Why John Keating Is a Bad Example to Teachers


From the Tongue-in-Cheek and Kicking Fictional Holy Cows Departments:

Mr John Keating, the fictional super-teacher of the movie Dead Poet’s Society is an inspiration to many. I’m sure that the character played by Robin Williams served as the driving impetus for many to join the profession in the first place. But was he really all that?

Consider this:

  • You never see Mr Keating doing any lesson preparation. Great teachers are constantly finding new resources, refining lessons and putting together interesting activities. Flying by the seat of your pants might be OK in the movies, but it doesn’t wash in real life.

  • There are practically no assessments whatsoever in Mr Keating’s class. A quick ‘write me a poem’ is poor assessment practice. How on earth does he gauge student performance and put together meaningful remediation strategies if he has no idea what his students are capable of?


  • Dead Poet’s Society is essentially about rebellion against conformity and finding your own voice. As such, the movie is an attack against the stereotypical strictness and traditionalism of a boys only school. Many of these schools actually do an immense amount of good – turning young ruffians into multi-talented, confident young men.
  • He plays favourites. It’s clear that the members of the Dead Poet’s Society receive special attention in his class, while those who clearly need his expertise are practically ignored altogether.


  • Small classes are easy. I’d like to see what John does faced with a class of 35 or more.
  • The man hardly bothers with the syllabus at all. I’m not saying one should only teach to the syllabus, or that a great teacher shouldn’t customise the curriculum, but throwing it out altogether is irresponsible and foolhardy.
  • Keating only has one parent conference – which is basically a shouting match outside the theater. And that goes very, very badly. Good teachers have close contact with parents, and are able to allay their fears and suspicions.


  • The man teases some of the boys about their ‘unusual’ names. This is a very subtle form of bullying and a very bad example to teachers.
  • John Keating does not engage in any kind of professional development. This smacks of misplaced arrogance and small-mindedness. There is always something you can learn to enhance your skills.
  • His learning space is rigid and traditional. Desks are arranged in rigid rows, and there are no stimulating models, posters or displays in his classroom, apart from the photograph of Walt Whitman. He might be at a rigidly traditional school, but surely if he can stand on the desks, he can display some student work.


  • Mr K. insists on being the sage on the stage. His students are seldom given the freedom to explore and learn independently without him being at the reins.
  • You never see Mr Keating marking. Which means that either he doesn’t, or that he does it so quickly that he does a poor job of it.
  • He does not encourage inter-departmental collaboration. Perhaps if he offered support and the benefit of some of his teaching ideas, he would begin to spread his influence more constructively.


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  • Keating abuses school property. Desks are not meant to be stood on. Not all schools can afford to replace these when they break. And don’t even get me started on the irreversible damage he does to school textbooks.
  • Mr Keating has limited staying power. It’s okay to inspire one class in one school year. But what about your other classes? What about next year?


  • Mental disease is a very serious thing. Before exposing young impressionable minds to a psyche in need of help, one should seek professional help.


But despite all of this nonsense, Keating still represents the kind of teacher all of us want to be. Seriously: he really is a great teacher. In case you don’t remember why, take a look at these quotes from the movie…

There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.

Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.

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?

They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? ‘Carpe’… hear it? ‘Carpe. Carpe diem’: seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

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

I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.

Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!

This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.



About Sean Hampton-Cole

Fascinated by thinking & why it goes wrong➫ (Un)teacher ➫iPadologist ➫Humanist ➫Stirrer ➫Edupunk ➫Synthesist ➫Introvert ➫Blogger ➫Null Hypothesist.
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