An English teacher's inspiration: Robin Williams as John Keating

There were three people who inspired me to become an English teacher: my mother, my high school English teacher, and John Keating—Robin William’s character from The Dead Poets Society. And while John Keating is a fictional character, there is no one who could convincingly portray a dream teacher better than Robin Williams. I believed Robin Williams was John Keating. I still do.

When my students ask why we have to read poetry, I quote John Keating:

“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?”

When my students act like their words and thoughts don’t matter, I respond:

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

And after we read about the Transcendentalists, like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, we watched The Dead Poets Society to compare individualism and conformity.  And Robin Williams was able to model everything I wish to be as a teacher—every time I watch his performance I’m moved. And I secretly hope one day my students will stand on their desks and call me “O Captain! My Captain!”

rbk-13-dead-poets-society-john-keating-deJohn Keating is a perfect teacher: he is a gentle teacher who cares about his students and their futures; he is knowledgable and passionate about his content—yet he knows what content isn’t worth learning (like the pages they ripped out of their anthologies, which were intellectual ramblings—sophisticated words thrown together to make the author sound more intelligent than he really was—ego fluff); he is romantic, yet logical—he doesn’t encourage recklessness, but he believes in living life to its fullest; he is innovative and creative in his pedagogy—he finds unique ways to connect his students to the material; he is not a friend, but a leader to his students.

John Keating is what every teacher should aspire to be. And Robin Williams will live on forever because he could portray John Keating so beautifully.  Both will continue to be legends and inspirations for generations to come.

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