The best teacher we never had
Robin Williams’s role in Dead Poet’s Society transformed our ideas about educators.
There’s a teacher many of us remember with such fondness that it’s almost as if he was one of ours: The role of John Keating, the unconventional English teacher played by Robin Williams allowed us to appreciate the educators who teach with their hearts as well as their minds, and also reminded us of the frustrations of school bureaucracy.

Spoiler alert (or a reminder to go and watch this cinematic classic again)

If you haven’t ever seen it, I don’t want to spoil it too much for you, but Williams’ character brings his own interpretation of how best to reach the children in his class and give them a love for the arts, including poetry. He’s acutely aware of the individuals he teaches and their respective challenges, and he tries to draw them out- get them to excel- only to find his efforts stunted by a rigid school system and the conservative social dynamics controlling the parents of these boys.

It’s this iconic role (for which Robin Williams was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award) which inspired many of us. If we were at school when we saw it, it gave us a renewed interest in poetry and the arts. If we only saw it later on, it allowed us to understand the reality that teachers are human beings- as school kids, we too often look at the person at the front of the class and forget that he or she is a person with a family rather than just being an object of mockery or the receptacle for our loathing of school.

The movie has as many tragic twists and turns as life itself, but a moment that will surely remain a pivotal one in cinema is the emotional explosion right at the end as the boys risk everything to support their beloved teacher.

One by one, they clamber onto their desks to support him as he leaves, joining in the rallying cry, “O Captain! My Captain!”. Goosebumps.

If you take a closer look at the teachers your children have, you may begin to see a little of the Dead Poet’s Society phenomenon in each one. They’re not there to copy and paste information into your child’s mind, but, instead these men and women can have a profound effect on the way your child thinks.

The teachers we'll never forget

I can remember a few notable individual teachers whose impact on my life was exceptional. Some of the things they said to me have remained with me for decades. The inspiring teachers gave me a reason to stick around in a school environment which was otherwise a bleak one for me, and the teachers who chose cruelty as motivation serve to remind that the good teachers are more than just good, they’re great.

There was the teacher who cracked the water polo pool at school with a massive potassium explosion in a fit of enthusiasm about science. Another who visited a friend in the clinic after my friend had a nervous breakdown. The teacher who was a passionate anti-Apartheid activist who risked his career to pass out End Conscription Campaign leaflets to his class. The teacher who would burst into operatic snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes to make his point in class.

When I meet the teachers in the schools my kids go to I can’t help but look for that Dead Poet’s Society quality- I want my children to have epiphanies about the material they’re learning. I want them to be able to apply the information to life and to appreciate the value of their time in school.
The unconventional may meet with resistance, but it’s never dull.

I’m grateful to the teachers who stand out, and grateful to Robin Williams for creating that special character we remember fondly as the best teacher we never had.

R.I.P., Robin Williams.

Dead Poet's Society trailer via YouTube/The Neverworld

Did you ever have a remarkable teacher? What made that individual stand out?

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