Thoughts from the Executive Director: To Sir with Love

People of a certain age will remember with fondness Sidney Poitier’s powerful portrayal of “Sir,” a teacher who transforms the lives of a group of struggling teens in an inner city London school. Others remember Mr. Kotter, who was “welcomed back” to his Bronx high school to change the lives of teens there. Or Edward J. Olmos (playing real-life teacher Jaime Escalante), inspiring troubled Hispanic students in East Los Angeles to achieve at math in “Stand and Deliver.”

Of course, we live in the real world, not the silver screen. But Chicago–and the Chicago Debate League in particular–have two things in common with these Hollywood images: urban kids and passionate teachers who care.

In a recent focus group, I asked CDL students why they got involved in debate. “Teachers” was the most common answer. One student athlete joined debate because “my AP history teacher said I had to. He told me I needed to stretch myself in academics, not just sports.” Another joined simply because “my teacher asked me to.” Some coaches send personal handwritten invitations to students who might enjoy debate. One coach told me that she deals with argumentative students in class by instructing them to come to debate. “I require them to attend only one practice,” she said, “but they come back for more.”

Teacher-coaches do keep them coming. When I asked a group of debaters whether their coaches impacted their commitment to debate, the room buzzed as students enthusiastically interrupted one another to tell their stories. They talked about their coaches giving them a place to argue about issues they care about, helping them become leaders, making the debate room into a home, turning the debate team into a family, being their cheerleaders, and encouraging them to succeed in debate, school, and life. Not to mention making them sandwiches.

We know debate transforms lives of our urban kids. Our teacher-coaches are at the very center of that transformation.

And that brings to mind perhaps the closest screen representation of what our debate coaches do: Denzel Washington, portraying real-life teacher Melvin Tolson, who transforms a group of African American students into “The Great Debaters.” Every day, our coaches here in Chicago are working that same transformation.

At the end of Poitier’s movie, one of his students sings “To Sir with Love,” a moving expression of teenagers’ recognition that their growth into adults is happening because of the passion and commitment of their teacher.

If our students were a choir, they would be singing too.

“To Coach with Love.”