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What Dead Poets Society Taught Me About Being a Teacher

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ROBIN WILLIAMS DEAD POETS SOCIETY
Everett Collection

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. 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.

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. 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 my students is that they never liked history before, but I made it interesting. They love that I love history.

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

In my first years of teaching, I suffered from what I called 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, 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, do some awesome 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. 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 we approach the start of a new school year, let's remember that the most important thing we do as teachers 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.

This post originally appeared on Sarah's blog Left Brain Buddha. You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.