life."
"This is what we forget about kids," McCourt said. "They've been in the schools since 4 years old, 4 or 5. They've been in school for 11 or 12 years or something like that. And they watch you walk in."
He recounted an anecdote from the book about an incident that happened on his first day in the classroom. Two students were arguing over a bologna sandwich and it ended up flying through the air and landing on his desk.
"I said, 'Hey,' " McCourt recalled. "That's the first word I uttered as a teacher, after four years of higher education at New York University. Hey. Eloquent? Always eloquent.
"And there's the bologna sandwich. What are you going to do about a situation like that? No professor at NYU told us what to do about flying bologna sandwiches. They don't get into that. They have higher level philosophy of education. There's a sandwich. What are you going to do? "
In the end McCourt picked it up himself, "And the aroma was overwhelmingly fragrant and delicious and it's 9 in the morning."
So he ate it. And that got the attention — and respect — of his students.
"That was the breakthrough," McCourt said. "No teacher had ever been seen at 9 in the morning eating a bologna sandwich and I was reprimanded by the principal for having lunch. Then all the other kids found out about it in the rest of the classes."
McCourt said teachers today need bigger paychecks and smaller classes.
"The image of the teacher in this country is appalling, compared to what it is in Europe or any place else," he said. "The teacher is respected in other countries. Here, you look at teachers as if, well, they did it because they couldn't do anything else."
"Teacher Man" is published by Scribner, owned by the same company as CBS.