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John Eggers: What teachers can learn from Robin Williams

When Robin Williams died, so did my favorite actor who played a teacher.

Every year, I advise teachers to see “Dead Poet’s Society” before starting school. Even though it’s just a movie, it contains some poignant messages for teachers, which clarify the essence of teaching.

In case you have not seen the movie (there may be a few of you), it is about a high school English teacher who returns to his alma mater, Welton, to teach in the late 1950s. John Keating, played by Robin Williams, uses techniques that are strange for the very conservative, but highly academic, all boys boarding school. Here are several of my favorite scenes.

In an opening scene we find Keating with his senior high students sitting in old wooden desks with their literature books open ready to take notes. The boys are dressed in sport coats and ties. They are facing their new teacher for the first time.

Keating walks down the aisle whistling and leaves the room. After a few seconds he pops his head back in and says, “Well, come on.”

He leads the boys out into the halls that are adorned with old trophies and pictures of former Welton graduates. The first thing he tells the boys is that he, too, was a Welton graduate. He then asks one boy to read a line from Robert Herrick’s poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today,

Tomorrow will be dying.”

He then tells the boys that the Latin translation for this is Carpe Diem or “Seize the Day.”

He tells the boys to lean in closer to the trophy case and pictures and listen to the message these former Welton students have for them. Keating tells them that many are now fertilizing daffodils. As he makes his way behind the students, he whispers, “Carpe Diem; seize the day boys.”

What a great message this is for everyone. Students especially need to take advantage of this time we have on earth because before long we, too, will be fertilizing daffodils. This message of “seize the day” needs to be at the forefront of everything we say and do for kids. “Time is wasting. Take advantage of it. Now is the time, not later, today, this minute.”

Another favorite moment is when he is teaching poetry and he does what every teacher should do during that first week of school. Keating sells poetry to his students. He makes them believe their lives are not complete unless they know and understand poetry.

He does it by quoting a poem from Walt Whitman and uses poetry as a metaphor for a play that each has a role. He tells them, “A powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse.” He looks at each student and asks, “What will your verse be?”

In this scene, he infers that each boy is worth something, that each boy has value and that each boy has something to contribute. This is a powerful message for students that they need to hear again and again and again. “What verse will you contribute? What role will you play?”

Keating’s goal is to teach the boys to think independently, to look at things in a different way. In one scene he stands on his teacher’s desk and tell his students that from up here, “things look differently.” He then invites his students to stand on his desk, one by one, and take a look for themselves. His implores them to seek new ground, discover new ways, to see things differently.

Every time I read the paper, I ask myself, “How in the world are we going to solve all of these colossal problems.” They seem impossible, don’t they? Well, to solve them, we need to explore new ways to look at things. We need to have our students view things from a different perspective. The old ways just don’t seem to work any more.

Some of his students misinterpret his message of trying to find their own verse to write by doing stupid things like we all have done at one time or another. One boy publishes a piece in the school newspaper about why Welton should enroll girls. At an assembly of all of the students there is a phone ringing and the culprit who is behind the prank stands up, holds a phone and address the headmaster. He says, “It’s a message from God. We should have girls.”

The headmaster is livid and ends up giving the boy a number of extra hard hits with a paddle on his behind. The boy can hardly walk as he returns to his room. Later that evening, Keating visits the students and tells them to “be wise, not stupid.”

Teachers, and especially parents, need to remind students to be wise and not stupid. We need to continually tell students to not do dumb things.

It is ironic that in the movie, one of the main characters commits suicide. It is ironic because, as you now know, Robin Williams committed suicide, which brings up the last message for teachers. (By the way, did you know that every year more people die from suicide than car accidents?)

Lots of kids need our help and sometimes you just have to throw away your lesson plans for the day and just visit with kids. As Keating reminds us, teaching is more than just teaching what is in the book; it’s more than passing tests or mastering all of the standards. Good teaching is, and always will be about building relationships that help kids learn to become good people who do good things.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.