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Edward Ricardo Braithwaite, one of the first black teachers in the British school system, recounts his first year as a teacher in the autobiographical novel, To Sir with Love. Unable to secure a job as a physicist in London, despite his many educational degrees, Braithwaite feels the sting of racial discrimination. He is persuaded to take a job as a schoolteacher at a unique school in London’s East End, a notoriously impoverished and tough part of 1940’s Post War London. His students, mostly White European immigrants, are typically from unemployed families, have very little money, and are habitually filthy and malnourished. Students are sent to Greenslade Secondary School due to disciplinary problems. Despite their low socioeconomic status, and lack of basic academic skills, Braithwaite, a black man from British Guyana, sees his students as privileged simply because they are white. For their “underserved” privilege, and ignorance, Braithwaite resents and pities his students. Through the often tempestuous relationship between Braithwaite and his students, issues of racism and class discrimination are exposed. The struggle between teacher and student is a tutorial in critical pedagogy, and take the reader on a journey of internal examination, and individual accountability. In many ways, Braithwaite’s novel is a positive example of educational methodology, and the human connection needed between teacher and student.
The overt message of To Sir with Love is the equal exchange between teacher and student. At Greenslade Secondary School, Braithwaite observes that students are encouraged to speak their minds, and are given regular opportunities to discuss what they are being taught. Teachers collaborate with fellow teachers, as well as with students, to decide the format in which lessons are delivered. Lessons are student-centered, and take into consideration the human-world relationship. Through his first person account, Braithwaite allows readers to follow his evolution from perceiving students as crude, belligerent, and unkempt, to viewing students as unique individuals deserving respect and compassion, resulting in a true paradigm shift. When given the opportunity to demonstrate their humanity, Braithwaite watches his students rise to the occasion in their own time, and in unexpected ways, a message all educators must recognize. From his experience working with students from disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds, Braithwaite learns that all students have the potential to be successful when provided a teacher who believes in their ability.
Throughout the novel, Braithwaite stresses the importance of teachers as team players. The commerce of ideas and advice from fellow teachers offers Braithwaite the support he needs to be successful in his classroom. Braithwaite focuses on the integral role faculty play, not only to Greenslade’s education program, but to student success as well. The enthusiasm for teaching and admiration for one another creates a supportive, successful, and positive school community. Alex Florian, head master of Greenslade Secondary School, seeks to create a school environment in which students feel safe and comfortable enough to learn and express themselves. Florian encourages teachers to discuss student progress with students in Weekly Reports, and encourages students to participate in school-wide Student Council reports, both of which are opportunities for students to have a voice. The educational methods implemented at Greenslade are valuable insights into alternatives to traditions modes of education.
To Sir with Love, proclaims to be a non-fictional account of Ricardo Braithwaite’s first year as a public schoolteacher during a notoriously racially divided period in British history. However, the miraculous and inspiring journey may leave some to consider the extent to which the author, Braithwaite himself, fictionalizes the novel version of himself. Braithwaite claims not to have been aware of racial prejudice until landing in London and searching for employment. The reader may find this notion hard to believe due to Braithwaite’s admitted service in the Royal Air Force. It is difficult for the reader to discern where autobiography ends, and fiction begins. Despite the apparent weakness in nonfiction voice, the strength of To Sir with Love lies in its message of forgiveness, understanding, and acceptance in the face of hate and prejudice. Braithwaite becomes a successful teacher only when he is able to see students as individuals. He is able to overcome his prejudice and “hateful thoughts” ( p. 204) because he learns to love his students despite their shortcomings. Braithwaite learns the most important role he can play in the lives of his underprivileged students’, is to provide them with “affection, confidence, and guidance, more or less in that order, because experience has shown that those are their most immediate needs” (p. 217). Braithwaite’s novel illustrates the importance of an equal partnership between teacher and student combined with the shared goal of learning.
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