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The Unforgettable Mr. Thackery

Today is National Teacher Appreciation Day.  Ironically, last evening the man who inspired my teaching career was honored at Lincoln Center for being the recipient of the 38th annual Charlie Chaplin award.  That man was Sidney Poitier- Mr. Thackery, better known as “Sir” from the memorable 1967 film, “To Sir With Love”.

I was only in elementary school when I saw that film, but its impression lasted throughout my lifetime. In the movie, Poitier plays a young, unemployed engineer trainee who takes a job as a teacher in London’s East End while waiting for an engineering position to materialize. His assigned class is full of rough, mannerless teenagers with little regard for him or learning.  He soon realizes that to reach his students he needs to revise his entire educational idealogy- which he does. The scene where he cleared the desks of traditional books, maps, tests and standard curricula in favor of real life, necessary life skills was the pivotal point in the film for me.  I  remember thinking, “That’s the kind of teacher I would want to be”, even though I had yet to decide on a career.  What was most memorable about the film, what remained with me throughout my teaching career, was the unmistakable bond that grew between him and his students.  He taught them manners and respect and propriety; he taught them to appreciate culture and cultural differences; he gave them life skills that they so desperately needed, but most of all, he taught them how to believe in themselves.  

Could Mr.Thackery succeed in the modern day classroom?  Would he sweep aside the useless standardized testing and No Child Left Behind Mandates in favor of teaching the students the same things today that were needed forty four years ago- manners, values, cultural appreciation and self belief?  I teach similar students in a similar type of school depicted in “To Sir With Love”.  The hunger of the students has not changed in the almost half a century since the film’s debut, but the educational approach to reaching such students has become mired in political rhetoric.  What made “Sir” so successful was his personal approach to the problem and the freedom to implement whatever system he found effective without district or administrative interference.  The personal connection he had with his students is no less important now than it was then, but it is so desperately missing from the modern classroom.  It is that lesson that we as teachers should all learn from Mr. Thackery- make it real, make it meaningful, make it personal and the educational experience will be unforgettable.

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