Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Influence of a Great Teacher

"I don't know how to answer you except to say that I teach you truths. My truths. Yeah, and it is kinda scary, dealing with the truth. Scary and dangerous."

Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier)

Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a truly great teacher.

"To Sir With Love," which premiered on this day in 1967, was the story of a truly great teacher — who, in the mold of many truly great teachers, did not start out to become a teacher at all. Sidney Poitier played the teacher who was sidetracked — temporarily — from his goal of becoming an engineer. He had applied for an engineering position but had heard nothing; acting on the conviction that one must have a job, he applied for work as a teacher in the slums of East London — and got the job.

And he encountered a classroom of the most sullen, rebellious students imaginable.

It took awhile, but they finally warmed up to each other — enough that Poitier's character rightly concluded that the education his students required couldn't be found in books. They needed discipline and survival skills they weren't learning at home.

So he implemented a new method for education in his classroom. He and the students would treat each other as adults with the proper respect.

He realized that his students also needed self–respect when he came to school one day and found that a used sanitary napkin had been burned in the fireplace. That was when he did something he had pledged not to do. He lost his temper.

"I am sick of your foul language, your crude behavior and your sluttish manner," he told the girls in his class. "There are certain things a decent woman keeps private, and only a filthy slut would have done this and those who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I don't care who's responsible — you're all to blame. Now, I am going to leave this room for five minutes by which time that disgusting object had better be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stench. If you must play these filthy games, do them in your homes, and not in my classroom!"

That was the inspiration for his new system. It was successful at first as Poitier shared his wisdom about, as he put it, "life, survival, love, death, sex, marriage, rebellion."

If you have never seen the movie, there are several noteworthy quotes from this section that you might want to post in your office or wherever they can be most inspirational to you. One of my favorites is this one: "I believe one should fight for what one believes. Provided one is absolutely sure one is absolutely right."

But Poitier lost the support of many of his students over his handling of a confrontation between a student and a gym teacher.

In retaliation, they did not invite him to the class dance — nor would they accept his contribution toward the purchase of a wreath for the funeral of the mother of one of the students.

As the school year drew to a close, Poitier's character received an engineering job offer. He had applied for the job before taking the teaching position so he had been waiting for nearly a year.

And he won back his students' admiration when he beat the class ringleader in a boxing match, then recommended that the student teach the younger pupils how to box when school resumed. He was invited to the dance, where the students presented him with a gift. Poitier got choked up and left the room without telling the students that he was planning to take the engineering job he had craved all year.

While he was away from the group, he realized that he had unfinished work as a teacher and tore up the job offer letter.

It was a good movie and, coming from a family of educators, I like movies that tell about influential teachers. They get little enough credit for all the things they do.

But every time I watch "To Sir With Love," it seems strange to me that, given the time when the movie was made, race was virtually a nonissue in it. Perhaps things were different in England in 1967, but America was seeing race riots from coast to coast. It got worse less than a year later when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.

Racial conflict was really percolating in America in the '60s, but, as I say, maybe it was different in England.

There have been many movies about influential teachers, but few, if any, others have had their theme songs reach No. 1 on the pop charts. Scottish singer Lulu made her movie debut as one of Poitier's students and reached the top of the charts with "To Sir, With Love" in the fall of 1967.

Additional music for the movie was provided by The Mindbenders, a popular British group of the time. Ironically, considering the fact that the Beatles had released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" about two weeks earlier, an album that contained the song "Getting Better" with the refrain "It's getting better all the time," a Mindbenders' song from "To Sir With Love" told audiences that things were getting harder.

I doubt that there was any collaboration between the two. If there had been, I'm sure we would have heard something about it in the last half century. I'm sure it was a coincidence that two songs that were so similar and yet so contradictory were unveiled at nearly the same time.

The movie was directed by James Clavell, whose real claim to fame was as a novelist, but he had a flair for directing, too. He just didn't do it too often.