Student Well-Being Opinion

‘Breaking Bad': A Cautionary Tale for Teachers in the Wake of Walter White

By Marilyn Rhames — January 13, 2014 4 min read
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Guest Blogger: John Choi

Now that many of us are experiencing withdrawals from the end of the hit TV show Breaking Bad, I take pause to reflect on my teaching through the lens of the main character Walter White—mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned hardened drug dealer.

As a high school science teacher, how could I not have been drawn to the likes of Mr. White who struggles to make his passion for science relevant to his students? After his first demo lesson with what appears as copper nitrate and lithium chloride to produce illustrious green and crimson flames, I was hooked.

I had just performed the same demo eliciting genuine “oohs” and “aahs” from even my most indignant pupils. Mr. White, however, finds no such luck as his students are either zoning out or making out. I waffled between empathy and sympathy.

Initially, I closely identified with Mr. White’s plight with student buy-in, but later I think it was the schaudenfreud that kept me watching. That’s a rich German term for the pleasure/relief that one experiences from the misfortune of others. We’ve all been there, right?

How many of us can relate to Mr. White trying to get students to stop falling asleep or chat-flirting in the back of the classroom? Or him driving his very practical Pontiac Aztek, rated one of the ugliest cars of all time by Time magazine?

I can’t tell you how much I related when rolling up to school in my rusted Toyota Camry with a seatbelt that never coils back up and a trunk bulb that only lights up when I close it. My premature mid-life crisis was kindled by Walter’s upgrade to the envy-provoking, sleek Chrysler 300 SRT-8 in Season 5.

I eventually found myself trying to hook my students with my favorite science-related scenes that are age-appropriate. From teaching about the difference between parallel and series circuits and the mechanism behind electromagnetism from Season 5 Episode 1 to coming up with the stoichiometric calculations to estimate the amount of meth (yes, the illegal drug) that could be manufactured from a 55-gallons of methylamine, I kept finding new excuses to feed my Breaking Bad addiction.

Maybe connecting to real-life aspects of the show would pique the interest of the underachieving Jesse Pinkmans in my science classes. (Jesse Pinkman is Mr. White’s former student who drops out of high school and later partners with him in their meth-manufacturing business.)

Whether it was dissolving body parts with hydrofluoric acid or blowing up sketchy offices with mercury fulminate, Mr. White gave me alternative ways to introduce oxidizing agents or exothermic reactions. Despite having to point out small chemistry inaccuracies, the show provided relevancy once every few episodes.

A show about meth production is not required to engage students in chemistry, but isn’t one of the goals of science education making real world connections? I justified.

For five riveting seasons, I benefitted from Mr. White’s misfortune. Not only does he learn he has terminal lung cancer on his 50th birthday, but he confronts the fact that he chose a career in teaching by default, rather than design.

Bitter that his path that began at Cal Tech graduate school did not lead to fame and fortune, Mr. White accepts a $43,000 a year job teaching high school science in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Forlorn by his jaded students, he longs for the glory days when his research contributed to a Nobel Prize in proton radiography (though he resents that, unlike his fellow researchers, he never became rich.)

The teacher “Mr. White” gradually becomes the dark and twisted “Walt.” The passionless, burnt out, and disillusioned educator spirals into the master of murderous manipulation.

But while Breaking Bad is a show of outrageous extremes, Walt’s life serves a cautionary tale to all, especially educators. Why did we get into teaching in the first place? Why are we still teaching, by default or by design? Perhaps we’ve all dreamt of what we could have been outside of teaching, and maybe some of us even envied Walt initially for having the moxie to actually do something about it.

When teaching becomes little more than a paycheck, we may need to reconsider our career choice lest we become miniature Walter Whites. This, of course, is based on the huge assumption that we are privileged enough to switch careers, in the event we need to.

I have spent my whole life scared, frightened of things that could happen, might happen, might not happen, 50-years I spent like that. Finding myself awake at three in the morning. But you know what? Ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. What I came to realize is that fear, that's the worst of it. That's the real enemy. So, get up, get out in the real world and you kick that ******* as hard you can right in the teeth." - Walter White "

Hopefully, getting out in the real world and facing our fears doesn’t require running a meth lab and killing drug dealers, like it did for Walt. For him, it was about finding affirmation by any means necessary. He took pride in his research and knowledge and wanted everyone to know this, whether it was to make the purest form of methamphetamine (by the way, the blue color has nothing to do with purity) or designing the best methodology for X-ray crystallography. Walt definitely had a god-complex, and of course, the Tower of Babel (his meth empire) that he painstakingly built eventually came crashing down.

I love teaching and have made a lifelong commitment to education. Still, I pray that at age 50 I will find the same measure of affirmation, purpose, and vision in my profession.

As we serve on the frontlines of education, may we continue to challenge, excite, and empower our students with our own genuine passion and love for learning. Whatever gets in the way of that endeavor—be it complacency, bureaucracy, or fatigue—may we find the energy to ‘kick those barriers in the teeth’ before choosing to leave the classroom—or worse, actually breaking bad.

JOHN CHOI teaches science at the Latin School of Chicago, where he has taught biology, chemistry, and physics over the past 12 years. Choi has also designed and taught a medicinal chemistry course that explores drug design and the biochemical mechanisms by which legal pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs impact physiological responses. He welcomes any and all discussion about teaching and science.

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