Are you Principal Joe Clark or Professor John Keating?

Are you Principal Joe Clark or Professor John Keating?

By Denise DeVary
Paralegal Studies
Delaware Technical Community College
Owens Campus

Ah, the ‘80s – arguably the best decade to be a kid.

Not only was the style so fashion forward (okay – maybe not), but there is no mistaking that the best movies of all time came from that wonderful decade.  Films like The Goonies, Karate Kid, Back to the Future, and Gremlins kept us going to the movies every weekend.   Who can forget the “Brat Pack” who dominated the screen with teenage angst.

As a teenager in the late 1980s, these movies were a rite of passage.  Then, there were the compelling stories about special teachers who forever changed the lives of students.  Never in a million years did I ever think that I would learn anything from them at that time, let alone 27 years later.

In Lean on Me, the main character of the movie, Joe Clark, was a principal who had very unorthodox ways in reaching students.  He walked around school with a baseball bat, locked troublemaker students out of school, and did not take any excuse from students.  While his behavior shocked the school and the students, his antics actually helped transform troubled teenagers into students.

That teaching style was rather harsh and borderline abusive, and was much different than Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society.  In that film, Professor Keating challenged his students to “seize the day” and challenge authority by standing on a desk and ripping out pages from a text book.   He taught students to not only read, but to question what they read.  As unorthodox as that teaching style was also, the students learned from Professor Keating in a way that they were never before taught, and intensified their quest for additional knowledge.

How did these movies teach me about becoming an effective instructor? 

I have learned that sometimes you have to be a Principal Joe Clark and a Professor John Keating.   I am not condoning walking the halls of Delaware Tech with a baseball bat to make students fear you, nor am I encouraging anyone to stand on a desk and rip pages from a book.   What I have learned is that a teacher needs to be flexible with their teaching style, and tailor that style to each individual student.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to teaching.  Each individual student has a different way of learning, and the teacher needs to adjust his or her style of teaching to best reach the student.

Some students need a firm touch.  Much like Principal Joe Clark did not take any excuses from his students, some students need to be reminded that they are accountable for their learning just as much as a teacher is accountable for teaching.   Every parenting guide that has ever been written explains that children crave boundaries.  Students are no different.

If an instructor lays out clear expectations of the students for the class and the ramifications for not following them, the student more than likely will adhere to those rules.   If a student does not follow the expectations, then an instructor needs to become Principal Joe Clark and stand firm on the policy.

As teachers, we are not only responsible for teaching the required material, but we are also responsible for preparing students for the real world – a world where “the dog ate my homework” will simply not work.  If this firm touch is done in the right way, students will leave the class not only with a higher sense of responsibility, but also with confidence knowing that they are the one who succeeded in the course.  As Joe Clark said, “Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”

All students respond to creativity and enthusiasm.   Professor John Keating did not lack in that area.   He made class fun for students in a way that piqued their interest and made them want to learn outside of the classroom. An instructor needs to teach in ways that constantly engage students, and makes them want to come to class to learn.

By preparing interactive lessons that the students will participate in, a teacher can help students learn and understand material in a way that does not seem like learning.   Students do not want boring lectures day after day, they want to be involved in the classroom and apply what they have learned.   Students rarely want to read the textbook, but the instructor can use the textbook as a springboard for other discussions.  As Professor Keating said:

I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things a different way.  The world looks very different up here… Just when you think you know something you have to look at it in another way…When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, you must consider what you think.

Teachers need to be adaptable to situations and learn to try new things.   If a teaching method was not successful, the teacher needs to try another one.   Failure can be a good thing in teaching.   By understanding what does not work, a teacher can find what method does work.

The goal of a teacher is not to create the perfect lesson for the teacher, but to create the perfect lesson for the student.  By approaching course material in different ways, and by showing a firm but fun attitude about class, an instructor will be well on the right path to help students be successful in college. Teachers need to always remember that the only reason they are teachers is because there are students who need to be taught.  

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