To Sir With Love , and With Respect

I'm showing my juniors in American History To Sir With Love, the great 1967 movie written and directed by James Clavell, and starring Sidney Poitier.

Several of us from the faculty spent time this summer writing up general lesson plans for the first two weeks of school. The idea was to focus on things that affect the entire building -- school rules, classroom procedures, small-group roles and demonstrating respect for one another. We did this last year and it worked, though the lessons were written a bit too tightly, so this summer we tried to give teachers a general framework into which they can insert their own content.

Since I teach upper classmen who've already heard most of this, and because I like Sidney Poitier movies, I use To Sir With Love as a different lens for getting at the question of respect and self-respect. You remember the story -- Poitier's character, Mark Thackeray, takes a job teaching in downscale East London, and inherits a group of kids whose utter lack of self-respect and absence of life prospects renders them incapable of respecting others.

Thackeray models respect for others and for himself, consciously and in how he walks and handles life, and the kids gradually begin to come around. There are hiccups in the process, and a couple of major confrontations, because it's not easy for anyone to give up hopelessness and accept responsibility for your own life, but the students mature before our eyes as the film reaches its conclusion.

At first my students roll their eyes -- they do this for most of my movies, "Oh, God, another one of Lineberry's old movies" -- but ten minutes in they're rapt. They'll be the same way for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Casablanca.


Why is it so easy for my Apache teenagers on the reservation to relate to Poitier and Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart? Why do they so easily cross barriers of time and race and place to feel close to them?

I think it's because these characters are modeling behavior many kids, on and off the reservation, don't see these days:

Here's how to be an adult.

Here's how to be an American.

Here's how to be a man.

Several readers generous enough to offer their comments on my earlier postings have focused in on the difference between the meat of teaching -- imparting real-life knowledge and skills, and maybe even wisdom -- and the gristle that gets measured by standardized tests. I suspect that if we could all meet, especially over a drink or three, that they'd agree with the wisdom of having kids watch Thackeray and his East Enders.