Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is the start of a new school year and our buildings are like persons waking from a slumber. Throughout the summer our custodians and maintenance workers repaired and refreshed our schools making them ready for another year. Teachers arrived and our schools opened their eyes, rolled over, looked at the alarm, and promptly hit the snooze button waiting for the real day to begin. With the entrance of our students the schools reach complete wakefulness, full of life, energy and vitality.

Students may be the life blood of any school, but teachers are its soul. Their enthusiasm imbues the building with a sense of purpose challenging young minds to achieve their potential; to look beyond the obvious and question the world around them. 

The recent death of Robin Williams caused me to reflect upon his amazing career and the myriad of spectacular roles he played: Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam, Peter Pan, Mrs. Doubtfire, and probably my favorite one of his roles, Mr. Keating in Dead Poets Society.  A recent article by Sarah Ruddell Beach in the Huffington Post (the full text of which is attached) entitled, What Dead Poets Society Taught Me as a Teacher, explores the impact, which that singular role, by this talented man had on her teaching career.

I would like to say that as a college student in 1989 when the movie was released the character of Mr. Keating inspired me to go into teaching, but that is a decision it would take many more years and an intervening career for me to make. However, upon becoming a teacher and re-watching the movie, Robin Williams did serve as inspiration for the type of teacher I wanted to become.  Those who are familiar with the movie will recognize the Walt Whitman quote that captions this post and remember how it was used by Keating to inspire and challenge his students. He dared them to sever traditional norms and formal structures breaking free of their comfort zone by referring to him not as Mr. Keating, but as My Captain.

I took many of the same ideas away from that movie which Ms. Beach mentions in her article. Education, like many aspects of our lives, is all about relationships. More than anything students want a teacher who is enthusiastic about their subject, that cares about them as an individual, allows them the freedom to explore and develop their passions while setting boundaries and guiding their personal growth.  Content is often irrelevant to students and for teachers it is merely the framework we utilize to prepare our students for life. That is our ultimate role. Curriculum and academic pursuits are important. We must ensure appropriate rigor in our classes and identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in our students in order to support them as learners. However, at the fundamental level, education and schools are about nurturing students’ potential and preparing them for life in our world.

How we accomplish that mission depends greatly upon who we are as individuals and educators. We do not all need to be a flamboyant and extroverted as Mr. Keating to reach our students. We do not have to encourage our students to stand on their desks to alter their point of view (and the lawyer I was in a past career cringes at the thought). It is enough to afford them the freedom to question the world around them, ignite their passions, and engage them in the process of learning. Caring is often evidenced through the kind word, the simple gesture, or gentle nudge in the right direction at a time of indecision. As teachers we must stay true to who we are and not try to be something we are not. Kids can see through such a fa├žade in a heartbeat.    

I think that when it comes down to it, one major area where current education reform initiatives fall short are their lack of heart and compassion for the individual student. Standardized testing, accountability measures, teacher evaluation, and data-driven decision making all try and distill teaching and learning down to data points to be analyzed and interpreted. Our children are more and deserve more than that. It’s important to remember, as Ms. Beach points out in her article, it’s all about the kids!

SO as the school year commences I challenge all teachers to find your inner Mr. Keating. Ignore the distractions, focus on your students, engage their passions and light the fire of knowledge within them. We all start strong; it is how we finish that defines us. The school year is a marathon not a sprint. We must support each other, husband our strength and never lose sight of the reason we entered this profession.

As always, thank you for all you do and have a great school year!!

Click on the link below for the Article by Sarah Ruddell Beach