Conrack is based on the experiences of Pat Conroy, a young and idealistic teacher who was assigned in 1969 to a school of black children on Yamacrow Island, a small piece of land off the coast of South Carolina. The story of his work there has been adapted from his book The Water is Wide. Irving Ravetech and Harriet Frank, Jr., created the screenplay. Conrack is an unusually human movie and ought to be seen and talked about by everyone concerned with the real meaning of education, communication, and a full, rich vision of life.

If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be very wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.
— John Holt

When Conroy (Jon Voight) arrives on the island and meets his class — a group of kids in the fifth to eight grade — he is stunned to find out that none of them can pronounce his name (they call him Conrack), several can't spell their own names, others can't count to ten, and none of them know that they live in the United States. Mustering every ounce of creativity in his head and every scrap of emotion in his heart, Conrack begins a nonstop strategy of unorthodox ways to arouse in his students a love of learning and life. He improvises each day, winning their confidence through rough-house antics, humor, and locker-room lingo. He's a one-man band, a three-ring circus, a storyteller, a lover, a loser, and a cheerleader. He takes them on field trips to demonstrate that the earth and everyday experience are the little red schoolhouse of life. An apple falling on one student's head is connected with Isaac Newton's law of gravity; teamwork is a tackle football game; and learning how to swim (many children have drowned off the island because they couldn't swim) becomes as important as any dates from history. Conrack plugs his class into the electronic world with movies and draws out their feelings with a record of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

But Conrack's unorthodox teaching methods run him smack intro trouble with the disciplinarian black principle Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair) and the straight-laced, traditional superintendent Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn). He challenges Skeffington's authority when he takes the class on an overnight excursion to a Halloween celebration in Beaufort, South Carolina. And, for defying his superior, Conrack is fired. In a terribly moving finale, he looks at his class and says, "My prayer to you is that the river is good to you in the crossing." As his motorboat leaves the island, the students play Beethoven's Fifth on a portable record player a tribute to their teacher and a lament to his going.