‘O Captain, My Captain’: 3 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned From ‘Dead Poets Society’

John Keating (Robin Williams) sits in front of a classroom of students

I miss Robin Williams to this day. When I pursued a degree in education at the University of the Philippines, “Dead Poets Society” was required viewing material. Two of my professors listed this Robin Williams film on their syllabi, and it’s not hard to see why. From an academic and professional standpoint, the film showed me how to become a teacher who genuinely cares for student development.

I also believe that, on a universal level, the film speaks to every human’s need for a meaningful life. If everyone could just block off a couple of hours this weekend to rewatch this masterpiece, we can all remind ourselves of precious truths in this finite life.

So what exactly did I glean from this flick? I count three insights, to be exact.

Be nothing less than yourself

In “Dead Poets Society, Williams plays the role of John Keating, an English teacher at an all-male prep school. On his first day of teaching, he wastes no time setting himself apart from the other faculty members. How? Refusing to be addressed as “Mr. Keating” or even “Sir,” Keating tells his students to greet him “Oh captain, my captain” (a reference to a Walt Whitman poem).

When I first watched the film, this little scene got me chuckling, but I didn’t think much of it. Fast forward to my second year teaching high school juniors: I realized that I needed a strong opening to my classes to command my students’ attention immediately. 

After thinking long and hard, I realized that Mr. Williams had supplied me with the answer long ago. With a pinch of audacity—after all, I was ripping off a beloved, all-time classic—I told my students to shun “Good morning” and “Good afternoon,” in favor of the greeting “Oh captain, my captain!” 

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Pretty soon, my students were fondly calling me “Captain” instead of Mr. Redoblado.  I realized that this strategy helped me establish a distinct identity: a “cool uncle”-type of mentor who can relate well with teenagers while maintaining an authoritative figure. 

Gradually, I began to incorporate other elements of my personality into my teaching persona, so that I could have more ways to engage the students’ interest. As the Captain, I translated my personal love for hip-hop music into poetry lessons; my fascination for pop culture into enjoyable icebreaker activities at the start of my lessons; and my passion for sports into coaching to help the students finish their course requirements.

Isn’t this what we all strive for in our careers—to maintain a strong sense of self amidst all the tasks and roles that we have to juggle? The unconventional approach of Mr. Keating sends a clear message: One way to genuinely enjoy your line of work is to be yourself as much as you can.

Embrace versatility

Because Keating was so comfortable in his own skin, he effortlessly navigated the many roles inherent to the teaching career. He could have his students bending over in full-belly laughter one moment, and contemplating a deep philosophical insight the next. 

Keating’s versatility opened my eyes to the many hats that an educator has to wear. Early on in my career, I embraced the fact that a teacher can also be an entertainer, preacher, counselor, and parental figure.

Many times in my career, I had to come to terms with the difficulty of juggling multiple roles and challenges all at once. Case in point: As I got further into my teaching career, I was also delegated administrative duties—first as head of the English subject area, then as assistant principal. In addition, I was assigned to teach subjects that I had never handled before (like, say, the highly exciting course called “English for Academic and Professional Purposes”).

The most frustrating part? I am a notorious “tunnel vision” guy, meaning I prefer to devote my entire focus to just one task. As much as possible, I move to another assignment only when I am convinced that I have genuinely completed the task at hand.

Thanks to Keating’s example, I realized that diversity and multitasking are integral to the teaching profession. Like Keating, teachers need to be the total package—Swiss Army knives that can adapt to any physical and psychological environment. Throughout my career, I worked diligently to thrive at each distinct role that I had to fulfill as an educator and administrator.

In retrospect, I realize that I could have begged off all the new ventures and simply stuck to my comfort zone. But teaching—not to mention Mr. Keating—is all about learning to adapt. I suppose that this applies to life in general as well. More often than not, challenges don’t line up single-file; they come at you from many directions. Here’s the thing, though: if challenges can be varied, so can you. 

Prioritize your passion

Speaking of challenges: Did you know that teaching literature can be quite a handful? Sadly, the subject has a long-standing reputation of being a snoozefest. John Keating, though, brought life to his literature class with one simple quality: passion. Convinced that poetry was just as important to society as medicine and engineering, Keating let his love for literature spread like wildfire among his boys.

Because of the example that Keating had set, my own passion for literature was never extinguished in my teaching career. Certainly, there was no way that I was keeping this fire to myself. With every catchy activity that I concocted and every rich discussion that I facilitated, I channeled my blazing love for literary arts in every class I taught.

Of course, you don’t have to be a teacher to cultivate the fire of passion in others. If you have a buddy who’s in a rut, you can help them re-evaluate what they really want to do in life; then, you can assist them in searching for hobbies and professions that are aligned with their interests.

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Look, I don’t want to sugarcoat it: teaching is a particularly difficult profession that could consume your fire in quick order. Why, then, did I choose to be a literature teacher for several years? Because dedication to one’s craft, more often than not, leads to bountiful blessings like financial success and personal satisfaction. Amidst all the challenges, passion, and talent open so many doors to professionals in terms of skill development and progression through the ranks. 

In my case, my tremendous zeal for my job allowed me to occupy higher-paying positions that allowed me to expand my network, enhance my bank of knowledge, and thrive in new experiences. As such, my decision to wholeheartedly embrace teaching brought me the best of both worlds—namely, monetary rewards and creative fulfillment.

After all, that’s what “Dead Poets Society” was: a critically acclaimed story as well as a box office hit. Ultimately, the film succeeded because of the powerful message that it conveyed: the importance of identity, the reality of complexity, and the lifeline of passion. 

That message, of course, was entrusted to the hands of its charming lead actor. So, from one Captain to another…thank you, Robin.

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