The Wonder Years — “Goodbye” — A Tribute to Teachers

I became a professor at Western Carolina University (near Asheville, NC) in fall, 1989. My wife and two children stayed in Lodi, Wisconsin, to sell the house. During a phone call home, my wife said I should show my college class The Wonder Years episode she and the kids watched that week.  I silently scoffed, thinking, “Professors have more important things to do than show situation comedies.”

The next summer I overheard my children watching a Wonder Years re-run. Within seconds I realized it was the episode my wife thought I should show my students.  Once again, she was right.

The next morning I called the Asheville ABC affiliate to request a videotape of the program. The man told me I had to  request it from producer Ken Topolsky in California.  He gave me the telephone number.

Later that day I dialed, assuming I would have to go through several people to talk with the producer of an Emmy winning show. When the man on the other end picked up, I said, “I want to talk with Ken Topolsky.”

He answered, “This is he.”

I explained who I was and that I wanted a copy of last night’s Wonder Years re-run to show my college students. I said, “It’s the episode that is a tribute to teachers.” He knew which one I meant and agreed to send me a tape.

My foundations of education students now see this episode during the last class of each semester. I tell them, “Just like this course, this episode is about what it means to be a teacher. And that meaning is explained clearly and beautifully in this show.”

A Tribute to Teachers

Here’s why:

The episode ends with a beautiful double irony. The show’s first line is, “Teachers never die,” but at the end Mr. Collins dies.

The second irony explains the first. Kevin’s last words in the episode are, “Good job, Mr. Collins.”  Throughout the show Kevin wanted Mr. Collins’ approval.  But the show ends with Kevin giving his approval to Mr.Collins, who lives in Kevin’s appreciation and understanding.

Kevin’s four words explain what it means to be a teacher.   He thanks Mr. Collins for having enough appreciation for his potential to build a teacher-student relationship, even though Kevin did not fully understand the significance of that relationship until after Mr. Collins died (and lived on in Kevin).

Kevin’s ironic, “Good job, Mr. Collins,” suggests this episode has several levels of meaning. On one level Kevin is saying, “Good job” to Mr. Collins. On a second level the writers and producers are saying “Good job” to their teachers–at least the ones they appreciated and who appreciated them. That is why this episode is a tribute to teachers.

The Allegory

A third level of meaning is in the allegory that portrays the evolution of student-teacher relationships, from kindergarten through high school graduation. Here is how the episode and allegory unfold.

The show opens in math class. Mr. Collins asks students to solve a board problem. Two students give answers, and Collins tells them they are wrong. Kevin answers, and he is led to believe his answer is correct, until Mr. Collins asks, “and the remainder?”

Student confusion like this represents the earliest period of student-teacher relations (kindergarten through Grade 2). In the beginning children wonder:

“Who is this person?”
“Why is he/she asking so many questions?”
“What happens if my answer is wrong?”
“Why can’t I just go home, where I belong?”

The following scenes portray the next stage in these relationships (Grades 3-9), when students start to care about grades and teacher affirmation.

Kevin is on the bus with his friends. He sees that Paul’s exam is an A- with the comment, “Good job, Paul.” Kevin is motivated by this and he starts to earn better math grades, hoping to receive his own “Good job” from Mr. Collins.

In the next scene Kevin shows his father that he received another “C” on a quiz. His father replies, “Nothing to be ashamed of there.”

This scene compares the challenge that occurs in appreciative student-teacher relationships with the coddling that sometimes occurs in child-parent relationships. The grade for which Collins would not give Kevin a “good job,” was the same grade the father didn’t want to cause shame. Nowhere is this contrast portrayed more beautifully.

In the next scene Collins challenges Kevin, just as all good teachers do.  Collins tells Kevin he now understands that Kevin wants:

An opportunity to do your best. Isn’t that why you came to me? You said a C is better than a D, but not as good as an A. I think you can get that A, Mr. Arnold. And I think you want to.

Kevin replies, “I’ll never be an A student.”

To which Collins replies, “That is up to you, Mr. Arnold.” Challenge completed.

Kevin accepts the challenge and agrees to work with Mr. Collins after school. This is the next stage in student-teacher relationships (Grades 10-12). The narrator says Kevin is feeling close to Mr. Collins, even though they only talk math.

A common misunderstanding among students in this stage is portrayed in the next scene, when Kevin discovers Mr. Collins can no longer help him after school. Collins says Kevin has to study on his own because the test is Friday. Kevin feels betrayed, and says, “I thought you were my friend.”

With head held high, Collins corrects him — “Not your friend, Mr. Arnold, your teacher.”

Collins’ point is that the student-teacher relationship is at a higher level than the friend-friend relationship. Again, nowhere is this conveyed more clearly or more beautifully.

On Friday Kevin still feels betrayed, so he mocks the exam by intentionally failing it. Initially, he feels good about his rebellion; but by the end of the weekend he feels ashamed.

Before school on Monday he goes to the teachers’ lounge, wanting to make amends with Mr. Collins. He is met at the door by Vice Principal Diperna, who tells Kevin that Mr. Collins died over the weekend, and that he (Diperna) will be taking Collins’ classes for the rest of the year.

The final scenes portray student-teacher relationships after graduation. Diperna informs Kevin that his test was misplaced on the weekend of Collins’ death. Viewers immediately know the truth as Diperna hands Kevin a blank exam with Kevin’s name at the top. Even in the face of teen rebellion, Mr. Collins was the teacher in the relationship, even from the grave.

We all need second chances during our rebellious teen years. These complex relationships, their possibilities, and their consequences are beautifully portrayed in the image of Collins reaching out to Kevin. Even after teachers die, they stay with us in the sacredness of the teacher-student relationship.

As Kevin re-takes the exam, the narrator explains that Kevin no longer needs Collins for assistance or praise. He can survive and prosper on his own. Kevin “graduated” and the allegory is complete. All that is left is for him to say, “Good job” to Mr. Collins’ ghost–not for anything he may or may not have done, but for being his teacher.

Allegory Summary

K-12 students’ relationships with teachers evolve in the following way:

They experience confusion,
They seek compliments,
They accept challenges,
They feel commitment,
They agree to cooperation,
They experience conflict/betrayal,
They feel contempt,
They seek reconciliation,
They realize competence,
and they offer congratulations.

Of course all of this is more beautifully portrayed in the show.

Please comment and submit.


#1 Ted Duncan on 10.28.10 at 9:30 pm

I love it. True teaching is not on the surface. It lingers and keeps coming up in many different situations.

#2 Casey on 10.29.10 at 12:21 pm

Thanks for commenting, Ted. I appreciate your interest in all of what I am trying to do, and I look forward to meeting with your faculty in November. It is teachers like you that keep me grounded. Make sure you tell me when I get it wrong.

#3 Teressa Hollar-Watson on 11.03.10 at 9:32 pm

So can students “get stuck” in one of these phases? For example, can a high school student still be in the k-2 phase?

#4 Casey on 11.03.10 at 10:38 pm

Arrested Development has been an important concept in my professional life, ever since a high school guidance counselor told me his theory that, when he was working with troubled teenagers, student development was often arrested at the point of trauma or addiction. He said something to the effect that he worked best with these students when he remembered that, a senior who had become addicted as a freshman was at a freshman level of maturity. Is that your question?

#5 Rosemarie Samuels-Robinson on 08.05.11 at 3:04 pm

I love it, love it. It is an insightful and captivating movie. Well, ‘two heads are better than one,’ they say. Whether your eyes are open or close, this movie relates it all… the very true meaning of being a teacher… Excellent work, as usual Dr. Casey.

#6 Kimberly Leonard on 01.16.12 at 7:39 pm

TV has turned into something so ugly and degrading in the past few years. What a tribute to “The Wonder Years” as a meaningful family show. This definitely portrays the aesthetic experiences that Dr. Casey explains. We all have pieces of past teachers inside us driving us to become the best we can. I can still hear my 11th grade French teacher, Mr. Taylor, extending challenges to me that have shaped me into a better person today. Thanks for sharing this movie!

#7 Kelly Schultz on 01.18.12 at 11:55 pm

Mr. Collins was a teacher that modeled hard work and determination. He knew giving Kevin a premature compliment would not push him to towards the student he knew he could be. Kevin saw Mr. Collins not only as his teacher but as his partner. Without Mr. Collins hard work, patience and encouragement Kevin would have never discovered who he could be as a math student and for that Kevin is grateful. This episode challenges me to provide learning opportunities for my students where they too can experience the true feeling of success.
As a huge fan of the Arnold family and owner of The Wonder Years series on DVD, I was excited to watch this episode. I actually sat down and watched it our TV with my fiance (a teacher assistant). What a wonderful experience to watch this and have the ability to pause and talk about it with someone I also respect as an educator. Thank you Dr. Casey

#8 susan on 01.30.12 at 9:35 pm

I just revisited this episode for the second time. I would love to show this to some of my former students who will be graduating this year. I hope that I someday have the chance to do so. As a teacher of high school students as they are preparing to leave to become independent young adults I hope I have impacted at least one of their lives in this way. Thank you for sharing.

#9 J Woo EdD on 02.05.16 at 3:23 pm

Hmm, using this episode from the Wonder Years as a teaching tool is excellent! Special note, the character Mr. Collins was played by Steven Gilborn was a PhD professor of Literature!

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