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Primary Education News
News From the Observer archive, 29 March 1959: A moving account of a teacher's struggles with his pupils and with himself
ER Braithwaite's autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love describes a black teacher's success in an East End school
I wish that Mr Braithwaite had given his book a different title because this one, though significant in the teaching world, may mean little outside it and thus fail to attract the general readership the book deserves. For, it is the noblest, most moving, least sentimental account of life in a modern school and of a teacher's struggles with his pupils and with himself that I have come across.
Set in the East End, it deals with familiar problems of indiscipline, illiteracy, overcrowding, delinquency and promiscuity, yet it is in no sense another secondary modern shocker. It is the story of how a young teacher with no training or experience is confronted, as new, untrained teachers invariably seem to be, with the toughest class in the school – in this case a bunch of mixed and hardened 15-year-olds – and of how he gradually imposes upon them his own standards of decency till he finally wins their affection as well as their respect.
Underlying this is a deeper, more subtle theme. Mr Braithwaite is a Negro, born in British Guiana. Although colour prejudice did not preclude him from flying with the RAF during the war, it did afterwards from obtaining the kind of job for which scientific qualifications fitted him, and it took 18 months of disappointment and humiliation before he stumbled upon teaching as one profession for which a white skin was not a tacit qualification. Even so, teaching white children required a special kind of courage; if some of them accepted him readily enough there were always others ready to taunt and goad. There was also the continual gauntlet to be run outside school: parental affronts, insults in restaurants, lodging-house doors barred.
It may be that Mr Braithwaite's own experience of being pushed around gave him an extra insight into the emotional attitudes of his pupils, but this would have been unavailing had he been a lesser man. In the first few weeks he was as defeated as most, stunned by the fierceness of the opposition, shocked by the lewdness with which it was expressed and out of sympathy with children whose circumstances, however depressing, were at least more privileged than his own. But he fought back with an obstinacy and resourcefulness which should serve as a model to anyone entering the profession; until in the end the daily battleground became a civilised classroom in which he gave his pupils not only the three Rs but an adult sense of values and a perspective through which to consider the world around them. He even taught them good manners, and his success in persuading the boys to address the girls as "Miss" is as miraculous a classroom triumph as any I know of. All this, I would emphasise, was achieved with a class of 46 pupils in a school where corporal punishment was prohibited.
There are gaps in the record, of course. Mr Braithwaite says little of the nervous effort involved, and scarcely hints at the failures – failure is a word outside his vocabulary. But his account is too unpretentious, too undramatic, too obviously sincere to be called into question. I hope it will be read as widely outside the profession as it will be in it, for it shows a sensitive and obstinate man of extraordinary moral courage overcoming vital human problems which have defeated many of us, but which in some degree concern us all.