The Welcome Back Kotter School of Limit Setting

On the morning of September 10, 1975, as my fellow classmates and I streamed in to Iroquois Middle School for another enthralling day of 6th grade, we found ourselves enthusiastically comparing our favorite moments from a sitcom that had premiered the evening before. At least 12 hours after we had all feasted our eyes and ears on it for the first time, Welcome Back Kotter still had all of us laughing uproariously.

For those unfamiliar with Welcome Back Kotter, the show’s central character was named Gabe Kotter and he was portrayed by Gabe Kaplan. Mr. Kotter was a young teacher who was assigned to teach a high school class comprised of a group of what passed in the 70’s for TV juvenile delinquents. The story went that Mr. Kotter had attended the same high school and had been a student in the same notoriously unmanageable class. The show was noteworthy for being the launchpad (along with the made for TV movie The Boy in The Plastic Bubble) for John Travolta’s career. The show ran for 4 seasons and then went away.


Unlike other sitcoms from the same era like M*A*S*H*, All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi and the like, Welcome Back Kotter reruns did not appear widely in syndication during the ensuing years and I always felt that a great injustice had been committed. I felt that way until a few years ago when, during an evening of intense channel surfing, I happened upon a rerun of the show. Unlike some other shows from that era, it has not aged well. The dialogue is forced. The characters are one-dimensional and predictable – each had their own tag line that was repeated weekly to the accompaniment of howls of canned laughter from the laugh tracks. For those of us who felt certain that it was the funniest thing to ever grace the airwaves, I can sit here today and write this with confidence – we were wrong.

Having said that, the show was not completely without merit. In fact, I have come to draw on the interactions between the students (The Sweathogs) and Mr. Kotter on one hand and the Dean, Mr. Woodman, on the other hand, as a reference point in my dealings with the kids I work with. Mr. Woodman is truly old school. He is a rigid authoritarian who expects teachers to speak and students to listen. While he presents clear expectations and contingencies to the students and certainly could be said to present a structured approach, the students respond to him with scorn and disdain. In describing Mr. Woodman to The Sweathogs, Mr. Kotter refers to him as ”the kind of guy who drinks prune juice because he likes it.” The students see him as being a part of the problem and as someone whose outlook is completely out of touch and irrelevant to them.

Mr. Kotter’s character takes on a more flexible and personal approach to limit-setting and interaction with his students. He recognizes and communicates the fact that there are rules to be followed and consequences based on a student’s ability/willingness to follow those rules. On the other hand, he also demonstrates a sense of empathy with his students in his willingness to admit that some rules are more important than others and that he shares their view that some of the rules are, in fact, dumb. This “Bend but don’t break” approach to interaction is nicely demonstrated during the pilot episode in which Mr. Kotter and John Travolta’s character, Vinny Barbarino exchange ideas on the proper way to insult your peers. For every “Up your nose with a rubber hose” that Barbarino can offer, Mr. Kotter retorts with zingers like “You had an idea once but it died of loneliness,” and “I hear your sister’s rotten to the core (corps) but wonderful to the infantry.” Kotter cleverly turns this volley of wordplay into a cultural anthropology lesson.  (Thanks to The  Anatomy of a Pilot Blog for the specifics on the dialogue.

Mr. Woodman’s style neglects the fact that there are no better detectors of BS than kids and, to an even greater extent, adolescents. It’s unrealistic to expect students, particularly those one could refer to as being “oppositional,” (one of my favorite bugaboos – more on that in a future post),  to trust that a rigid authoritarian such as Mr. Woodman actually has their best interests at heart. In the short run, he may obtain more concrete compliance with rules but in the long run, he will find that his charges have tuned him out, lost interest in any subjects he has sought to teach, and, in many cases, have begun to actively sabotage his work. Ultimately, Mr. Woodman’s biggest mistake is relying on the use of shame as his “go to” disciplinary technique. Erik Erikson, the noted developmental psychologist describes shame and its use as a limit-setting technique in his classic book Childhood and Society (1950): “Shame supposes that one is completely exposed and conscious of being looked at: in one word, self-conscious. One is visible and not ready to be visible; which is why we dream of shame as a situation in which we are stared at in a condition of incomplete dress, in night attire, ‘with one’s pants down.’…Too much shaming does not lead to genuine propriety but to a seret determination to try to get away with things unseen – if indeed it does not result in defiant shamelessness.”

I’d like to think that this blog entry represents the first instance in  recorded history in which Erik Erikson has been quoted in the same piece as Gabe Kotter. I have not verified this and if someone would like to prove me wrong, I’m open to the evidence. But I digress.

Mr. Kotter found that in many cases he had to take a step backwards to wind up moving 2 steps forward. His students did not opt to stop giving him grief (the theme song to the show even says “We tease him a lot ’cause we’ve got him on the spot”) but Mr. Kotter’s character does well in recognizing the difference between good natured teasing and sarcasm on one hand, and behavior that is overtly disrespectful and dangerous on the other. In turn, his students respond to him with an underlying sense of respect and a willingness to engage with his agenda.

I realize that Mr. Kotter’s classroom is a fictional place and that the real reason his students responded to him as they did is because the script was written that way. While the middle aged me sees far less humor in those interactions between Mr. Kotter and The Sweathogs than the adolescent me did, there is an element of truth in the nature of those interactions. I think Arnold Horshack, a Sweathog portrayed by the late, great Ron Palillo, would have said “Very impressive, Mr. Kotter.”

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5 Responses to The Welcome Back Kotter School of Limit Setting

  1. Linda Daley says:

    Great post Bruce! I learned from this post. I watched the show back in the olden days!

  2. bsabian says:

    Reblogged this on Academy MetroWest's Blog and commented:

    In memory of Marcia Strassman, Gabe Kotter’s long suffering wife Julie on the 1970’s sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, I’m reposting an entry I wrote two years ago. Strassman passed away last Friday. R.I.P.

  3. Ariane says:

    Hi Bruce!

    I am NOTORIOUSLY anti-social media, but I’m glad I gave in and joined Linkedin JUST for this article – LOVED IT. I still, in my perpetual adolescence, think the show is brilliantly stupidly funny. I always loved the little scenes at the end where it is CLEAR that Marcia Strassman had not rehearsed with Gabe and heard the jokes before shooting, so her reactions are 100% genuine and it always makes me feel warm and happy to watch (no matter how silly Gabe’s multitudinous “uncle” jokes were).

    Thanks for a nice start to my day!

    • bsabian says:

      Thanks Ariane. I’m glad you’ve overcome your aversion to some social media – at least insofar as it led you to my blog. I post all my entries on LinkedIn and usually write a new one every 3 weeks or so.

      Personally, I still like the uncle jokes as well.

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