I stayed up late Sunday night processing the Breaking Bad finale. I had to watch the pilot episode again to remind myself that the characters I grew to love are still right where I left them.
Monday I passionately performed my reading/think aloud of a beloved essay. Some of my students, bless their hearts, struggled mightily against The Sandman, but far too many lost the battle.
Teachers always hear, “If you make learning fun, then the students will learn more! I always learned the most when my teachers were entertaining.” Of course this is true, but it isn’t always practical. Besides, everyone is different. When I was in high school, if the teacher announced, “We’re going to play a game!” I would groan inwardly while my peers cheered. Flip that script when our teacher announced a writing assignment.
Ultimately, whether it’s fun or not, my job description requires I show them how to write in different rhetorical modes for a variety of purposes and audiences. They have to become better readers to be writers. So far, I have not heard of another way to improve reading than to read. Have you? Because if you know one, my students are desperate for it. I just gave a homework assignment: read 10 pages of a play. That’s like 15-20 minutes of reading. 90% of them failed the reading quiz the next day. In one class period, literally not one student did the reading assignment.
We had been reading Act I in class, and I thought it was going very well. When the bell rang, I pointed to the board and told them to finish the rest of the Act for homework. They didn’t.
When confronted with dismal quiz scores they giggled about it. Very few seemed to mind. Sometimes I think our school system gives them too many safety nets. There’s summer school, computer-based learning, “continuation” school. Next year, they can take the class again if it fits in their schedules. Any option out there where they can rationalize doing nothing right now? They pick that.
As much as I try to convince them that there’s no time like the present and they need to put in the work now, I don’t get buy-in. The other teachers of the same subject and students report similar experiences.
A few years ago, it hit me why my students seem to take my advice with a grain of salt. To them, I am a failure. What could be a more pathetic career than a teacher? Some of them believe that they go off and have lives while I and my ilk stay in high school forever.
How did Walter White of Breaking Bad become a bad ass? Being a chemistry teacher? Oh, hell no!
Millions of people and I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad. The end of the series will no doubt inspire viewers to go back to the pilot episode as I did to remind ourselves where it all started.
“Chemistry is about… transformation,” Walter White announces to a high school chemistry class. Noticing a boy out of his seat macking on a girl, he calls the kid out. Reminds him of the seating chart. The student drags his chair noisily across the room with an attitude of utter disdain. Later, when Mr. White is working at his second job washing cars, he has to endure the snide cruelty of the same bully as he is transformed into that teenager’s servant. Undoubtedly, that young man did not work for the money to pay for that car (channeling John Bender), but he still lords his privilege over the teacher who earlier exercised power over him. Chad photographed him with the likely intent of extending the man’s degradation arena to include Facebook and Instagram.
And what was it that Mr. White did to enrage this boy? What horrible sin did he commit? Mr. White tried to teach him something. Tried to come between him and ignorance. Refused to tolerate Chad’s rude disruption of his lesson. The teacher enforced his class policy, which exists so that every student can have a learning experience. Did Chad appreciate it? Did he try his hardest? Did he thank his teacher? No. He mocked his teacher. He broke his teacher’s spirit.
So, (spoilers coming) did you shed tears when Hank died? When Jesse was tortured and enslaved? When Walt killed Mike? Was your heart broken by the estrangement of Walt and Jessie?
Blame Chad. Blame fucking Chad.
Watched the finale and–yes–I did shed some tears. I had come to love those characters and the two episodes before the last one caused me lost sleep. Two Monday mornings in a row I drove to work already exhausted.
But the thing about teaching?? Yes. Too many safety nets. Slowly, slowly, slowly the responsibility for a student’s success (formerly shared between parent, teacher AND student) is now completely ours. No one blames the parents for not staying on top of their own kid. There is no social stigma for letting your kid pretend to be sick and stay home. For not calling the school for make up work when they ARE sick. For acting like a complete asshole in class and then blaming it on their unmedicated ADHD or whatever the hell… For racking of eleventy-two zeros and then expecting that you will give them until the last day of the six weeks to make them all up which the folks in the office (and even the district) think you should let them do anyway. For never making any contact with the teacher until the eleventh hour when they throw a major fit about failing grades and a wildly improbably, crisis-deflecting story the kid makes up about you which the parent totally swallows before storming up to the school all ready to tear you in half and then afterwards when your data proves otherwise they sort of shrug without apologizing and then ask when you will begin tutoring their child for free.
You can’t make them do homework because parents don’t want to be bothered with it and “downtown” knows they can’t control shitty parents and the shitty parents won’t control their own kids.
Go ahead! Make a syllabus. Create your classroom rules and consequences. Now try enforcing them. Know what my principal told one of the teachers in my building when she told him that kids were failing because they weren’t turning in work? He said, “Responsibility isn’t one of the student expectations. Reading is. Math is.” In other words? Set a due date for an assignment, but give every kid five weeks to turn them in. No zeros allowed.
Once, in a professional development seminar, one of the reading specialists told us that it did not matter if kids were absent too much. Or if their parents never helped with homework or read to them or made sure they got sleep. It did not matter what was happening at home. No matter how far behind a kid was, if they stayed behind? It was OUR fault. Period. No blaming the parents. They would not hear it.
This is where we are. Everyone skates home on a free pass…except for us. We are expected to raise our own kids and also someone else’s. Everyone else’s, to be precise. Sorry for going off. I hear you, sister. Can’t wait to find out how I’ll be asked to accommodate my Pre-AP kids when their major project comes due. Stay tuned.
Friday I reminded one of my lowest performing classes that next week is the last day of first quarter. That we’re halfway through the semester, so it’s time to turn their attitudes around. All they got out of it was that the end of the quarter is always a minimum day.
Me: “You guys, it’s the end of the quarter. It’s time to get serious!”
Them: “YESSSSSSS! Minimum day! Whooooo!”
I feel for you, Mrs. Odie. I’m not a teacher, I was an English major (and fellow Breaking Bad enthusiast!) that strictly stipulated I was NEVER going to be a teacher. Not because I didn’t like teachers, but because my mom was a high school teacher. I saw how hard she worked and how incredibly thankless her job was. I mean, I’m glad she didn’t turn to meth cooking, but I know some of her students got to her.
Jeez, I’m depressed. I kind of figured I was a failure as a mother, but now I know it for sure. I’m kidding, of course, but wow.