In To Sir, with Love, E. R. Braithwaite tells the story of his first year of teaching at a rough school in a working-class neighborhood of London’s East End. The book’s title derives from the inscription on the end-of-school gift that the students presented to Braithwaite at their graduation dance. Reconstructed conversations constitute at least one-third of the text; the balance of the book consists of narrative and interior monologue.
The first chapter opens with Braithwaite on his way to interview for a teaching position at Greenslade Secondary School. He took the post believing it to be merely a job, not a calling or a labor of love. He was oriented to the new job by an experienced teacher, who discussed his specific duties, and by the headmaster of the school, who discussed its philosophy and students. Chapters 4 and 5 flash back to the eighteen months of unsuccessful searching for an engineering position that preceded Braithwaite’s arrival at Greenslade. During that time, he had interviewed for numerous positions, always being told, “I am sorry; we cannot use you,” sometimes with the additional explanation that the company could not employ a black man to supervise white people who had been with the company for a number of years. In his six years of military service, his skin color had never been an issue; now it made him feel that, although he was British, he was not a Briton. Whenever he applied for technician’s jobs and lower positions than the engineering or science work for which he was qualified, he was told that he was too well dressed, well spoken, or well educated for the job.
A chance encounter with a stranger, an older gentleman on a park bench, saved Braithwaite from complete dejection and pointed him toward a teaching career. The older man advised him to seek a teaching position; skin color would not matter, the stranger believed, and postwar London had a teacher shortage. That Braithwaite had a lengthy conversation with the older stranger and took his advice without ever learning the man’s name is one of the wealth of interesting details of the book that the reader remembers.
Alex Florian, the school’s headmaster, had a progressive, student-centered philosophy of nonpunitive, warm, and informal education. The approach baffled, puzzled, and nearly defeated Braithwaite who, as a new teacher, had not yet determined his own philosophy of education. His class consisted of forty-six teenagers who, at first, were hostile, unruly, and very good at teacher baiting. They were as resistant to academic learning as they were to learning courtesy. Although he felt despondent and ineffectual, believing that things were not working well and that he was not teaching the students enough, Braithwaite kept trying. He gradually won the students’ respect by offering respect—along with consistent discipline, effective instruction, and genuine caring. By the end of the school year, Braithwaite was a beloved, warmly accepted, and clearly very effective teacher who was visible in the community and well-known to the students’ parents.