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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Teaching and the movies: The Dead Poets Society

Louise Davidson
Pre-service teacher, University of New England

This paper is one of three articles by pre-service teachers examining the representation of teachers in popular films. The three authors are each completing their first year of the Bachelor of Education (Primary) at the University of New England, Armidale. EDCX100: Passionate Pedagogies, a core unit of the course, contrasts film representations of teachers to the NSW Quality Teaching Model. In the current article, Louise Davidson examines The Dead Poets Society (Silver Screen Partners IV/Touchstone Pictures, 1989).


In many popular teacher films, a romanticised view of teaching can be clearly observed. In films such as Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr Holland’s Opus and To Sir with Love, we witness images of extraordinary teachers who are in one way or another portrayed as some sort of ‘hero’ for their students. However, this popular romantic image of  ‘teacher as saviour’ can ‘create unrealistic and potentially harmful expectations by encouraging teacher fantasy at the expense of reality’ (Robertson, cited in Mitchell & Weber 1999, p181).

In Dead Poets Society the students’ hero is the newly arrived teacher Mr Keating. The film suggests that the students are starved for enlightenment, and through teaching methods introduced by Mr Keating they are able to be enlightened.

In one sense Mr Keating suggests a popular version of the qualities of a good teacher found in current models of teaching. However, one must be aware of the context in which a teaching method is applied. The film is set in a school based on the four principles of Tradition, Honour, Discipline and Excellence. When a ‘different’ method of teaching is introduced through Mr Keating, it is rejected by the school, and seen as a corruption of its principles. In this situation, the knowledge Mr Keating gives his students is dangerous knowledge. Keating inadvertently encourages them to act recklessly and make rash decisions. The school context renders Keating’s teaching methods ineffective and inappropriate, and ultimately leads to a tragic death towards the end of the film.

The tragic twist of fate creates a sudden shift in the narrative construction of Keating as a hero. Previously an indomitable hero, Keating is transformed into a tragic hero. This transformation challenges the simple narrative structures employed in the stereotypical portrayal of teachers. The sudden amalgamation of hero typologies that are usually discrete creates cracks that pre-service teachers can pry open in order to challenge stereotypical characterisations of teachers.

The stereotyped images of teaching portrayed within films have been effective in arousing my own personal memories of inspirational and memorable teachers. When viewed uncritically, these views of teaching have the potential to create unrealistic beliefs within pre-service teachers about what constitutes ‘good’ teaching. If it is not recognised by the viewer that these are only Hollywood images, these fantasies and beliefs have the potential to create disappointment and a sense of failure. However, developing critical skills of film analysis in EDCX100: Passionate Pedagogies has opened up a powerful and creative pathway of professional development.

 

Reference

Mitchell, C & Weber, S 1999, Reinventing Ourselves As Teachers: Beyond Nostalgia, Routledge Falmer, London.

 

KLA

Subject Headings

Mass media study and teaching
Teacher evaluation
Teacher training
Teacher-student relationships
Teaching profession
Teaching and learning
Education philosophy
Arts in education