One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1967 Sidney Poitier film, “To Sir With Love.”
The movie has always been a favorite of teachers. In it, Poitier, a first-year teacher, is thrown into a classroom of students just a few months away from graduating high school and entering the real world.
These are the rejects from other schools, Poitier’s character, Mark Thackeray, is told by the principal. And worse yet, the school permits no type of punishment.
And when Poitier enters the classroom, the students are unruly and uncivilized. So naturally, all he has to do to quiet them down is clap his hands.
All he has to do to civilize them is to throw away their textbooks and have them start treating each other with civility.
And by the end of approximately an hour and 40 minutes, these previously incorrigible teens are shining examples of the miracles that can be achieved by one teacher who cares.
I love the movie, but despite its roots in a non-fiction book, it is far away from reality as “Avatar” or Harry Potter.
Several weeks ago, when the Central Falls, Rhode Island, superintendent fired the entire high school faculty, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the board for backing that decision, citing its courage.
Every teacher was given the ax because of low test scores at the poverty-ridden school, everyone from those who have given up, and with the battles they were facing at that school, I am sure there were a few of the Mark Thackerays of Central Falls who went the extra mile to give their students the help they needed to cope in the outside world.
The story has a semi-happy ending. All of the teachers have been rehired after the union reached an agreement with the superintendent. From today’s Boston Globe:
Under the agreement, which is expected to receive final approval next Tuesday by the Board of Trustees, teachers will be required to work an additional 30 minutes a day, devote 90 minutes after school every week to planning, and submit to rigorous evaluation to retain their jobs after the 2010-11 school year.
The teachers will also eat lunch with students one day per week, attend five to 10 days of professional development every summer, and accept a staffing policy that eliminates strict seniority. The high school principal will be replaced..
“We will not have persistently low-achieving schools in our state; we will not have it,’’ said state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. “We are incredibly serious about this reform effort.’’
It is amazing how the word “reform” falls trippingly off the tongue of the people who are doing the most to damage public education.
Politicians are demanding reform, business leaders say the only reform that will straighten out public schools is to follow a business model- the same business model that led this country into its current economic crisis.
A careful examination of these so-called “reform” measures leads to an accurate perception that they are heavily weighted toward one side of the issue. The reforms are based on the idea, carefully cultivated by those who want to destroy public education, that 100 percent of the problem lies with classroom teachers.
In “To Sir With Love,” Mark Thackeray dealt with students who, despite all initial appearances, wanted to learn. I can guarantee you that is not what the Central Falls High School teachers see in their classrooms.
Diligent, hard-working students are mixed with juvenile delinquents who do not care how much class time they cost with their disruptive behavior or how much their antics affect the learning of those around them.
Many of the children are products of broken homes and come from environments that include criminal activity, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. By the time they arrive at school, they have learned all the real-life lessons they care to know, and do not see why or how school should be relevant to them.
Does that mean there will be no success stories in schools located in areas where there are high poverty rates and soaring crime levels?
Not at all. In every school, whether it be Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, or East Middle School in Joplin, Missouri, where I teach, there are Mark Thackerays who go the extra mile, who do everything they can to to reach the seemingly unreachable student.
I have seen the success stories, but I have also lamented, along with my fellow teachers, the ones who fell through the cracks, the ones we thought we could reach, but somehow our efforts fell short.
As I examined the Central Falls plan, I saw nothing that would address the primary issues that affect learning. Each of Central Falls’ teachers will have to be interviewed by the school’s “leadership team.”
It is a shame that leadership team is not holding sessions with the children and their parents, the ones who hold the key to building the foundation for a strong education.
“To Sir With Love” could never happen in today’s environment. With the emphasis on standardized test results and educational “reform,” the Mark Thackerays of this world, the ones who struggle valiantly to reach as many so-called unreachable children as they can, no longer have a place in our schools.
And the children are the ones who will pay the price.