Love or the Lack of It
Two Visions of Teaching from Dead Poets Society and Mr. Rogers
I often hear it said that “teaching is an apprenticeship profession,” meaning that teachers, like doctors and tradespeople, can only master their profession by diving in and getting their hands dirty under the watchful eye of a mentor. I would like to add a caveat to this conventional wisdom: a teacher’s mentors doesn’t always have to be someone they know. In fact, they don’t even need to be real.
As a part of our quest to “figure out teaching as a way of life,” I have actively sought the mentorship of men and women whom I do not know and who may have never even existed. In this process, two figures have come up again and again: PBS’s Mister Rogers and Dead Poets Society’s Mr. Keating (immortalized by Robin Williams). Both men seem to have captured our culture’s attention, but, surprisingly to me, they embody two drastically different visions of what a teacher should be and do.
For my money, the Dead Poets Society approach is an idealized Hollywood concoction that would be dangerous to enact in a classroom with actual living children, and yet seems to be the most popular style among my fellow newbies. Mr. Roger’s vision of teaching, on the other hand, will, I think, lead us to far greater heights, yet is hard to find among teachers, be they rookies or veterans. This may be because the “Mr. Rogers” way takes far greater perseverance and skill to enact than its alternative.
Allow me to quickly lay out the two opposing visions as I see them and then state my case for Mr. Rogers.
Vision # 1
Dead Poets Society
Dead Poets Society is probably the most popular depiction of teaching and learning in any American film ever. It has been voted by critics as the greatest “school film” ever made. I didn’t see the film until recently, so for two years, every time I told this to a fellow educator, the reaction was predictable: GASP! “You haven’t seen it?! Murph! You GOTTA watch it. It’ll change your life.”
It is therefore no surprise that Keating’s style of teaching is so wildly popular among young teachers; many of us have been told, implicitly or outright, that this is the way a great teacher goes about his business. As a matter of fact, without knowing it, I have been attempting to imitate Keating’s iconoclastic, bombastic style since I started in this profession, in hopes that becoming the contrarian renegade would help me appeal more strongly to kids and run a transformative classroom. I have jumped on desks. I have cursed in the classroom for dramatic effect.
And I am not alone.
Our, Paul’s and my, generation of teachers is chock full of Keatings. They’re everywhere—you may have even worked with some of them. They’re typically young, wide-eyed, socially conscious, energetic teachers bursting forth from alt-cert and Ivy League educational programs across the States with a vision of captivating young people with the convictions they share about injustice, politics, and the deeply flawed system of American education. They can rattle off talking points about the achievement gap with the same flat familiarity most people use when saying their date of birth. They’ve read more from bell hooks than from Shakespeare. They swap dank memes with their seventh graders and curse freely in the halls.
The face of one colleague from my Teach For America cohort is fresh in my mind. When I asked him why he chose to become a teacher, a warm smile spread slowly across his face, like he was remembering the smell of his grandmother’s kitchen. “I want to make young radicals,” he said. I never followed up with him to find out if he succeeded. But, for what it’s worth, this same (white) teacher was known to sometimes raise the black power fist to his students as some kind of shibboleth whose meaning between them is unbeknownst to me.
Here’s the thing: as appealing as it is, and as commonly as it has been adopted by young teachers, I believe the Mr. Keating approach is dangerous for our students, first because it does not take childhood seriously, and second because it runs on an undercurrent of selfishness.
Before I explain why, let me tell you why I love Mr. Rogers.
By far the best movie I’ve seen this year is Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the new documentary about the professional life of Mr. Rogers. This movie details the trajectory of Rogers’ career, and pays special attention to his philosophies about teaching and entertaining kids. When watching this movie (or reading some of the many articles about Rogers’ life and work) the most consistently striking thing about him is how well he seems to have understood human nature, especially the nature of children. There are countless stories, the documentary highlights a few, of Rogers interacting with someone and saying just the right thing or taking just the right action to cut to the heart of the person and convey to them love, dignity, and worth. It was almost frustrating to watch how deftly and consistently he did this. I kept asking myself, how did he do that? How does he KNOW??
The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that Mr. Rogers took children, and childhood, seriously. He didn’t patronize kids, nor did he idolize them. Instead, it is clear that he genuinely understood the inner emotional lives of a children, and believed that engaging with these inner lives was the key to sound teaching. As he explained in a speech: “We don’t have to bop someone over the head to create drama. We deal with such things as getting a haircut…I think it’s much more dramatic to watch two men work out their feelings of anger than to show something of gunfire.”
Even more powerful than Mr. Rogers’ steadfastness is his selflessness. A famous 1998 profile in Esquire tells the story of Rogers visiting a young man with cerebral palsy who, having suffered a history of abuse, frequently hit himself to assuage his self-hatred and his shame. When Rogers came to visit, he made a request that took the boy by surprise: he asked the boy to pray for him. Having always been the recipient of prayers and never their author, always the helped and never the helper, the boy was struck, and agreed to do his best. As Tom Junod tells us:
“When Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart—for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself—and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. ‘Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn't ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.’”
Damn. This other-centrism—this genuine belief that someone in the position this teenage boy was in could be closer to God than Mr. Rogers believed himself to be—should be the bedrock of every young teacher’s practice. Before this interaction, this young man had wanted to kill himself; afterward, he thought that “if Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.”
Indeed, “other-centrism” is just a convoluted way to name Mr. Rogers’ real power: Love. His daily invitation to children everywhere to be his and others’ neighbors was an invitation to love. “Love,” he once said, “is at the root of everything; all learning, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.”
Choosing a Path Forward
We teachers work in a world of Keatings, but I wish we worked in a world of Rogers. Remember that, liberating as Keating’s wild abandon may seem to us, its results were disastrous for his students. His students love Mr. Keating, but end up self-absorbed, angry, or dead. It’s tragic. These disasters are not the result of some pedagogical mishaps, they are a failure of Keating to take his role as a shepherd of young men seriously.
In fact, the entire payoff of Keating’s vision of teaching is that his remaining students love him. They stand on their desks and say, “O Captain! My Captain!” Compare this to Mr. Rogers, whose work as a teacher hinged not on whether his work would earn him the love of his students, but whether it would make his students feel loved and become capable of loving others.
You have to wonder, if Keating had not been reckless, had adopted some of Rogers’s caution and precision, would things have turned out the same way for him? If he had chosen to orient himself in Love toward his students more than in pursuit of their praises, would he have reconsidered his actions? And then you have to ask, if we as teachers embrace the allure of Keating’s vision of teaching in our own classrooms, can we be sure that similar disaster won’t befall our students? I don’t think we can.
So when looking to these men for a mentor, I will chose to plant my feet on the path of Mr. Rogers, and I would urge every young teacher to consider joining me. It is a lot harder, but it is the only way forward. Mr. Keating was reckless and foolhardy; Mr. Rogers was deliberate and skilled. Mr. Keating drew people toward himself; Mr. Rogers gave of himself to others. Mr. Keating motivated children with a hatred of evil; Mr. Rogers motivated them with a love of the good. Mr. Keating took himself seriously; Mr. Rogers took children seriously. I will try to adopt Mr. Rogers’s vision as my own. I will choose Love, not the lack of it.