Review: To Sir, With Love (E.R. Braithwaite)

Author: Edward Ricardo Braithwaite

Published: 1990 (Originally published in 1959)

Language: English

Genre: Autobiography, Fiction, Education

Rating: 4/5

I read To Sir, With Love a year ago, right as I came to the end of my first ever teaching experience. It was the first book in ‘A Year of Non-Fiction’ that I pursued and I must say that it was quite a promising start. I had borrowed the book from my grandfather, who had asked me to read it and said that I would enjoy it even more because I was teaching at that time. This is why I believe in serendipity!

As famous as this book and the movie are, I had never heard of it up until that day. I didn’t know what to expect and dived right into it. Though I had planned to start the year of non-fiction with White Mughals, it ended up being this one instead.

The book is classified as a fictional autobiography based on Braithwaite’s accidental job as a teacher in a school in East London. He never meant to teach, but had to do so due to the lack of jobs after the World War II. The character in the book is called ‘Ricky Braithwaite’.

The most prominent theme in this book is that of racial prejudice and discrimination. There are no severe instances in his account, but it comes through as a constant undertone. As it always is the case, the little things matter the most – a white lady refusing to sit next to Ricky on the bus, Ricky’s preconceived about the children he is about to teach and all the characters’ worldview. Braithwaite provides a mental map of the thoughts behind the actions that express them.

I appreciated the fact that he doesn’t present Ricky as a victim, but as an equal participant in the prejudicial process. In other words, it’s not just about what other people think of him, but also about what he thinks of the other people. It’s a two-way street, everything almost always is. Ricky is seen as an anomaly – a black teacher in a white school; the students are privileged and illiterate according to Ricky’s preconceived notion.

After this initial backdrop, the story moves to a more humanitarian ground in terms of Ricky’s efforts to make good citizens out of his students. This is where I began relating to the story and if you are currently teaching, or have taught before, you shall understand it, too. The students do not appreciate Ricky being their teacher and assume that he won’t last long. They also expect him to function like all their other teachers who put up with their crass behaviour in and out of the classroom. Much to their surprise, Ricky’s self-discipline and commitment are stronger than their will to defy.

I did feel that Ricky’s solutions were quite simple and it came across as quite easy to do, when in fact they are not. I have more experience as a student than as a teacher, so my opinions will definitely reflect that. Some of them are as follows:

  • Using excursions to break the classroom monotony: It certainly makes sense to have excursions related to the lessons. There’s no doubt that it is a fun trip and that it does establish some degree of bonding among the students and their teacher, but I am still sceptical about it having a drastic change in their attitude towards taking education seriously.
  • Treating them like adults to make them behave accordingly: This can go two ways – them actually appreciating said treatment and transforming into responsible young adults, like Ricky experiences, or them taking this newfound freedom and authority as a free-pass to do whatever adult-like things they want to do. Yes, I know there is a thin line between the two that can be taken care of by maintaining a balance.
  • The good old ‘be an example for the students’: Have you cared to observe and follow your teachers? (It’s not rhetorical; do let me know in the comments below!) I have done so, but I haven’t emulated all of them and neither did my students. As a teacher, your duty would be to do the best you can and set the best example possible, but there is no guarantee that it will suddenly transform your students. It will change some of them, I am sure.

It is easy to appear efficient in a novel, but it’s quite different in reality as it may take years to have that effect on your students. Also, it is not always possible to try out these methods all at once because there are other priorities you will have as a teacher other than just focusing on your students’ behavioural development – papers, corrections, meetings, checking notebooks and workbooks, activities, assessment and other details.

The highlight of the book, for me, was when Ricky stops to wonder if he has had any effect on his students at all. This happens after he sees a contrast in their behaviour in class and them reverting to their rough selves out in the neighbourhood or in their personal lives. This is where it hit home because I was constantly wary of my students behaving one way when I walked in and the instant change when the bell rang for the next class. The dilemma here is whether the behavioural change you see in your students is only meant for your eyes and your presence. It could also be taken in a flattering sense, but I would rather bring about an actual change.

The consolation or saving grace in this situation is hoping that they eventually carry this attitude ahead in some aspect of their lives. Ricky is satisfied knowing that he at least conditioned them to behave responsibly in a formal space and illustrated the value of education in terms of leading a better life later on.

As we move from racial themes to moral ones, we realise that Braithwaite’s goal, of proving that mentalities are never fixed and can be changed with a constant effort, has been achieved. There are far more important things to worry about and try to change, and we can focus on them if we put the stereotypes and assumptions aside.

Braithwaite’s language is simple and flows like a conversation. He doesn’t sound biased and is appreciative of his experience. I enjoyed this narrative because it solidifies my belief that everything happens for a reason – every experience, moment and conversation ultimately leads to something. If it is not obvious right away, it will make sense later. I also believe that there is something good that comes out of all that we take up, even if it goes belly up. I used to think that this way of thinking was too idealistic, but I did find myself giving it a try and it stuck.

To Sir, With Love is relatable because his struggle and effort can apply to any profession and life situation. It exemplifies perseverance and the benefits of willing to put one’s prejudices aside and trying new things. I would recommend this to teachers, students and anyone who feels like nothing is going their way. Also, if this book doesn’t make sense right away, it will come back to you when you least expect it to.

A Year of Non-Fiction (2016-17) Book Reviews

DreamingAtMyDesk View All →

Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!

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