Learning Lessons from ‘Breaking Bad’

I know that I am part of a world-wide club of people who have fallen in love with the television show ‘Breaking Bad’ over the past few years and who are currently mourning its loss with the final episode broadcast both in the UK and US this week. For those who have not been following it, firstly, what are you waiting for? Join the club and get stuck in, but in the meantime let me at least introduce you to its story. Walter White, a high school Chemistry teacher discovers that he has cancer and his worries, over funding the high medical bills and what will happen to his family after he has gone, lead him into the murky world of producing high quality Crystal Meth. When I first realised just how good this series was, I rushed to a Chemistry teacher and told him to start watching, but are there some lessons for teachers and education in general.

Firstly, do not underestimate teachers. In these heady political days of examining and analysing just what teachers are achieving, it is refreshing to see that it is the exquisite subject knowledge of Walter White that makes the entire ‘Breaking Bad’ epic possible. Sure, he had started in industry, but walked away from that and ended up in the classroom. Perhaps it could also be argued that his expertise was totally underestimated; no one realised just how good Walter was. We work in schools where many teachers have extraordinary specialist knowledge, pet areas that they are passionate about. Sometimes if they are lucky that knowledge coincides with an examination specification or a curriculum model which allows them to indulge their joy with their class for a lesson or two. I have been lucky enough to work with teachers who were passionate on specialist topics as diverse as the origins of Quakerism, Ball Lightening, writing their own novel, Elizabethan history, Acoustics and Byzantine texts. Walter was good, really good at subject. So good he was able to produce Meth of 96% quality, beating everything else on the market. Of course, I am not suggesting that we should use our amazing knowledge for evil, but in a time when the phrase “those who can do, those who can’t, teach” is still floating around and professionalism is being challenged in headlines, it is worth celebrating how hard many teachers have worked in their subject areas. This is a real challenge for those in school leadership. Are there ways to celebrate your staff’s knowledge and allow them to shine. There is joy in celebrating knowledge and Walter came alive with his chance to be clever. Perhaps a Mastermind for staff would allow those specialist subjects to come to the fore and wow everyone. It is also about remembering our original motivations that make our subject our passion. Clearly if one of those subjects is new recipes for manufacturing blue meth then it might be worth asking a few questions.

The second point I think worth learning from ‘Breaking Bad’ is never underestimate your students. The other focal point of this amazing series is Jesse Pinkman, an ex-pupil of Walter’s who ends up being taught once again, this time how to cook Meth. Jesse’s path goes through every twist and turn imaginable, heartbreaking at times and exhausting at others. An addict himself, but he listens and learns. Throughout most characters, particularly Walter, appear to underestimate his intellectual abilities, often calling him stupid. However, his expertise ends up being a threat, putting himself in jeopardy. He may not match the skills of Mr White, but his 92% cooking ability is a rarity. Jesse is the classic underachiever and nobody, including his parents, expected anything of him and yet he learns. Jesse becomes our tragic hero, through his suffering we are willing him on to find happiness. Nobody should be written off as a lost cause. I truly believe that one of the wonderful aspects of teaching is the opportunity for a fresh start with every new academic year. Those teachers that hold grudges or hang on to ‘year-group’ reputations stifle the opportunities for everyone to make good. It also reminds me of countless times when the regular naughty student was sent for a telling off and you are left wanting the best for them.

This takes us to the final thing to learn from ‘Breaking Bad’ for the moment. It is that there is always room for redemption. It is the most joyous thing to encounter in good writing. As you work your way through a book or in this case through a television series you get to a point where you find yourself willing the characters to find redemption. It is the most wonderful concept. Naturally I am now speaking with my theological bias and I would happily dive back into some Systematic Theology at this point. Redemption is when someone is granted forgiveness or are absolved of past transgressions. The transgressions come one after another, with increasing frequency in ‘Breaking Bad’ and yet it is so beautifully written that our sympathies are bounced around like an RV driving across a desert track. ‘Breaking Bad’ caused its viewers to visit, revisit and review their ethical values. Critics fluctuated between judgements of Walter as pure evil to Walter the hero, or anti-hero. Forgiveness comes after an acknowledgement and awareness of wrong doing. After the confession comes absolution. Teachers know what it is to be pushed and patience tried by repeat offenders. We know what it is to be tested to our limits, but even after the multiple horrors of ‘Breaking Bad’ there is still the hope of redemption. It is also one of the many wonderful aspects of working in education. We deal in redemption, not least because it is a time when mistakes are made and hopefully lessons are learnt. Teachers are fortunate witnesses to redemption in dealings with students.

Perhaps it’s too hopeful a view and there are many who will write wanting all kinds of endings for ‘Breaking Bad’ and the reality is, for those that loved it and had invested time and energy into it it was always going to be hard to say farewell. This is strangely true for teachers leaving a school. There is never a good time to leave, you always leave some people – teachers, pupils, parents – unhappy, wanting an alternative ending. So long ‘Breaking Bad’, we don’t want you to go, but we learnt so much from you, so thank you and goodbye.

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