To Sir with Love: Discourses, Positions and Relationships

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Identify and discuss professional issues in education evident in a film or a piece of young people's literature in which a teacher plays a fairly cental role.

This essay will critically analyse the discourses, positions and relationships, as well as certain individuals habitus' (after Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, cited in Gale & Densmore, 2000), which influence the classroom of Mark Thackeray (Sidney Potier) in the film To Sir with Love (Clavell, 1966). Via this analysis, I argue that the film portrays a simplistic, commercial palatable rather than a realistic image of the challenges of teaching, leading the viewer to a distorted perception of the implications of the various discourses employed. In order to clarify this point, I compare several incidents depicted in the film, with the same incidents as they are described in the autobiographical book by E.R. Braithwaite(Braithwaite, 1959), upon which the film is based. In doing so, I will evaluate the pedagogy of the films teacher (Thackeray) against the standards set for graduates and teachers respectively by the Queensland Board of Teacher Registration (hereafter BTR) and Education Queensland (hereafter EQ). Identifying the faulty conclusions which an uncritical viewing of the film may lead to, with regard to the availability of equal opportunity and social justice, I will make specific recommendations for reconstructed teaching practice, drawing on literature on social justice and democratic schooling.

The film To Sir, with Love (hereafter ‘the film'), centres around three interlinked individualist assumptions: that social and economic advancement is sure if one tries hard enough (meritocracy), that race and class are no barrier to social and economic advancement (‘equal playing-field'), and that innate talent rather than learnt skill, plays the most crucial role in a person's success (giftedness). These will be referred to in turn below. In contrast to this individualist stance, E.R.Braithwaite describes early in his book To Sir, With Love (hereafter ‘the book') how his race had mitigated against his acquiring an engineering position for several years, despite excellent qualifications. He reacts to these difficulties by presenting his students with many examples of the interdependency of humanity: the brotherhood of Man. In the film, Mark Thackeray too, continues to apply for engineering positions while teaching at North Quay Secondary.. Only at the end of the film is he finally offered the lowly post of ‘Third Assistant Engineer' by a firm outside of London, despite his ‘astounding qualifications', but paradoxically it seems this event is meant to emphasise the recurrent theme of the cinematic retelling of this story: that ‘Anything' is possible with enough persistence and effort. Commercial film- making is driven by economic interests, which aim to reinforce certain dominant worldviews to ensure box office success. Perhaps for this reason, this film emphasises the popular ‘myth of meritocracy' (Mills, 2004) at the expense of taking up the more problematic framing of issues offered in Braithwaites own account. The character of the film school's Head, Mr Florian, for example, is cast in almost direct opposition to that of the actual Alexander Florian, Head of Greenslade Secondary School, who was in fact determinedly democratic. For reasons of dramatic effect however, the film casts Mr Florian (of North Quay Secondary) as a well meaning but confused man, lacking the courage of his conviction. During his initial interview with Thackeray, he points out that Most of our children are rejects from other schools. We have to help them as best we can. We have to teach them what we can and as much as we can.

He does not seem to have any particular philosophy about how this might be achieved as he continues:
From the moment you accept this appointment, you'll be entirely on your own.
[…] Success or failure will depend entirely on you.

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