What happens in To Sir, with Love?

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.

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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 man with a large head...

(The entire section is 15,129 words.)