What makes a teacher great?
I don’t remember the first time I saw the movie. I cannot tell you how many times I have watched it since; though, I would surmise it is in the hundreds by now. There are some movies that strike a chord with you. Sometimes you get it, you understand the connection, the draw. Other times, it may not be as evident to you; it is something there, deep within the confines of your soul, that even you haven’t figured out quite yet. But, even still, the magic happens and the impression is made. An impression that is unmistakable and unrelenting. In short, it will follow you the rest of your days.
It may not always be a movie of course. It may be a book, a song, a place . . . whatever. The effect is still the same.
For me, the movie was Dead Poets Society. It stars Robin Williams as John Keating, a passionate and somewhat unorthodox teacher. The setting is a New England boarding school, Welton Academy, in 1959.
The boys have become accustomed to the typical, dry, monotone ramblings of their teachers. Passion and creativity are shut out of the hallowed halls in the name of Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence. And so, the male students at this prestigious academy are biding their time, waiting for their interminable sentence to learning to end, where they will enter other hallowed halls of even higher learning behind ivory covered walls. Their careers will be forged: doctors, lawyers, politicians; the heavy hitters.
Until then, they are stuck in the morbid, life-stifling iron maiden of Welton (fondly referred to as Hell-ton by its bright, rising academic stars) Academy.
Of course, much of this portrayal would be through the students eyes, you understand. Yet, this is the perspective Peter Weir (the director) wants us to see the film. He wants us to feel the angst of these male students; full of hormones and lusts for adventures and any inkling of passion and worth.
It is this setting that our hero steps in, finds his place, and takes his strides. A young teacher by the name of Mr. Keating; or, if his students are a bit more daring Oh Captain, My Captain! He too was once a student under the arduous controls of Hell-ton Academy. He too once pined for freedom and adventure. He too once stared out of snow-laden window panes, wishing for a sense of the passionate and awe-gripping nature of this thing called life.
Now he returns. Having mastered the foe. Having ascended through the ivory walls of higher learning. He is here, not just to fill the void of an elderly, retired teacher; but, to bring the spark that he so desired those many years ago.
If you have never seen the film, you can still well imagine, such ambitions are hardly welcomed by the entrenched defenders of the previously mentioned four pillars of learning. They seek status quo. They promote the herd mentality. They aren’t here to promote individuality or freedom of thought. No! Such things could be the very death knell of such sacred establishments as Welton.
But, our venerable teacher Mr. Keating, doesn’t seem all that concerned by playing by these rules. He has a different outlook. His outlook mirrors more the expectations and wishes of the students. Though he is a teacher, he is more in tuned with the students than the administration.
Certainly, he does not approach the assignment with any devious plot to overthrow the rank and file. It is his belief that what he does, and how he does it, is the best way to inspire and nurture learning in his students.
But, any time you have someone who shows spark, passion in the midst of the dry and lifeless . . . a flame is sure to be kindled; and where flames are kindled, consequences are to be had.
Well, my intention here is not to give a review of the film. I would encourage you, if you have not yet, to watch it. It is a film that touches upon all the themes I have mentioned, it deals with the pathos of youth, maturation, and learning.
Mr. Keating’s students, for the most part, flock to him and his style like moths to a flame. In short, they are changed forever.
What makes Mr. Keating such a gifted teacher?
As I have already suggested, he taught, not just with facts, but with passion. There is an adage in ministry that goes something like this: people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. There is sage wisdom found here.
Mr. Keating is a teacher who cares for his students. He cares about what they want and wish to be. He is there to help them reach their fullest potential, not to stroke his own intellectual ego.
For me, when I teach, I try to do so with passion, not only for the material, but for the students as well. I believe the love of learning is infectious; if you allow it to be. Passion and compassion go a long way in being a good, inspiring teacher. In short, if you don’t care, why should they?
I have benefited greatly from many great teachers in my life. Teachers who had their own styles and personalities. Yet, each one that left his/her mark had one thing in common: passion. There is no substitute for it.
It is in passion we come face to face with life and beauty and the mysterious thirstings of the soul.
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? (John Keating)