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