7 Lessons I Learned about Teaching from the Dead Poets Society

August 4, 2014 — 27 Comments

A couple of months ago I watched the movie Dead Poets Society which is filled with lessons about teaching.

7 Lessons I Learned about Teaching from the Dead Poets Society

 Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

7 Lessons I Learned about Teaching from Dead Poets Society

1. John Keating (lovingly referred to as “Captain” by his students) was slightly obscure. He was always whistling to himself, walking in and out of the classroom at random times, and playing games with the students. In the beginning of the movie, it was clear that Captain did not fit the mold of the other straight-faced and curriculum-focused teachers. This contrast in teaching styles was clearest at the end of the movie when the principal of the school assumed Captain’s class and told the class to turn to the introduction of their textbook. The principal did not know that Captain had told his students to rip out the introduction. Furthermore, Captain had referred to the introduction of the book as “excrement” while the principal referred to the same essay as exceptional and profound.

2. Captain was excited about the subject he taught. His line that “we are not laying pipe, we are reading poetry” validates that he was focused on sharing his love of poetry. Captain’s excitement for poetry quickly transferred to his students.

3. Captain wanted the students to learn to think for themselves. When ripping out the introduction of their textbooks, which gave them a formula for deciding if a poem was good or not, he told them, “You will learn to think for yourselves again!” This was a clear goal of the Captain. He also gave them the freedom to express themselves again.

4. The students emulated the Captain’s life. In an effort to help his students love poetry, Captain tried various things to get them involved. However, the most noticeable thing was that the students emulated his passion and desire for poetry. For example, the entire premise of the students doing the “Dead Poets Society” was not an original idea to them. They were merely emulating what the Captain had already done.

5. Captain was knowledgeable about and in touch with his students. For example, there was a scene where he assigned homework to the students to compose a poem and read it to the class. When exiting the class, Captain turned around and said, “Mr. Anderson, don’t pretend that I don’t know this assignment scares you.” Captain knew his students and was in touch with their abilities, strengths, and fears.

6. Captain made personal time for his students. When Neil Perry was in a dilemma about continuing with his acting or quitting, he went to Captain to talk about it. The Captain used his personal time to talk with Neil about the situation and what Neil should do. In addition, Captain took a group of students after school one day to see Neil’s play. Both of these are examples of Captain using his own personal time to influence and serve his students.

7. The teacher is ultimately held accountable for the actions of his students. When Captain was fired from his job because of his student’s suicide. The viewer might see this as unjust, But teachers are partially accountable for the actions of their students. Teachers are stewards of the young minds and hearts of those who are devoted to learning.

The Dead Poets Society is a great teaching movie which serves as an example for teachers. As a teacher I am encouraged to be different than all of the other teachers, have a contagious excitement for my subject, help students think for themselves, live a life that my students can copy, make personal time for my students, know them, and realize that I am partially accountable for their actions.

Question: What lessons about teaching have you learned from the movie Dead Poets Society?

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Fresno Pacific University and master’s degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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  • Sarah Westfall

    A few of the lessons that you mentioned, I also got from the movie. I really like how he was excited about what he was teaching. When a teacher is excited and passionate about what they are teaching, they teach better and it makes the students more interested in learning because they can see how it can be fun. I also got that he really knew his students and how they learn, and this is important as well.

    Thank you for this article.

  • Carrington (Cj) Shelton

    I agree that The Dead Poets Society teaches all of those lessons in some way, although I would debate the fact that Captain actually was responsible for the student’s suicide.
    When I watched it, I thought it also taught teachers that they must be brave and willing to take risks or do their own thing. Our society needs teachers to challenge the tradition in the classroom and try new approaches that engage resistant learners or awaken and inspire already dedicated students in new ways. This comes with a great amount of controversy, but controversy is necessary for growth and progress. The world needs more Captains!

  • Brianna Farrar

    After watching the Dead Poets Society, I would have to agree with the first 6 lessons you have learned about teaching but I’d have to disagree that Captain was held accountable for his student’s suicide. I like how Captain wanted his students to think for themselves and the example he used for it which was ripping the introduction of their textbooks out. I believe if more teachers have this mindset in today’s society, students can really think outside of the box. Thank you for this post!

  • Ben Brown

    I find these all to be excellent observations and valid points with the exception of number 7. While I do believe that teachers are very influential in the lives of their students, they cannot be help accountable for their students actions. Teachers are late to the party when it comes to making an impact on their students. In this case, the students had 17 years of influence before they ever met Mr. Keating. So, if anyone other than Neil should be held responsible for his actions, it should be his parents.

  • Riley O’Neal

    After watching Dead Poets Society, I find all of these lessons valid with the exception of number 7. I do not believe that Captain is responsible for Neil’s suicide. I feel as though his father played a big role in the situation. Captain may be a little indirectly responsible for it because he added more to his plate, and he encouraged him to keep acting even though his father didn’t want him to. This article summed up pretty much everything I learned from the movie. Thank you for this post!

  • Amber Cordle

    I really enjoyed watching the movie Dead Poets Society, I agree with the first 6 lessons that you were able to learn from the movie. I do not agree with lesson 7, I do not think Mr. Keating was responsible for the death of Neil. I think Mr. Keating was a wonderful influence for his students, and someone his students will always remember. I agree with Mr. Keating in that it is good to get students to think for themselves, and not always by the book. I recommend Dead Poets Society for all teachers and or soon to be teachers to watch this movie it is packed full of wonderful information!

    • I might have to edit this post after reading this comments. Lol. Thanks for your perspective.

  • Harleigh Stillwell

    I agree with your statements on the movie “Dead Poets Society”. However, I do not agree that Mr. Keating should be held accountable for Mr. Perry’s death. Keating encouraged his students to be true to who they truly are and not to conform to society. Perry was trying to follow out his love no his passion for acting and his father is completely against the idea of his son becoming anything, but what he wanted him to be. The “Dead Poets Society” is a very inspiring movie that demonstrates a progressive teacher amongst very traditional teachers. There are several things to learn and to take away from this movie, and one major thing would be that it is okay to be different. Keatings teaching style is by far different from the rest of the teachers at the school, and unlike the other teachers Keating is making a difference. He gives the students a voice, he allows them to think for themselves while maintaining control, and he strives to teach them much more then just the inner contents of a book.

    • Perhaps you and Destiny are correct. I might be taking the responsibility of the teacher too far with point #7. Thanks for sharing your insights.

      • Harleigh Stillwell

        Thank you so much for your lovely article! It is very insightful exspecially for future educators to read. You make several wonderful points!

  • Bradley Evan Ferrell

    I watched the “Dead Poets Society” recently and it was a great movie! Besides the entertainment, it does have a lot of great lessons about teaching that people can apply in their own classrooms. Many of the lessons you learned are also things that I took notice of and definitely liked. He introduced some pretty progressive ideas into a very traditional school and was mostly unpopular by the administration for it but also very popular with the students for the same reason. The excitement for the subject, interest in the students’ lives, and the desire to have his students think for themselves are all tremendous ideas that every great teacher should possess. The only lesson I have difficulty with is your last one, and with good reason. Although a teacher is responsible for everything happening inside of the classroom, it is very difficult to hold the teacher accountable for what his/her students do outside of class. I think Keating was held accountable for Perry’s death because the school needed a scapegoat for the situation. Truthfully, it was a conglomerate of events and ideas that lead to this young man’s death. To me, a lot of the reason may have been the complete disapproval of his father regarding his passion for acting…however, this may be a topic better suited for discussion among psychologists and not myself to elaborate on. Aside from this one thing, the other lessons I learned and you learned from the movie regarding pedagogy are things that I would like to use in my future classroom.

    • Nice way to use “pedagogy.” I don’t hear that word much but nice to know others use it too. 🙂

  • Ally Carter

    Great points! I loved the movie as well and feel there is a lot that can be taken away from it, especially as a future educator. I think it was inspiring to see him take a stand and do something different from the rest of the school. You can tell he was really passionate about teaching the students. To him, it was more than just a job, which is how I hope to view my own teaching career. Like you mentioned, Captain was excited about his subject, took time for his students, taught them to think for themselves, and was a good model for them. I think that Keating is a great example for teachers today! I hope that I am willing to do what it takes for my students to really come to own and enjoy my subject (math) like he did for poetry. I learned that it may not be easy, but it will be worth it!!

  • Destiny Furrow

    I loved this movie, I cry everytime I watch it. I agree with all your points except for number seven. I am studying to be a teacher and I think we should inspire our students. I don’t think that just because he inspired his students, he is responsible for all there actions. These boys made there own decisions. I do believe that the father may have more blame on his part. I really enjoyed this article, thanks for sharing!

    • Perhaps you are right on #7. I might have gone a little too far on that one. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kristy Hibbitts

    Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite movies. I am furthering my career as a teacher, and I want to inspire my students. I don’t think Captain was for the blame because of the way he taught his students. These boys made their own choices. In my opinion, I would have put the father at blame for the boy killing himself. I enjoyed reading the 7 points, and thank you for sharing!

  • Kaitlyn Oxford

    The points you made here are excellent and are a lot of the things I noticed also. One thing I learned from this movie is that we must look at things from different perspectives instead of seeing things from the norm. This is how we grow and how we start to think in new ways. Changing the angle is something that we all should start doing. Thank you for this article! Carpe diem

  • Brooklyn Skye Hall

    I loved the movie! And there was a lot of different lessons on teaching I learned from it. One of the many things I learned was that as teachers we must be able to see things from all points of views. Not every student is going to come from the same background or even learn the same way and we must be able to come up with ways out of tradition to help encourage students.

  • Becca Jones

    You made some wonderful and thought inspiring points, but the only one I have trouble with is the last one, in terms of the Captain being partially accountable for his student’s suicide. I can see where you might be coming from because teachers do have a lot of influence in students’ lives and can leave impressions that last for years after they leave the school; but with that being said, I believe the father and his family’s mindset were to blame over the teacher, at least in this instance. The Captain attempted to help him express himself, to become a better version of himself, to be the best he could be, while his father attempted to put him into a box and to have him as a mini version of himself. If the Captain were attempting to further mold him into being a mini version of his father, then I believe he would be partially to blame, but as it is, I believe that the suicide was just a terrible thing that resulted from a negative home life and a depression that was not fully explained / developed in the movie.
    All of that aside, I appreciate all of the points you made and want to thank you for your arrticle!

  • Logan Hinnant

    I agree with all of your points except number 7! I don’t believe captain was responsible for Neil’s death, but I do think that because of his teaching style it kind of lit the flame for everything to happen. The Dead Poet Society was a great movie and it shows that you don’t have to teach the same as every other teacher. Also, it shows that you can be unique in your teaching style and other teachers might try to change their ways to teach like you because they see it’s affective.

  • adam casto

    I love the movie and I agree with all of your points except for number 7. I will admit that captain helped him light the flame, but I feel like he should not be held ultimately accountable for the suicide of one of his students. I think this movie is a great movie to show that you don’t always have to follow the crowd and that includes teaching. I think that if other teachers see how well your classroom is doing they might even test a few things that you are doing in your classroom.

  • Hannah Goodman

    Dead Poets Society is a great movie! This article made many great points that I do agree with, but I also disagree with number 7. I feel that teachers do what they can to help students, but ultimately many things are out of the teachers control. Many things that go on in a students life, the teacher is unaware of or cannot control. After watching th movie, I definitely don’t feel that Mr. Keating was responsible for his students suicide. He supported the student when his parents wouldn’t. Maybe Mr. Keating did overstep his boundaries by encouraging the student to do something that the students parents didn’t agree with, but it wasn’t the cause.

  • Adrianna Cline

    I loved the movie. I also want to be a teacher and Mr. Keating taught me to have fun with my students and they will respect me more. I agree with all of your points except for point 7. I do not think in any way that Keating was responsible for the young boys suicide. I think if anything Keating was a role model to his students. If you blamed someone for the boys suicide it would have to be the boys father.

  • Briana Stacy

    I really loved watching the movie and it really had a great moral to it. I also loved because I am a big Robin Williams fan (Rest in peace). I think about how Mr. Keating gave his instruction in the classroom and about how his students like him and were very engaged in learning. The only thing I would have to disagree about the movie is Neil’s father always making the decisions for him. I think that a parent shouldn’t have a say I what their child plans for their education. I believe that the child should study what ever major or pursue what ever extracurricular activity that their heart desires. I would want that for my future children and for my future students. I pray that one day when I earn my teachers license that I will help shape young students and help them to reach their future goals in life.