Great teaching goes far beyond the teacher’s charisma. In fact, it’s not about the teacher at all— it’s about helping students learn.
I REMEMBER STANDING in line at the cafeteria of Catholic Central High School in Steubenville. It was late November 1991, and I had just begun to get comfortable teaching there. I loved giving lectures about literature, encouraging students to discuss the ideas they had discovered while reading.
Suddenly, the student across from me in the lunch line — I’ll call her “Sam” — spoke up.
“Mr. Denlinger, has anyone told you that you remind us of Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society? Your passion for literature is just incredible.”
I wasn’t surprised that Sam loved the film. She was a bohemian, she had once told me. Now she beamed up at me admiringly.
Like my student, I also loved the film. I had seen it five times in the theater the year it came out. I had taken other people to see the film. I held Mr. Keating in awe. He really knew how to connect with students.
I tried to hold back the smile, but it broke loose anyway. I was downright flattered. The idea that students might compare me to him — my entire day, no, my entire year had just been made.
I made my way to the teacher’s lunchroom, my head buzzing with excitement.
What I couldn’t have known was this: comparing me to Mr. Keating was anything but a compliment.
THE LATE ROGER Ebert, whom I respect deeply as a film critic, hated the film. “It is, of course, inevitable,” writes Ebert, “that the brilliant teacher will eventually be fired from the school, and when his students stood on their desks to protest his dismissal, I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.”
Ebert believed teaching should be more than charisma and performance. It’s not about you — it’s about helping students learn.
For example, although Keating introduces his students to many poets, he doesn’t examine them “in a spirit that would lend respect to their language; [the poems are] simply plundered for slogans to exhort the students toward more personal freedom.”
Ebert’s point is clearly made after Keating’s firing, when the principal shows up to teach the class. Few students can recall what they learned.
When I first saw the film, I didn’t notice this. Today, after years of creating lesson plans, I’m inclined to agree with Ebert.
As a newspaper and yearbook adviser of 18 years, I hear everything. My experience tells me teaching is not a popularity contest. Students resent teachers who substitute a charming performance for real teaching.
Students want to learn. They may not express that during class — few students will deliberately ask for more work — but after the semester is over, they express nothing but scorn for a popular teacher who isn’t doing their job.
Students know who the “easy” teachers are, and they also know who they respect — the teacher who makes them learn.
Which is why, over the course of my career, I have slowly come to understand Ebert’s critique.
“At the end of a great teacher’s course in poetry,” Ebert writes, “the students would love poetry; at the end of this teacher’s semester, all they really love is the teacher.”
LAST WEEK, WHILE going through my files, I stumbled upon a speech I gave in 1991 to an education class. I titled it “Surviving the First Year of Teaching: Discovering the Flip Side of Dead Poets Society.”
In the speech, I spoke of Keating’s passion for literature, comparing him to experienced teachers who had become cynical and bitter. I hoped I wouldn’t take that route.
Today, I’m happy to report I haven’t. Perhaps that’s because I took a year’s sabbatical in 2007-08 to write full-time for HuffPost. Being away from the classroom rekindled my love for it. Today, I enjoy teaching high-school students even more than I did when I originally wrote that speech.
Experience has its advantages. It imbues the teacher with strategies and skills that allow them to play the long game. It’s similar to a good marriage. Although the fireworks and passion of a new relationship is exciting, the stability of the familiar grounded in deep friendship can be more satisfying.
Mr. Keating did not survive teaching his first year at Welton Academy. Although we admire his flamboyant, authentic style, perhaps we can learn from his experiences, along with that of master teachers.
AS PART OF that speech I gave in 1991, I came up with 10 Rules for Surviving the Classroom. To offer a fresh perspective, I’ve flipped the rules. Here is what you should not do if you wish to survive as a teacher.
- Don’t bother finding out what your supervisor expects of you. Why worry about trying to please anyone but yourself? After all, the goal of an excellent teacher is to show how original you are. You know how much you hated those boring high school teachers you had (that’s why you entered the field, right? To show them how it’s really done?). And during conferences when your principal is trying to suggest ways to improve, why listen? He doesn’t know anything. If he did, he’d have remained in the classroom. So just smile and nod and then go with your gut. You can always just get another job if this one doesn’t work out. The world is desperate for great teachers like you.
- Wait to establish discipline until after your students like you. The line “Don’t smile ’til Christmas” was created by teachers who hate kids. After all, once the kids see how cool you are — what a rebel you are, just like them — they’ll gather around you in awe. Then you can dispense your original wisdom.
- Being on time is for losers. It’s okay to slip into class just as the bell rings. Or a little bit late. It worked in college, didn’t it? After all, your time outside of school (and your sleep) is valuable. Besides, it’s good for kids to have to wait for you. It shows them who’s really in charge.
- Make yourself the center of every class. That’s why they’re here, right? To see you perform. The classroom is a stage, and you are the star. You want students to worship you, hang on to your every word, even imitate you.
- Ignore deadlines. Most administrators won’t notice anyway, and you’ve got more important things to do than boring paperwork. When your supervisor complains or writes you up (like you care!), just give them an excuse.
- Make your students your closest friends— they’ll think you’re totally cool. You remember all those teachers who made you remember they were the adult? Remember how boring they were? Let your students know about all your romances, your breakups, the way you got trashed last night, the cool parties you attend. You want them to know you’re just like them.
- You’re not responsible to keep your room neat and orderly. That’s the janitor’s job, right? Besides, clutter is the de facto mark of a genius. So relax, encourage the kids to break the rules, let the clutter accumulate, and bask in your own brilliance. The kids will love you.
- Feel free to criticize and ridicule the people around you — your faculty colleagues, your administration, even national leaders who belong to the “wrong” political party. Why respect those in authority? You’re an original, and you want to connect with your students emotionally. Respect for authority is so “old people.” Authenticity is what you want. Once students see how brilliant your sarcastic takedowns are, they’ll follow you without question.
- Take advantage of your power as a teacher. You have the right to speak out — especially when parents disagree with and criticize you. If someone criticizes you, go after them in no uncertain terms. Twitter is good. Facebook is better: why not deal with the elephant in the room? This will teach parents to fear you, and whatever they’ve done, they won’t do it again.
- YOUR ACADEMIC CLASSES are boring — focus all your spare time on your coaching or advising. After all, kids get so bored learning academic stuff, but they really wake up after school when they play soccer or work with you in a theatrical production. So be sensible. Extracurriculars — that’s where you really want to put your time. Not in your lesson plans. Being a star coach or adviser will help the students see you as cool, like them, not like a boring adult who’s always demanding extra work on difficult homework.
Remember, these are the 10 rules you should not follow. (It’s easy to forget.)
UNFORTUNATELY, I’ve followed most of the above rules at one point or another in my teaching career. So next week in “‘Dead Poets Society’: Breaking down the rules” (Part 2), I’m going to reframe these 10 rules — and show how I learned each one the hard way.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you, from you teachers out there who would care to risk sharing from your own classroom screwups. Tell us a story. What is the one rule you learned teachers should not break?
In the process, we’ll discover together how the film really is a great soul teacher — perhaps in unexpected ways.