O Captain! My Captain! An inspired and inspiring teacher

“What, in the deepest part of your soul, drives you in your chosen profession? You are guided by a sense of mission, of purpose, and of dedication to a profession in which you believe you can make a difference.” (H. Douglas Brown, 2007, p512)


“You strive to embody in [your] teaching a vision of a better and more humane life.” (Giroux and McLaren, 1989, p. xxiii)


Robin Williams as teacher extraordinaire

Robin Williams’s performance in the film Dead Poets Society was a joyous flight of fancy. Here was a teacher–John Keating–unburdened by state standards, endless grading, mindless bureaucracy, and swathes of data. With the space and freedom to inspire, Williams/Keating was able to play the part of teacher-as-iconoclast. He stands on his desk to “look at things in a different way”. He illustrates ‘conformity’ by getting the students to walk the courtyard. He tells them to rip out the introduction to their poetry textbook. He whispers carpe diem in their ears, summoning the ghosts of alumni who exist now only in black and white photos. Surely, if he’d been around in the age of MOOCs and TED talks, Keating would have been a star edutainer? (Alas, the film is set in 1959.)


"Looking at things in a different way"

“Looking at things in a different way”

For some of his students, Keating’s ways are too radical. But others he inspires. They learn to love literature, and they re-form the long-defunct Dead Poets Society, gathering at night to channel the bohemian spirit, reciting poetry, playing old jazz records, and discussing the world as only teenagers can.


Didn’t we all want–or even have–a teacher like this? I did. John Marston, my English teacher, didn’t give a damn about school rules. Instead, he encouraged self-expression and self-discovery. He was one of the main reasons I became a teacher. I wonder how many teachers were similarly inspired by Robin Williams’s portrayal of John Keating. Here are a few reasons they may have been:


*Passion for the subject

Keating tells his students, “Medicine, law, business, engineering: these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life, but poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”


OK, if you’re a language teacher, you’re unlikely to say, “question forms, adverbs of frequency, the Present Perfect Continuous, these are what we stay alive for.” But enthusiasm for helping students express themselves better in English is essential, and for other types of teacher (say, History or Geography), it can only help if you believe your subject is essential to the survival of the species.


*Care for the students

The old adage is that ‘students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’. One of John Keating’s boys, a reluctant, cringing Ethan Hawke, fails to write a poem for homework. Keating then cajoles him into improvising a poem in front of the class. It works. Everyone applauds. Keating then whispers in the boy’s ear: “don’t you forget this”.


Boosting students’ self-esteem is a sure way to motivate them to reach their potential.



*Creativity and critical thinking

While all around him there is conformity and blind adherence to tradition, Keating gets his students to challenge the status quo and to express themselves. The former is a skill we would now label ‘critical thinking’, and it is a mindset that, once developed, lasts a lifetime.


Critical thinking is a big and controversial topic. Some insist that it’s a central feature of all education, while others believe it can’t or shouldn’t be taught. But let’s face it: all the great thinkers and educators from Socrates to Paulo Freire to Richard Feynman value the asking of critical questions as much as the ability to give quick answers.


The last word

The final word goes to Robin Williams, whose life came to a tragic end last week. As John Keating, he says: “These boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it? Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

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