Monday, October 19, 2015

To Sir With Excellence

Just Not Ed Reform Caliber Stuff

As a child of the 60's in its truest sense -- I was born in 1961 -- I remember going with my entire family to see "To Sir with Love" when it came out. I guess my parents, who were both city teachers, wanted to show us how the bills were getting paid. Maybe they wanted to see themselves portrayed by Hollywood in a flattering light, it's hard to say exactly. I clearly remember Sidney Poitier's stoic, Ghandiesque portrayal of the Ghanaian National by way of California transplanted to the gritty classrooms of scrappy Cockneys who'd been kicked out of all the decent schools in London. Like any worthy story, it's a tale of relationships -- of respect, trust, compassion and commitment and the human hardships we face in building all of them. 

This movie, sprung from the semi-autobiographical 1959 novel by E.L. Braithewaite, who took a job teaching in similar circumstances in London's East End, could simply not be produced in 2015. Oh it could be alright but you wouldn't recognize it by the time the updates were put into place. One element of the film that could translate would be the idea of taking someone from outside of education and air dropping him into an urban classroom bristling with at risk kids. Ed Reform 101 loves the idea that anyone can teach and do it well with little more than 5 weeks worth of excellence training at a nifty boot camp like the ones run by Wendy Kopp's wunderkinds at TFA. As it turns out, Sir is an engineer by trade who simply can't find anything in his field so he takes one of those thankless teaching jobs smart people take instead of bagging groceries or sweeping floors.  

But how would Sir's SLO's look and who's to say his pre-tests and post-tests would show the required growth his Principal demands? I hear of one Imperial Admin here in Receivership Epicenter Buffalo who's insisting on 5% across the board and he's not taking anything less for an answer. Imagine if one of Sir's scholars decided to burn a feminine hyiene product in class, as they did in the movie, during Sir's scheduled Danielson drive by? Is it just me or does anyone else smell "Ineffectiveness?" No, friends, the idea that teaching is built on relationships and great teachers are most likely great human beings is just part of the old pre-reform narrative. 

What counts more than anything else is not the relationships great teachers can forge with the hardest of kids and the trust people can learn when working together. That may sound nice in a greeting card and it may play well in a 1967 movie but we all know what really matters most are test scores. And how the hell is this crackpot engineering major from Ghana by way of L.A. ever going to turn those 4's into 1's and 2's? Well, he's not.

So we'll skip the boxing lesson where Sir finally clobbers his last remaining holdout into submission then points out to the kid that he's got pugilist skills and encourages him to work with the younger kids on boxing. And skip the part where the nasty Cockney kids take up a collection to buy a wreath for the one black kid in the class whose Mum has died. Skip the school dance where Lulu serenades Sir with one of the tear jerkiest cinemaballads of the 20th Century. Because this guy may care and he may have quick hands too. He may very well be able to help turn a classroom full of sow's ears into silk purses. But when push comes to shove, we all know it's not about any of that crap. And even when you dig down into your own misguided success stories -- the kids you know deep in your soul and beyond any doubt whose lives you've enriched -- none of that really matters. Not today and not tomorrow either. 

What matters are test scores. And when Sir gets that letter at the end of the school year, the one offering him a job in his field as an engineer, do you think Lulu's singing and Denham's boxing are going to be enough to keep him in the classroom, in the crosshairs of every halfwit ed reformer, jerkoff politician, and spineless administrator when he could be surrounded with smart dudes and slide rulers? In the 2015 remake, Sir does the Nae Nae on a student desk -- his own has been hauled to the curb by a sexually frustrated administrator -- twirls, leaps, lands a perfect split and says "Later, fools." 


  1. Thanks for this column. That movie, "To Sir With Love" actually inspired me at the age of 14 to become a teacher. I became a health teacher and worked in the South Bronx and Harlem for 28 years. My goal was to teach the students like Sir did and I did exactly that because I worked with the best 'old school is good school' teachers and admins. Sadly the joy of teaching and learning is no longer permitted.

  2. Some of us just do it anyway. Fuck them.