Breaking Bad and Making Good

Breaking Bad: Box Cutter (#4.1)” (2011)

Jesse Pinkman: At least we all understand each other now.
Walter White: What do you mean?
Jesse Pinkman: I mean, him and us, we get it.
[Makes cutting motion on his neck]
Jesse Pinkman: We’re all on the same page.
Walter White: And what page is that?
Jesse Pinkman: The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

We all know about teacher burnout—all the ways in which this profession can slowly squeeze the life out of you. I never thought that’d be me, but I had gone from being someone filled with excitement, tenacity and purpose to wishing the teacher in me were dead.

From September to December, I found myself constantly coming up against the same problem I always faced, only much more intensely—to let go of my ESL training and principles, and teach in ways I believed to be unfair—but the familiar rush of indignation and resistance was not there this time. Those months found me just trying to keep up. I was exhausted and intellectually stagnant.

So, I started to feel like maybe, actually, the problem was me; I must be inadequate as a classroom teacher, unable to teach in this way, unable to get all of my students to pass the state tests. Like most teachers I know, I had been living a double life, doing what I thought was right “when the door is closed” and yet allowing the same frustrating expectations to stand for me, my students, and all other teachers (think: “I am not going to teach to the test,” but still worrying how your kids will do and eventually giving into the pressure. Or think: “my students moved 18 levels in reading” but still have to give a fail grade on report cards because the system only has one definition of success which locks out ELLs).

To live that double life, you often have to break some big “rules” you feel are damaging to your students.

My students were ELLs in a curriculum that wasn’t just designed for native speakers, it was designed in ways that undermined their needs and strengths. There was no way I would meet their cognitive and intellectual or academic needs by remaining within the confines of the Teachers College Readers and Writers curriculum. You might think that’d be obvious, but I had friends at other schools who were denied tenure because they were being held accountable for teaching in ways that could not benefit their students. So, it meant breaking rules. It meant doing my best to meet expectations and still meet my students’ needs. But that only took me so far until those outside pressures became just too great. I just couldn’t keep up with the dichotomy anymore.

Then, around December, I started to realize I was not alone in how I was feeling and, in fact, teachers I greatly admire in different schools around the city (and country) were feeling this exact same overwhelming self-doubt and undermining of their efforts and talents. Some call it lack of appreciation, or lack of experience from their administrators, while others call it systemic injustice.

So I started to refocus the question I saw in front of me: if it isn’t just me, is it the whole profession? If my dream of teaching differently was just a dream, then what?

I felt I had three choices: to leave the profession entirely; to accept it and continue wishing I was “dead”; or find a way to change the situation. I started with the latter—which I knew meant major upheavals and transformation of everything I was doing, but how? So, first, I contacted a friend who had inspired me to be a teacher to see if maybe, just maybe, public school education as a whole was not lost.

My friend told me about this and genre practice, and I devoured the book, Unison Reading by Cynthia McCallister. This book helped me to see the true source of my outrage; NOT me and NOT my administration, but the philosophies and approach embedded within curriculums like the Teachers College Readers and Writers Project itself. I could have continued running myself into the ground trying to adapt this to meet the needs of my students or find a curriculum that actually had a better chance of benefitting them.

Then I had the opportunity to meet and see other teachers and principals who were educating students in this new way, and I knew I had found a way to save the teacher in me. My outrage quickly returned (and clearly resonated with others).

Unfortunately, I had to change schools to be able to teach in this new way, but I’m excited. Now, the questions that guide my teaching have shifted from, “how am I going to adapt every part of this curriculum so I can support the needs and strengths of my students?” to, “how will my students’ interests, needs, strengths, and intentions shape the curriculum and build their independence?”. Now I’m thinking, “How can an ELL, beginner or advanced, develop intentions in grappling with big concepts without my constant scaffolding? What needs to be in place so my students can do academic work and learn to confront and identify their own confusions and needs without waiting for someone to tell them how, or always waiting for me to teach them? How will their purpose drive their writing, or their understandings drive their math work, rather than what genre or math concept I have pre-selected?”

The former is driven by a pre-fab curriculum designed by people who don’t know my students, the latter by my students and state standards.

This new approach may not have an answer for everything, but it isn’t a “don’t think, just do” approach, either. To teach this way, you really have to grapple with the underlying philosophies, reading and discussing what this could look like in the classroom, while emphasizing that mistakes will happen, it will be messy and that’s ok because we will learn as we do this. This means that while there may be teachers who don’t totally agree with the approach, or who are apprehensive, also aren’t just “on the same page”, out of fear.

It is overwhelming to plan like this and I am constantly confronting knotty problems that aren’t easy to solve. And, yet, I am happy to say I no longer feel like [makes cutting motion on my neck].