To Sir, with Love Summary

To Sir, with Love recounts Braithwaite's personal experiences as a teacher in London. A native of British Guiana, he's forced to take a job as a teacher, where he's able to get through to a group of semi-literate pupils thanks to his unorthodox teaching methods.

  • The first several chapters of this autobiographical novel focus on Braithwaite's struggle to find steady work after his Royal Air Force unit was demobilized at the end of World War II. Eventually, he gets a job as a teacher in London's East End.

  • Braithwaite's first days as a teacher are rough. His students are only semi-literate and are largely uninterested in learning. They have no respect for him, and he struggles to teach them using the official curricula of the school.

  • Finally, Braithwaite decides to switch tactics and use unconventional teaching methods, such as taking the children to museums and letting them discuss whatever topic they want in class. He finally gets through to his students, and they come to love him.

Chapter 1 Summary

A red double-decker bus is crowded as it creeps through the morning traffic in Algate. A man is surrounded by the rather large, crude, but good-hearted women who have already been out to do their morning shopping. As a result, the bus smells heavily of fresh fish. He is the only man on the bus besides the conductor, and his is the only black face. The women banter and make sexual innuendos; he smiles at their good-natured teasing.

The bus moves through a rather dingy part of the city, and the women disembark with their shopping bags one by one. A “slim, smartly dressed woman” gets on the bus and starts to sit down—until she sees that the man she would be sitting next to is black. She decides to stand despite the conductor’s less-than-subtle hints that there is an empty seat for her if she would choose to take it. Just as the conductor is about to humiliate the arrogant and prejudiced woman, the passenger in question sees his destination ahead and asks to get off at the next stop. The conductor gives the man an “odd disapproving stare,” as if he had ruined the official’s battle plans. The man thinks he is doing the conductor a favor, for this is a battle he will never win.

The man stands on a corner of London’s East End, which he has so romanticized because he has read so many references to it in the works of Chaucer and Erasmus, among others. It is a site full of history in his imaginings, but the reality is different. The streets are noisy and littered and full of dirt and flies. The smells are “a sickening, tantalizing discomfort.” He forces himself to walk toward his destination: Greenslade Secondary School.

As he gets closer, a small boy with a Cockney accent is just emerging from the bathroom; he has obviously been smoking. The boy asks if he can help, and the man asks for the headmaster. The boy points and the man knocks, as instructed, on the door of the headmaster, Alex Florian. He is a small...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

This school is, as Headmaster Florian told him, a very different kind of school. As Braithwaite walks through the hallways, he is nearly knocked over by several students running out of a classroom. He knocks and enters to see what is happening, only to find forty students unattended. By their dress and demeanor, they seem to be well aware of their maturing bodies. Everything is “a bit soiled and untidy, as if too little attention were paid to washing either themselves or their flashy finery.”

When Braithwaite enters, he is accosted by students wondering if he is the replacement for their teacher, Mr. Hackman, or “Old Hack.” Hack left the room and went to the staff room, telling his students to send someone for him when they were ready to behave, and they wonder if Braithwaite has come to take his place. As they surround him, he tells them he will check on Mr. Hackman. This is not what he imagined when he thought of his first teaching job. There are no neat rows of desks filled with students eager to learn.

Braithwaite leaves the class room and goes to the staff room. On the way, he meets the student who nearly knocked him over coming out of the room. A rather untidy man greets Braithwaite and immediately makes a joke about his color. Braithwaite introduces himself and says he is from the Divisional Office; he is told that Hackman was here but left shortly after arriving and is probably registering his complaints with the Divisional Officer. Mrs. Grace Dale-Evans enters and begins cleaning up the staff lounge. She asks Braithwaite if this is his first teaching job and if he has been in the military; he tells her he was in the Royal Air Force. She invites him to eat lunch at the school, and he accepts.

The staffroom is full of miscellany and is almost as dingy as the outside surroundings. As he walks out of the building and into the courtyard, he sees litter everywhere and finds the place as depressing as a prison...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

At lunch, the teachers sit at a table slightly separated from the students. Headmaster Florian prays for the entire room and then the noisy business of lunch begins. Each person at each table is assigned a job, and the meal is conducted efficiently and finished quickly. When Florian stands, there is a hush before he signals to each table its permission to leave. Soon the sound of dance music emanates from the auditorium. Miss Clintridge explains that students are allowed to turn the room into a dance hall for forty-five minutes each day. Sometimes even the teachers join them.

Weston speaks up and says that dancing for these students is not a simple, innocent pastime. Instead, the “energetic morons” are using dance as their voluntary exercise to stay fit for their primary pastime—“teacher-baiting.” The ladies tell Braithwaite to ignore their colleague’s joking and scold him for being so discouraging. Weston assures them he wants the new man to stay. Braithwaite decides to observe the dancing.

These students are very good dancers, and the girls take great pleasure at showing their legs to the appreciative boys. The red-headed girl with whom he had nearly collided this morning asks him to dance, but Braithwaite mumbles a no and weaves his way through the gyrating crowd. He is “disturbed and excited at the prospect and challenge of having to cope with such nearly adult individuals.”

He meets with the headmaster, and Florian asks him immediately if this is someplace he wants to work. When Braithwaite, with controlled enthusiasm, says yes, Florian outlines his policies for this school. He explains that most of these students are classified as “difficult” because they have defied or disregarded the more traditional forms of authority found in most schools. Here, he says, they should not be forced or restricted by “arbitrary whim.” These are students who come from disadvantaged homes, and it is his hope...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

At the Demobilization Center, Braithwaite was encouraged when he was told his experience in engineering technology as well as his advanced degree in science would stand him in good stead as he went about finding a civilian job. Braithwaite was meticulous about staying current with all new developments in his field and subscribed to all the professional and technical journals. He was confident he would be able to get and hold a good job.

During the war, he met an elderly couple, and he promised to stay with them after his demobilization. The Belmonts were kind people in every way and shared many of his interests and pursuits with an energy that belied their age. After a two-week holiday with them, he met with the Appointments Office and was assured that with his experience as a Communications Engineer for the Standard Oil Company he would be highly employable. Two weeks later, he received a letter from them along with a list of three firms which had vacancies for qualified Communications Engineers. Braithwaite wrote each of them and received scheduled interviews with each of them.

For his first interview, Braithwaite was dressed as a professional in the perfect shirt, tie, and pocket handkerchief; his shoes were polished and he was “wearing his best smile.” The receptionist treated him coldly, but the interview went well. Four men asked him numerous technical questions to gauge his level of expertise, and Braithwaite was at ease since he had been so careful to maintain his skills even during the war. At the end of the interview, one of the men told him he was “abundantly suited” to the job, but they could not hire him to be in a position of authority because too many of the white men would react adversely to a black superior. They would not offer him a lesser job, for he was too well qualified.

Braithwaite left the building in a kind of stupor. For six years in the military his blackness had never mattered. Though...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

After being denied a job he was perfectly suited and qualified for because of his skin color, Braithwaite tried everything he knew to get a job and got the same result from all of them. He tried to advertise himself as a Negro, but no one wanted to hire him. When he did not mention his color, they all turned him down for essentially the same reason: “too black.” At one firm, he filled out his paperwork amidst men who were clearly not as well educated and qualified as he was; however, the interviewer told him he spoke too well and was too well educated to fit in at this firm. Braithwaite took his application out of the man’s hands and ripped it up in front of him.

For eighteen months he tried to get any job but had...

(The entire section is 682 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Braithwaite arrives early for his first day of classes at Greenslade School. The Belmonts, whom he calls “Dad” and “Mom,” are as thrilled as he is about this opportunity. As he approaches the courtyard, he hears students using foul language and wonders if they will speak in such a way in his classroom. Mrs. Drew greets him in the staffroom and he asks her about it. She tells him students often try the words for effect but few of them even understand the actual words they are speaking. As he leaves the lounge, his colleagues give him encouragement to begin his first day.

He sits at his desk and waits for all his students to assemble and become quiet before he takes roll and collects their dinner money. Before...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

Yesterday’s dinner was an altogether too noisy affair, so Braithwaite does not join the rest of the school for the noon meal but eats in the peaceful staff room. His mom had sent him a lunch, and he realizes that teaching is much more draining than he had imagined it to be. Soon Miss Blanchard joins him; she has her own lunch because she does not like the food. The two of them have much in common: books, music, theater, and films. She noticed his surprise that morning when the children listened so raptly to the classical music; both of them are amazed.

As the others make their way to the lounge after dinner, they each ask Braithwaite how his morning went. A few are amused that he seems to have taken Miss...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Every Friday morning before recess, everyone in the school writes a Weekly Review. Students write about their week in any form they choose; they may criticize, agree, or disagree, as long as they are writing about school. No one is exempt from criticism, including the headmaster, and there are no repercussions from anything that is written. The Weekly Review is one of the Old Man’s inviolable schemes. It benefits the students, because if something matters enough to them they will put it on paper as meticulously and correctly as possible. Teachers are able to see which of their lessons were effective and which were not. Florian’s theory is that the children are generally fair in their assessments, and a “sensible teacher”...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

The next morning Braithwaite has an idea on the way to school. Though it is not clearly formed, he is hopeful of its success. After assembly and once everyone is seated at their desks, he begins to talk to his class in an informal and pleasant way. He tells them his plans for the rest of the school year, deciding most of what he says as he speaks to them.

The first thing he tells them is that he expects them to listen attentively to everything he says without interrupting; once he is finished, they may ask him whatever questions they might have or say whatever they want to say to him without his interrupting. When he looks around the class, he sees even the least interested and engaged students are listening to what he...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

That Friday, Braithwaite’s students are writing their Weekly Reviews with “absorbed application.” The only words anyone speaks are a request for the spelling of “Braithwaite.” When he reads them during recess, Braithwaite feels the students were fair, but barely. They are not happy with some things, but all are glad to be treated as adults; however, not one of them mentioned the behavior leading up to the changes. They most appreciate that he speaks to them as if they are capable of learning. He takes their writing home with him to discuss with his Mom and Dad.

His parents, too, are pleased with the progress he has made; however, his father warns him not to bring his schoolwork home with him or he will be...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

On Thursday there is a sense of excitement, and both Braithwaite and his students can feel it. In the afternoon, the boys go to their physical education class and Braithwaite asks them to line up for their activity. Denham steps forward and asks if the class can have boxing first today. Braithwaite agrees and the boys pair off by size. Denham’s partner is conveniently unable to participate, so he asks Braithwaite to spar with him. This is the moment Denhem has been preparing for since last week.

After initially telling Denham no, Braithwaite discerns that the other boys see this as a sign of cowardice and decides to spar with Denham. Everyone else lines the wall and prepares to watch. It soon becomes clear that...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

After recess, Braithwaite tells his students about their field trip to the Albert and Victoria museum next Thursday. They are ecstatic at the prospect of an outing but dubious about the presence of Miss Blanchard, their second chaperone. Thursday morning Braithwaite gets the travel voucher and comes to class after all of his students have arrived. He is stunned at what he sees. Each student is clean and tidy and dressed to make a good impression; they are thrilled at Braithwaite’s “delighted surprise.”

The trip on the subway is full of lively chatter until two women board the train and show their disdain for “shameless young girls and these black men.” Their remarks are meant to be overheard, and they are....

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The students' Weekly Reviews are full of commentary on their trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Headmaster Florian reads their writing and is so impressed with the outcome that he has volunteered to help with any other ventures. It has been two months since Braithwaite began teaching, and each day the lessons are becoming more interesting. There is so much his students do not know that Braithwaite has plenty of material to cover before the school year is over. The lessons are informal and involve much class discussion.

A lesson with an unused skeleton from the Science Room reveals that his students know more than perhaps they should about reproduction and the human body. During a geography lesson, students wonder...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Braithwaite spends his August break reading or attending various shows and exhibitions. Gillian is vacationing with her mother but sends him several letters. They are anxious to see one another again. When classes resume, many of his students are not there. They are on a “working holiday” in the country, working in the hop-fields in Kent. The class is lacking its usual energy. Pamela in particular seems to be disinterested, perhaps because her friend Barbara is not in class yet.

Soon everyone returns and “much of the old spirit was soon re-established,” just as Braithwaite had hoped. Students chatter about the fun they had while away and their plans to spend the money they earned. Despite the enthusiasm of the...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

One October morning, Braithwaite is called to Florian’s office and told that one of his students, Patrick Fernman, has been arrested for wounding another Greenslade student with a knife during a scuffle. Braithwaite must prepare a report regarding Fernman’s attendance, conduct, abilities, and interests. The magistrates, he explains, already feel as if this school is too lenient on bad behavior, and this incident will solidify their beliefs. Braithwaite offers to go visit Fernman’s parents, and the Old Man gives him a note to take to them.

The class has been silent regarding their missing classmate, though Braithwaite is certain they all know about his trouble. He prepares the report and emphasizes the boy’s...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Fernman comes back to school subdued but is soon part of the class activities and discussions. On several evenings, Braithwaite takes his class to see an opera, a play, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Braithwaite taught them the context and particulars of the play and opera before they went; afterwards, on the bus ride home, students discuss their experiences with insight and intelligence, something Braithwaite wishes the school’s detractors could hear. After the Globetrotters game, students are amazed to discover that many of the black players are college graduates. The students are beginning to expand their vision of the American Negro.

One morning the headmaster tells Braithwaite he has someone who would like to see...

(The entire section is 716 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

November 15 is an important day at Greenslade School, as it is the day of the twice-a-year Students’ Council report. The older students are organizing the events and have been preparing diligently. At 10:00, students are dismissed to an assembly at which Headmaster Florian praises students for their achievements but reminds them there is still much to be accomplished. As he listens, Braithwaite knows Florian is deeply committed to this cause and these children.

When Florian is finished speaking, the two oldest students in the school (Denham and Miss Joseph) take over the proceedings. Each class will have its representatives report on the year thus far, and then a panel of teachers—chosen by the students—will take...

(The entire section is 545 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Thursday is Gillian’s birthday. Braithwaite bought her a book of poetry that he is planning to give to her during lunch on her birthday. On Tuesday, she comes to his classroom and asks to speak to him. As usual, he is surrounded by a group of students, and they whisper and giggle as he excuses himself to go see Gillian. She tells him she has made reservations for a special meal at an elegant restaurant to celebrate her birthday after they go to a movie. When he comes back into the room, his students are full of questions and speculations. Pamela is the only one who remains aloof from the conversation.

On Thursday, the couple leaves the school together. Gillian looks beautiful, and Braithwaite is proud to have her on...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

The touchstone for Braithwaite’s happiness is school. Here he has found an understanding of the young people in his charge as well as the neighborhoods in which they live. He is known in the markets and talked to with a mix of deference and familiarity by the mothers and relatives of his students. He is gaining a real affection for his students while continuing to model the behaviors he wants them to emulate. His early condemnation of their clothing and habits is now tempered with that understanding and affection, and their behavior and dress are reflecting the change.

A new teacher, Mr. Bell, is at the school for a short time to enhance instruction; one of the areas he assists with is physical education. He is a...

(The entire section is 800 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Headmaster Florian obtained permission for a newspaper to come to Greenslade to take photos and write a story about the school. His hope is that this will be an opportunity for the positive things that are happening in the school to be published for the rest of the country to see. He tells his staff the day before the journalists arrive, and they all decide not to tell the students in advance so that their behavior will be more natural.

Soon after the visitors arrive, Braithwaite is called to the headmaster’s office and asked to be featured as a black teacher in the school. He gets defensive and asks the purpose of the story. When they tell him it will prove that in Britain there is no racial prejudice, Braithwaite...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

The last days of the term are the happiest days for Braithwaite since he left the R.A.F. He and Gillian are growing closer, and they go to visit her parents. The Blanchards are reasonably affluent white people who raised their daughter to be independent and strong. Though they are not immediately comfortable with the man their daughter loves, they are pleasant and do not try to change Gillian’s mind. Most people are asked the hypothetical anti-prejudice question “Would you allow your daughter to marry a black man?” and do not really have to answer it. The Blanchards have to ask it and answer it, and Braithwaite feels sympathy for them.

They enjoy a pleasant enough lunch and ask about his current and future plans,...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

Near the end of the term, representatives from local industries come to Greenslade to recruit workers. Though many students take the proffered jobs, others have more ambitious plans and have already found more promising situations to begin their lives as adults. At first, all the students spoke eagerly of their plans to move on and have some money to spend, but as the time to leave approaches they grow more subdued and even frightened. Braithwaite knows, though, that they are frightened of jumping into the stream of adulthood but are not frightened of the stream itself. They use their last days in school to make sure everything gets said and asked and answered; in the last week there is not one absence.

Formal lessons...

(The entire section is 742 words.)