What Dead Poets Society Taught Me About Being a Teacher

photo credit: wikimedia commons

We may remember him as Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, Peter Pan, or the Genie, but for me, Robin Williams will always be Mr. Keating.

I first watched Dead Poets Society in high school. It’s one of those movies that stays with you, isn’t it? Its embrace of youthful idealism and romanticism entranced me as a teenager. Years later, as an aspiring teacher, I had dreamy visions of my students calling me “Captain!” and standing on their desks in triumphant appreciation of my inspirational and daring teaching.

In my graduate program in education, I learned innovative and effective teaching strategies. In many ways, however, quality teaching lies in the intangibles. This doesn’t mean good teachers are just “born that way,” but it does mean we sometimes need to look beyond learning targets and assessments to the equally important affective components of teaching. In short, grad school taught me about teaching; Robin Williams as Mr. Keating taught me about being a teacher.

Dead Poets Society1. It’s About Relationships

Students don’t care what you know if they don’t know you care. This has probably been one of the most challenging lessons for me to learn as a teacher. I remember in my education courses being warned about being “too friendly,” or using self-deprecating humor and sarcasm as a way to connect with students. “You can always ease up later,” instructors warned, “so start out strict.” No ripping up the textbooks on day one, I sighed.

I took their advice to heart, and approached my first several years of teaching very seriously. As soon as the bell rang, class started: no chit chat, all business! Did something funny just happen in class? Well, move on, because we’ve got no time for that, and there’s important stuff about ancient Greece to talk about! It’s not surprising that one of my early reviews on a teacher rating site called me “soulless and uptight.” {I’ll concede uptight, but soulless? That’s just mean.}

But no one wants a soulless teacher. Mr. Keating’s students loved him because he was interested in them. He truly saw them. And pretty much every kid we teach simply wants to be seen and be noticed. Mr. Keating was thrilled by his students’ successes. I love his reaction when a nervous student (Ethan Hawke) finally dictates a gorgeous poem to the class.

Dead Poets Society taught me it’s okay to take some precious class time to talk to kids about their lives and their interests. I wish I had taken this to heart a lot earlier.

2. It’s About Passion

Think of your favorite teacher. What stood out about them? My guess is for many of us, that one thing is passion — a passion for their subject and a passion for teaching. Mr. Keating loved poetry, loved hearing the words “drip off our tongues like honey.” I’m passionate about history — I love the subject and stories that I teach. One of the comments I love hearing from students is that they never liked history before, but I made it interesting. Parents tell me their kids are talking about the French Revolution or the Wars of Religion at the dinner table.

Educator Parker Palmer writes that the teachers selected by students as their favorites vary widely in terms of the techniques they use. What they share is presence and passion: “’Dr. A is really there when she teaches,’ a student tells me, or ‘Mr. B has such enthusiasm for his subject,’ or ‘You can tell that this is really Prof. C’s life.’”

Those were all true of Mr. K, too.

3. It’s About Being YOU

I endured several tough years when I began teaching (as I think many teachers do). I suffered at times from what I called the “Robin Williams curse.” He made it look so easy! Okay, so I jump on a desk, and tell them to call me Captain, have them kick some balls outside to classical music, and I’ll nail this teaching thing! Well, I couldn’t pull that off. It’s not me.

Maybe I needed to be Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds: Okay, I’ll show up in a leather jacket, put on some karate moves, hand out candy bars, and teach them poetry with rap lyrics! Then I’ll nail it! Well, that’s not me either.

Ultimately, teaching is about being you. It’s finding your own voice, your own authentic barbaric yawp. Don’t try to be a teacher in a movie. To quote Tennyson, as the Dead Poets do, we must be “strong in will,” we must “strive, … seek, … find, and not … yield.” Just be you. It may take some time to find your groove and your personal style. But ultimately, to quote Parker Palmer again, “we teach who we are.”

4. It’s About Teaching Life Skills, Too

Education is empowering. Education is not necessarily about making us wealthy or “better off,” but, as one my education professors quipped, it is about simply making us “better.” Mr. Keating taught his students English. But he also taught them to think for themselves, to support and challenge one another, to be stirred up by new ideas, to not live “the lives of quiet desperation” lamented by Thoreau.

In all our talk today about testing and standards and achievement, we sometimes overlook these “softer” life skills that children need for success. These are the skills that help them understand their emotions, cultivate empathy, maintain healthy relationships, and feel worthy of love and capable of action. These skills and mindsets are the foundation for healthy living and thriving.

I strongly believe if we can teach young people these skills, especially to tune in to their inner experience, and to hold themselves and others with compassion, we can transform the world.

5. It’s About All Kids

Many films that celebrate great teaching focus on a heroic teacher in an underfunded urban school with students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sometimes we assume that students in affluent districts, or in wealthy prep schools like the fictional Welton Academy, with involved parents and high test scores, don’t have real problems. But kids everywhere face academic pressure, peer pressure, and their own share of trauma and pain. They all have the same brains, prone to faulty wiring and chemical imbalances.

This is the part of teaching that terrifies me. Even the kids who seem like they have it all together may feel, like Mr. Keating says of Todd in Dead Poets Society, that “everything inside [them] is worthless and embarrassing.” Robin Williams made us laugh and radiated joy, but he battled with the darkness. Many of our students are silently struggling with their own demons. I truly hope that the open discussion of depression and mental illness that has begun in the wake of Williams’ death creates a safer atmosphere for them to seek the help they need.

As we approach the start of a new school year, let’s remember that the most important thing we do as teachers is provide for connection and community. It is our cultivated awareness, engagement, and authenticity that allow us to do this in our work with young people. Mr. Keating, and Mr. Williams, can live on in our classrooms.

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    As a former teacher who comes form a long line of teachers, I love this. Teaching is about so much more than getting to memorize facts and pass tests. Although Robin Williams wasn’t a teacher by trade, he taught the world so many things. He taught us how to laugh, use our imaginations, and, with his death, he reminds us that many people are hurting beneath the laughter. Such a phenomenal talent gone far too soon.
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    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Indeed, Lisa, and I am so sad about his passing… And yes, teaching is so much more than content. Content is important, but so are the relationships and connections with students.

  2. Connie Lewis says

    Wonderful post and tribute to an incredible actor and person.

    You are an amazing teacher and role model. I love that I had the opportunity to see your growth and impact as a teacher, and your blog has allowed me to continue being part of your journey as an educator and mother. Like Robin Williams, you are leaving a legacy in so many ways.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Thank you, Connie, for such kind words. I’ve told you this before, but I know I am incredibly lucky that YOU were my ‘administrator’ for my first years of teaching. I am so glad to have you as a true mentor and friend :)

  3. says

    I needed to read this today. I just got hired (today, in fact) to teach English, and I M terrified. Maybe being myself is the way to go?
    Also, every time those kids get up on the desks, I tear up.
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    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      YAY, Natalie! That’s so exciting! Indeed, the more I have allowed myself to just be me in the classroom, the more I have enjoyed teaching. Good luck — the first year is always challenging, but indeed there will be moments to savor (although I’ve never had students stand on desks for me. I’ve gotten applause, though…)

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Tracie, that is so so true! I think a lot of us have pain that we hide… I am honored when students feel they can open up to me. I hope they each have at least one person they can talk to in their lives.

  4. Sarah says

    Thanks Sarah. I needed this. Friday I go back to teaching, and it is with a little sadness that another summer with my little ones is almost over, along with some dread about the upcoming workload teaching and household running…as well as lingering burnout from some consecutive rough teaching years. Just enough inner turmoil to keep me up the last few nights.

    BUT, this reminds me of the important stuff. Why we teach! Thanks!! :)

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      The end of summer is always bittersweet for me, too… I love my time at home and with my children, but I get so excited about being back in the classroom. I am so grateful to have a job that I love.

    • Sarah Rudell Beach says

      Yes! One of my FB friends commented that if kids know they are cared for, the curriculum will take care of itself.

  5. says

    I am the type of student who learns so much more when the teacher is approachable, has a good sense of humor and is willing to connect with their students. You don’t have to give me your life story, but show me you are human and willing to open up. I’ll listen and I’ll become much more connected and motivated to learn.
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