What Happened to Mr. Keating?: The Emotional Load of Teaching

I just want to start out of the gate with: Did we watch the same movie? Is my Dead Poets Society the same one you saw? Because I think there are some lessons folks missed.

See, we need to talk because I am confused about the state of teachers — all teachers but with an emphasis on the humanities — and never has the discussion of mental health and personal well-being in academia been more ripe for commentary than during COVID. What I am going to call the “emotional load” of teaching has become part of the teacher’s job, and, for many Gen Xers, Dead Poets Society seems to have been the example of the best possible teacher you could have. Or, more to the point, the best possible teacher you could BE.

The message has been: If you want a new lease on life, you just need a Mr. Keating. If you want to make changes in the world as a teacher, you just need to BE a Mr. Keating. And the first 3/4 of that film are rapturous and life-changing when you see that the analytical framework of the time in which it takes place was stomping out the passionate parts of poetry into little pieces of science*, and Mr. Keating is just having students literally tear that to shreds. Satisfying as hell in 1989.

I’m personally down with the entire first 3/4 of the film. Go Mr. Keating. It’s the part that molded me into an English teacher, not gonna even try to lie.

But the final 1/4 of the film is the consequences of empowering and inspiring in a culture where it’s unacceptable to be anything other than what your guardians choose for you. In the final 1/4 of the film, Neil commits suicide. Viewers invested in the characters feel the sorrow of his unfulfilled potential, and we feel twisted by the fact that a particular corner of American culture is stamping out that spirit and replacing it with…cold ambition based on status and future income.

That’s how I always felt about the film, even as I became an English TA in graduate school, and on to my current peculiar yet satisfying position in academia. Of course, by the time I got a certain distance, Mr. Williams chose to do Good Will Hunting, which teaches the lesson of how we overvalue certain accomplishments and that giving academia the finger isn’t “failure.” That, my friends, is in itself a much-needed message even if you choose to be one of the folx pointing out the problematic culture of the Southey boys — which, any way you slice it, is an accuracy only Southey boys can attest to and I cannot critique.**

Point is: Good Will Hunting came around in 1994 (I think I saw it in 1995 or 1996) and clocked me to say “also, do not lionize the wrong people and community college is not failure.” So, Mr. Williams overall seems to have made wonderful choices to extrapolate out this work that teachers are supposed to do.

But Neil’s suicide doesn’t just destroy his family and his friends — it rips through Mr. Keating like a malevolent spirit. The image of Mr. Keating sitting at that desk just losing it is another message many people seem to have missed, which is: the emotional labor of all of the work that he has done to liberate these young boys comes down to one of them being so inspired that his inability to fulfill the dreams results not only in a debilitating loss but also a heavy weight of *responsibility* for Mr. Keating.

See, the expectations for teachers — the bar of what we are expected to fulfill — involves this representation that requires we carry this emotional load. As an English professor*** there are expectations of what I am going to do for my students. I am eccentric — they find this entertaining and I enjoy that. I am approachable — they find this comforting and also choose me to be the one they want to tell their struggles to.

I’m here for part of this, not going to lie. I’m here for the book recommendations and the empowerment work because it’s not my style to say “find the metaphors and take this test.”

However, there is a line that needs to be drawn, and for every teacher it is going to be generally different, but it seems to be drawn too close to the teacher as a human being. If I choose to do a certain amount of emotional labor, that should be extra — not the bar.

Do not poke me with sticks to do a Mr. Keating for you as if everyone’s empowerment is my responsibility because I chose to teach students to express themselves. Is it more likely they’ll come to me instead of their Physics teacher? Maybe. But is that because they are writing about themselves and that is somehow seen as more personal, or is it that we have proliferated a particular ideal for English teachers and a particular expectation where it’s just “a given” that I am the one to gauge how to empower you juuuuust enough to get you going.

But if you go to dark places like Neil, the consequences for us are not just losing our jobs — which I should point out are incredibly difficult to get in higher education — but also the personal destruction when we have literally failed to save a life or if, to some degree, we missed the signs and therefore it becomes our responsibility.

Many teachers over the last decade have begun to throw their hands up to avoid sitting at that desk crying because we not only invested our time and emotions into a student but now we feel responsible for the damage they’ve done to themselves. A tone of “professionalism” has been cast over teaching in higher education where the balance is now that students cannot come to us because it is dangerous for us both.

Mr. Keating didn’t have a counseling center to send Neil to or any other department or career services, etc etc. We do at my university, but how much of this emotional load has it relieved?

In COVID, teaching has seen an entire new addition to the emotional load not only as we struggle to move to modalities we weren’t trained to do (note: should have been, but weren’t) and that are also trashed all over the Internet because they are not perfect, as if those of us with disabilities, jobs, and other factors that have *always* kept us online don’t see you trashing our only window into academia, our only access.

And so we come to the harder point of this piece I don’t even know is going to be read by anyone: recognize that teachers are not just inspiration porn with problematic additives like “white savior” narratives, recognize that we have an enormous emotional load to carry. You’re upset that Johnny didn’t get an A on his paper and SO ARE WE, only we have 100 Johnnies. The job is not just making sure the content reaches you as a student or your children as a parent, it’s how they are feeling, monitoring their behavior, watching for signs of distress, putting in the time and *emotional investment* in the personal evolution and academic progress of our students.

In COVID, our students at the university level are in more distress than you can see from your house. I am saying university because I cannot speak for k-12 teachers and the constant juggling of their lives our government is doing — that is a conversation we have been trying to have that just gets swatted away. What my students are writing, how they are writing it, the topics and conversation points they are gravitating to……and the fact that some are breaking down under this pressure is something I am seeing personally as students approach me with rather staggering life challenges.

The word from any educational institution is that “they do not expect us to be therapists,” but there is still the dynamic of listening to the student to gauge if it’s something I can throw some feminist theory at or if it’s something I need to refer them to counseling for — and then it’s my job to do the delicate dance of getting them to go without triggering the emotional bombs within them.

The training we received has a message: “You are not expected to be therapists, but here is how you counsel a student into therapy and then, if you can’t get them to go and shit gets dark, report them or call emergency services.”

The trip taken from initial signification of “there is an issue with Neil” to the part where we have to make a series of Difficult Choices where we only go 3/4 into the story because the choices for the last 1/4 of this story are:

  1. Continue talking and talking and sharing to keep them in orbit forever and ever until they happily reach their point of wanting to thrive
  2. Betray Neil to administration and crush his sense of trust — and be considered, and, in my case, *feel* responsible for that destruction of trust
  3. Be Mr. Keating sitting at that desk feeling as though you’ve not just failed the journey, but everyone has decided it is your fault that Neil committed suicide and they take your job whether or not you are helping these other students fantastically.

Mr. Keating maybe should have seen the signs, but the rock comes down hard on him for attempting to liberate.

I have students who would stand on their desks if I was forced out of the university, but that’s where the story ends. We don’t see the, no doubt, lasting effects of his choices, whether or not he was able to seek new employment in his field so he could house and feed himself, if he became colder after saying “thank you, boys” and closing the door. Mr. Keating closes the door and we think: “well, these students on the chairs prove what he did helped these students and has engendered a kind of love and respect from these boys.”

But watch it again. What is the last expression Mr. Keating makes in the film? It is a very complex state of personal destruction, but gratitude and an amount of satisfaction for the students who chose to make sure his efforts weren’t unseen.

But after closing the door, what happened to Mr. Keating?

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*Hi, I see you here poking me like “say structuralism, c’mon, use the big words,” but nope. Not today, academia.

**Plus… the 90s, man. I cannot stress enough how different things were, so the criticisms leveled at the film and how the jokes are inappropriate seem to be missing the point of the contrast between academia and working class folx.

*** Nope, not getting more specific yet.

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Doc Red

Doc Red

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Doc Red has a doctorate in early modern English and early American literature, focusing on historiography and critical theory. But wants to talk about more.