To Sir and Teaching Epiphanies, With Love

Searching for balance.

October 11, 2021

It’s great, many “inspirational” teacher movies suggest, when devoted educators toil so excessively that they neglect their families (Mr. Holland’s Opus), get divorced (Freedom Writers) or suffer a coronary and tumble torturously down a flight of stairs (Stand and Deliver).

Um, hard no. Overworked teachers aren’t heartwarming but rather a dire societal problem (although, embarrassingly, I found the heart attack/stairs scene funny in a “this is so over the top” way until I learned that very thing had happened to the real teacher Stand and Deliver is based on).

The endearing To Sir, With Love from 1967 isn’t a teacher/martyrsploitation movie. Based on E. R. Braithwaite’s memoir, the film begins with Mark Thackeray (Sidney Poitier), a Black engineer who can’t find engineering work, taking a job teaching rough East London high schoolers. Stern but caring “Sir,” as Thackeray teaches students to call him, has a personal life: he dates a pretty colleague and knows cool ’60s dance moves. And, after struggling with his rowdy pupils for a while (not quite long enough for realism, but let’s not nitpick), Thackeray teaches them to respect others and themselves.

As a ’70s kid watching To Sir, With Love with my mom, what fascinated me most was how Thackeray adjusts his teaching to fit his students’ challenging lives. He adds discussions about various aspects of adulthood, like marriage, to his curriculum and even demonstrates how to make an inexpensive, healthy salad (salad in class!). The kids start looking forward to learning. A girl brings an infant sibling she’s babysitting to class so she won’t miss a lesson; a boy asks Sir to hold a bus so he can drop off his family’s laundry before the class visits the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Since I began teaching English at a community college over two decades ago, I’ve tried to balance empathy with boundaries, like Sir. I also followed the conventional wisdom that composition students should complete at least four longish, graded essays. When I was in college, I wrote mountains of papers, so that seemed normal. Besides, I figured a full assignment schedule would light a fire under procrastinating students. However, my outlook changed in February 2021.

That month, a now-famous snowstorm and power outage hit my state, Texas. It knocked out a week of (online) class. While we waited out the emergency with chattering teeth, I cut an essay from my Comp I syllabus. It was clearly the only way to be fair, especially since so many new-to-college students are academically underprepared and, like Sir’s class, have responsibilities besides school.

It turns out my students and I didn’t work any less with extra days for our remaining assignments; we just worked better. Despite loving To Sir, With Love for decades, I’d missed a crucial aspect of Sir’s ability to create transformative change in his classroom: he made time for it.

In typical semesters, many students are too busy to conference with me much, and I don’t have as much time to reach out. A less pressured schedule allowed me to email and call many struggling students to find out why they’d gotten off track. With their input, I now had ample time to create tailored, supplementary support materials.

After I contacted more students, some of them started requesting additional conferences. Our collaborations felt more productive than usual. Some students expressed relief about having a better chance to recover from shaky beginnings, and my own mental energy improved. I’d always encouraged students to reach out for help, but now my invitations and conferences were livelier.

After finals, a student who’d found his footing after we phone conferenced several times thanked me for “believing in your students.” These days I believe giving students more time to learn conveys my faith in them as much as anything else I can do. My grading had always included chances to earn more points by improving, but previously my classes had moved briskly from one assignment to another, like that was mandatory. And it was, because I’d mandated it.

Digging deeper, I realize my practice of stuffing my classes’ schedules like carry-on luggage contained a dollop of insecurity. No one wants to be perceived as the easy/lazy professor. Overplanning calendars also related to my ever-present wish to feel more in control, a desire perpetually mocked by pandemics, massive storms and everyday life. To understand that my classes and I could productively create our schedule together, I clearly needed more time and mental room to reflect and learn, just like my students.

Haven Abedin was raised in Dallas and teaches English full-time at Dallas College. She loves things many English professors love: reading, watching great movies and TV shows (Better Call Saul and Schitt's Creek are two current obsessions), and helping students learn to trust that they can write.

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