Taking from Robin Williams

I promised in a Tweet a couple of weeks ago that I would do a new post on this blog as I had taken the summer off to recharge and was thinking that a great way to get back into the spirit of a school year would be to write a new blog post. I was trying to figure out what to write about and thought about reviewing HOPE statements for the year or reflecting back on the school year that was, but then I learned with great sadness last night of the passing of Robin Williams. This really did impact me because I was a huge fan of his work and surprisingly perhaps not so much of his comedy. I cannot deny his genius with improv but his voices and act was getting a bit predictable. In fact, I really liked his more serious roles and found him to be one of the finest actors of the past 25 years and his death has given me a chance to reflect on his career and you forget how many different movies he was in and the wide range of emotions he captured on screen.

I thought I needed to write something about him so decided to take a few of my favourite clips from his movies and try to apply them to education. To help illustrate some of the educational theories I believe in and especially my own role of leadership within education. This is the best way I could come up with to honour the work and legacy of a great actor.

Dead Poets’ Society

I know it seems a bit obvious to use this movie in a blog about education but it is such a powerful one from my past. I loved the tension that exists in this film with the backdrop of an ultra-conservative school, that cannot possibly contain the spirit of Mr. Keating. The lessons he teaches the young men in this film are amazing and timeless but none more so than the idea of resisting CONFORMITY. I could easily apply this to students but I choose instead to apply it to myself and my role. I often find myself questioning my ideas and thinking that when I am most “outside the box” that perhaps I am wrong. I do have moments of pause when someone comes into my office, closes the door, and says that I have to slow down with the new ideas. When I get push back to ideas or initiatives, I cannot help but wonder if it would be easier to just go with the flow. I am not claiming to be some sort of radical or super-creative leader, but I do think that I see things a bit different than the majority.

I feel the temptation to “fall in step” with the crowd in a lot of different settings. I get it at school but also at Principal meetings, at conferences or even in conversations with my colleagues and superiors. I guess (or at least I hope) that all people must feel this way from time to time and I suppose that the change agents, the ones who can really make a difference, are the ones that soldier through. The ones that value their own ideas and are willing to see them through no matter the detractors.

I would say though that it is a fool who only considers their own ideas and does not look to others for advice or sharing. I suppose the key to collaboration is having confidence enough in your ideas to not only express them, but to also allow them to be refined or improved by the ideas of others. Every blade needs a sharpening stone and that is what we as leaders need to seek out while still holding on to our own ideals and ideas.

Good Will Hunting

This is such a powerful movie and the one that Williams won his only Oscar for but is so full of practical truths that it would be hard to avoid in an article like this.

I see this as a message to all educators and teachers in particular. William’s character challenges Damon’s to look beyond what he reads in books and look to experience life. This is such a 21C message for me, especially the line when he says, “I can’t learn anything from you that I couldn’t read in some fucking book.” I think teachers need to keep this in mind when constructing their lessons but perhaps change “book” to “Google Search”. I once heard Will Richardson say, “You should never ask a question on a test that could be answered with a Google Search”.  This is so important for teachers because the incredible pace of technology must change the way people see school. If we continue to see school as a place where people learn facts and then are tested on them, then we are signing up for our own extinction. The internet will do that better very soon, (if not already), as more and more sites are using very complex algorithms and coding to allow a student to tailor their own lessons to meet their personal and individual needs. If we continue to see our job to deliver curriculum then we will, (and should be) out of work very soon.

If on the other hand we see our role to inspire and to allow students to learn and refine skills like Collaboration, Problem Solving, Critical and Creative Thinking, then we will never be matched by a machine. This is what we have to do in education and see the curriculum, (until the ministry finally realizes the change in tide), as a vehicle or a context to that delivery. The end goal should not be the learning of things but the perfection of skills that will allow students to grow, learn and contribute to the world that they will live in. A great movie with  real message for all educators.

Patch Adams

I stumbled on this clip when going through a bunch this afternoon and this one really speaks to me from my history in the classroom. I started my career with the “don’t smile till Christmas” mentality and that was effective for discipline but did not do much for relationships with students and that impacted my ability to understand what they needed to succeed. Then I was teaching at a self directed school where the students chose to come see me for assistance. I had to go out of my way to be welcoming and to off set my natural physical intimidation so that students felt safe to come see me and get the help they needed. What a great lesson to learn: I needed to be nicer to be better. I hear far too often teachers brag about how tough they are and how that equates to success in the classroom. I totally understand the need for classroom management but I wonder if these teachers are measuring their own success in the classroom as opposed to the students.

Think about it, if you have to be a “prick” (in Patch Adams words), so that you get through the curriculum, then is that really the point? I guess it comes down to the old question: Is it a teachers job to teach content, or to teach students? If it is the first then there is something seriously wrong with the system and it must be changed instantly! In my previous role of VP I had to deal almost exclusively with discipline and the teachers that would never send me anyone, were usually the ones that had good relationships with their students. They were not the ones with “the best classes” but the ones that worked hard at getting to know their kids instead of getting through the curriculum. What a great call for us to consider relationships in our classrooms.

Dead Poets’ Society

This is probably one of the more famous clips from the film with the “Carpe Diem” phrase which became iconic after most people had seen it. The message is a common one throughout the history of education but I think it has a particular importance now. With the technology of social media and truly world-wide access and reach, this is a very different time in the course of human history. Students can and should be looking at making their mark on the world from a very early age. Gone are the days of working through high school and university simply preparing to do something important. These years, while prepatory in nature, are ripe with opportunities to contribute and to do extraordinary things. There are plenty of examples of young people that have added greatly to the world, but I think that teachers and administrators need to keep this in mind as they prepare for the year. Look for and support opportunities to make learning experiential and to make it more than just academic in nature. Instead of studying business practices, can we start one? Instead of looking at the water crisis in Africa, can we look for ways to solve it? There are plenty of problems in the world so subject matter is not an issue. How can we help student to seize the day?

In that same vein though, we as educators need to start doing some seizing of our own. I am growing tired of the term 21st Century Learning seeing that we are 14 years into the century. Some of the basic ideas behind this movement still seem so foreign in our schools and even futuristic while the rest of the world has evolved to something much different than we are modelling in our classes. We have to carpe some diem when it comes to education. It almost feels like educators are waiting for some expert to come and change things. This is not going to happen because WE ARE THE EXPERTS! We are the ones that are charged with the task of changing our educational model because we are the ones that will be saddled with the mantle of failure if we don’t. How can we start seizing each and every day as a opportunity for change?


It was great watching some clips from this movie as it was in the mid 80s and to see how young both Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro look was fun. I take this clip very personally because it talks to a struggle that I have on a daily basis. I am the first to admit that I lack a sense of patience when it comes to my job and how I see leadership, but I need to remember the important things that are common to us all. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I see it as truly important but there has to be some priorities and a level of perspective. The first has to be with my home life. I have been pretty good about getting home at a decent hour and have consciously said NO to some things because they meant being away from home but I still have to do a much better job of turning it off when I get home. I had real trouble sleeping this past year and that was because I could not turn off the voice in my head going over things to do at work. I have to develop ways to get a better balance between home and work. I have to consider and enjoy the simple things that help to keep me sane and then focussed.

This goes for work as well. I have to do a better job of stopping to listen to people’s stories or to just connect with the people I work with. I try to push myself at work so that I can wrap things up efficiently and then not have to get home too late, but does that mean that I am not taking the time to listen to people and to get to know them on a different level than just polite chit chat? Something to consider and something that I will certainly look to focus on this year.


So, I know this was a long one but I think it is necessary. If nothing else I think the sudden and all too sad parting of Robin Williams can give us all the opportunity to reflect. If we consider his amazing body of work and then use that to add some context or perspective to our lives, then this event, while so hard to understand and comprehend, perhaps will have some meaning and worth in the long run.

This entry was posted in Instructional Leadership, Just Thinking, Leadership, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Taking from Robin Williams

  1. Melanie says:

    LOVE THIS! Sad when thinking about Robin Williams his talent being gone, but such a good piece to reflect on. This has me thinking even more about what the new challenges are for this year & how to make better what was experimented with last year!
    “I suppose the key to collaboration is having confidence enough in your ideas to not only express them, but to also allow them to be refined or improved by the ideas of others.” I can’t wait to put this into practice in collaboration with my teaching partner this year (well I can wait until the 2nd, but…)

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