We may remember him as Mork, Mrs. Doubtfire, Peter Pan, or the Genie, but for teachers, Robin Williams will always be Mr. Keating.
I first watched Dead Poets Society in high school. 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.
And while I did learn innovative and effective teaching strategies in graduate school, in many ways quality teaching lies in the intangibles. There’s a difference between learning how to teach, and how to be a teacher. And Robin Williams as Mr. Keating taught us a lot about being a teacher.
1. It’s About Relationships
Students don’t care what you know if they don’t know you care. Mr. Keating’s students loved him because he was interested in them. He delighted in their successes. He laughed with them (near them, not at them). He truly saw them. And that’s pretty much what every kid we teach wants — to be seen and be noticed.
In education courses, prospective teachers are often 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 warn, “so start out strict.” No ripping up the textbooks on day one, the young idealists sigh.
Many new teachers take this advice to heart, and approach their first several years of teaching very seriously. As soon as the bell rings, class starts: 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!
No one wants a soulless teacher. Dead Poets Society taught us it’s okay to take some precious class time to talk to kids about their lives and their interests.
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.”
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 andpassion: “‘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
A lot of new teachers suffer from what I call the “Dead Poets Society curse.” He made it look so easy! Okay, I’ll 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, not everyone can pull that off.
Maybe we need to be Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds: Okay, I’ll show up in a leather jacket, do some awesome karate moves, hand out candy bars, and teach them poetry with rap lyrics! Then I’ll nail it! Well, that’s LouAnne Johnson, not you.
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. 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 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, that “everything inside [them] is worthless and embarrassing.” Robin Williams made us laugh and radiated joy, but he also battled with the darkness. How 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 educators, administrators, friends, and neighbors, let’s remember that the most important thing we do is create a compassionate community for meaningful connection with students. 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 and communities.