Is John Keating from the Dead Poets Society an “Accomplished” teacher?

Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus had it…Mr. John Keating in the Dead Poets Society had it…Mr Escalante from Stand and Deliver had it….Mr. Clark had it in Lean On Me… even Dewey Finn of School of Rock had it.  What do all these fictional teachers in movies have that despite our best effort we fail to measure effectively in our standards based evaluation systems? 

Some might call it — pixie dust — or — magic — it is that special ingredient that creates a seamless connection with students.  Those teachers that can light up a classroom and inspire, motivate, create and lead students down paths not otherwise imaginable. That is what each of the above fictional teachers have and its why we love those movies.  I mean, who would not want to learn English from Mr. John Keating or Music from Mr. Holland or Math from the venerable Mr. Escalante?

That is one of my gripes about the rubrics we have created in the standards based world.  It reads too much like a recipe — as if all a teacher has to do is follow the recipe to make a perfect cake.  For anyone who bakes or cooks — following a recipe does not make one a Master Chef or Master Baker.  It fails to capture this pure energy, passion and power of teachers to truly connect and motivate students to learn. Great teachers all across the world have this “thing” that is hard to describe and measure because it looks different in various settings and really happens organically.  

This entire week I have been watching videos of teachers in preparation to deliver an inservice to Principals.  As presenters, we labor over the specifics in the rubric and often get hung up on one word or one example trying to place a teacher in the categories of Accomplished, Skilled, Developing or Ineffective.

Then in a moment of shear boredom — I googled Dewey Finn from School of Rock and watched a clip of his classroom.  As I watched the miscreant Dewey Finn,  I began to apply the Ohio Teacher Evaluation Rubric……then I could not help myself and watched several scenes from the Dead Poets Society and instead of watching the movie — I was evaluating the teacher Mr. Keating.

You would expect that these amazing movie teachers would be rated at the highest level — “Accomplished” — but sadly — that is not the case.  In fact, Dewey Finn is “Ineffective” in our rubric for all kinds of reasons!  John Keating fairs a bit better — I rated him overall “Skilled”  — Mr. Escalante is “Developing” Mr. Clark is likely “let go”before we even evaluate his performance and finally Mr. Holland is “Skilled.”  Not one of our beloved movie teachers is “Accomplished” in our rubric yet each one them possessed the “thing” we cannot measure.   That connection — that spark — that motivated, inspired kids to learn not only about the subject matter but about themselves and life. These are truly amazing teachers — the kind of teachers we all hope our children experience in school at least once.

The Ohio teacher evaluation rubric does a nice job of focusing teachers on elements of instruction, assessment, data and does a decent job describing what great teachers should be doing to be “Accomplished.”  It does promote discussions regardless of how superficial among the teacher and the principal about instruction.   But the downside of any standards based system it can often mute creativity and experimentation as each teacher tries to fit into a pre-determined box set forth in the rubric.

I could never imagine a world without the works of a William Faulkner, James Joyce or even Junot Diaz yet all of these writers ignore rules of grammar.  They did not standardize their writing to fit a particular mold.  What if Jazz was never created because it did not follow conventional rules of music?  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs…need I say more?

For all the good this improved evaluation system has done to get teachers and principals talking about instruction and improvement it has a dangerous overtone that teaching can be reduced to a recipe to be followed and all teachers should look more uniformed in the delivery of instruction instead of embracing diverse methods exhibited by our beloved fictional teachers.

One of my favorite parts in the Dead Poets Society is the scene with the poetry books when John Keating ask one of his students to read the introduction on how to measure great poetry.  The student reads the introduction from a Dr. Pritchard on how to measure greatness in poems.  He proceeds to explain how poetry can be reduced to bar graphs, using math functions to determine greatness.  Once the student is done reading Mr. Keating calls this “excrement” and has all the students tear those pages out of the book and toss them.  In many ways, that is what we are doing to the entirety of the teaching profession as we attempt to reduce teaching to paint by numbers.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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