Saturday, July 23, 2011

Now, More Than Ever, We Need "To Sir, With Love"

Last night, I watched "To Sir, With Love (1967) for the first time, along with with my husband and our 11-year-old. If you haven't seen it, or haven't seen it in a while, or if your children have not seen it, Netflix it. You won't be sorry. This story tells of the capacity of one unassuming man to make a difference in children's lives.

My graduate school advisor suggested all we first-year teachers see this movie, in which a handsome engineer, Mr. Thackery, (played by Sidney Poitier) accepts a job at an inner-city high school in London for kids who have been thrown out of other schools. He only accepts the job because he can't land one in his chosen field.

This is a movie offers hope, especially at a time in the United States when the teaching profession is under fire by politicians. New teachers find their work in the classroom so tough, they are burning out and dropping out in record numbers As politicians and interest groups vociferously debate the merits of various public policies, our young people are listening. I wonder who among them will be drawn to teaching in the future. Who among them will stay? Movies like this one keep me inspired in my brand new career.

Even when we draw new teachers to the field, many don't stay. As I was preparing this post, my friend Rebecca posted this article on her facebook page: "America faces a severe school dropout problem, and students who leave school do not cause it. Far more teachers, by percentage, drop out of school than students. According to a variety of sources, 46 percent of teachers leave the field--drop out--within 5 years. A conservative national estimate of the cost of replacing public school teachers who have dropped out of the profession is $2.2 billion a year."
Teaching isn't for the faint of heart. Teaching isn't for someone who wants a guarantee of a middle-class life. Whatever troubles our culture is enduring, such as the breakdown of families, a frayed economy, homelessness, parental neglect, and so on, these troubles are playing out every day, in concrete ways, in children's lives. The teachers I work with are unacknowledged heroes, ordinary folks facing extraordinary circumstances and doing their best to stay in front of their students and guide them.

So much of what we teachers do cannot be publicized because to do so would be to violate our students' confidentiality. Suffice to say the world I encountered last fall when I began my fulltime teaching career shocked me. (I have taught for years in community colleges.) I haven't been in a high school since, well, I was in high school.

"To Sir, With Love" is of a genre: tough kids and an inspirational teacher. Think "Sister Act 2," "Blackboard Jungle"or "Mr. Holland's Opus." Personally, I can't get enough of this. Teaching can be a tough profession and any movie that affirms teachers' importance in the world of adolescent angst is okay in my book.

"To Sir, With Love," is an idealistic movie, for sure. It would not be realistic to expect to engage every disaffected student in learning or to win each and every one of their hearts, as Mr. Thackery does. But I will carry that image of Mr. Thackery, exasperated  yet filled with compassion and hope, into my classroom this fall.

And I believe that given the difficulties of attracting our nation's best and the brightest to teaching, as well as the high stress and burnout rate of new teachers, we need more movies like "To Sir, With Love."


  1. Now I know what to order next! Great review; and since I like the genre of teaching-against-the-odds too, I really want to see this one.

  2. Let me know what you think when you see it, Elaine. Let us all know!

  3. I can understand why teachers burn out. I think it's heroic to teach in a public school. Heroic and necessary for those who are called to it. I also believe in building alternative institutions; my wife (who is a Montessori teacher) and I have dedicated our professional lives to that work, and our kids have come right along with us. People who take this path, however, need to realize that it is NOT AN ESCAPE. Whatever path we take, we are placed in front of human beings who have a need for fulfillment that we cannot satisfy. The task of the teacher is to use all his/her knowledge and personality and communications skills and techniques to POINT and say, "Look! Look at this. This is the path! This points to your destiny! Here is truth, goodness, beauty. Follow this!" This is still the core challenge of teaching, whatever kind of students we have. If it seems easy, then we're not doing our job!

  4. John: I agree with you 100 percent. What helped me this year was my SoC leader telling me I must not feel I have to solve everyone's struggles, that I do need to be a presence for these students. Also, to know we might never know what effect we had, if any, on an individual life. It's sort of not our place to know, if you follow. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I saw "To Sir With Love" years ago but remember little of it other than Portier's amazing performance. I can almost see and hear his character speaking. I will put the movie on our Netflix queue. Thanks for the recommendation and God bless you in your continuing teaching journey.