Breaking Bad's Walter White is a teaching inspiration

Bryan Cranston's chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord may not seem the most obvious best practice model for new teachers. But appearances can be deceptive – as Breaking Bad's antihero discovered to his advantage

Walter White Breaking Bad teacher inspiration

Miss Honey, Albus Dumbledore, Professor Xavier…Popular culture is loaded with passionate, inspiring educators who go above and beyond to help their struggling students succeed in remarkable conditions.

They’re great teachers – aspirational even – but they won't help you with your day-to-day classroom challenges. No: for that you need to look no further than Breaking Bad ’s own Walter White. "Wasn’t he a chemistry-teacher-turned-world-class-drug-lord and extremely violent criminal?" I hear you ask. Why yes, he was, but his career is a lesson in effective teaching (minus, you know, the meth stuff…).

Here are five things NQTs can learn from Heisenberg about running their classroom.

Shouting gets you nowhere

Ask any BB fan their favourite quote and I’d be surprised to hear anything other than: "A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!" The intimidation here comes not from what Walter says, but how he says it. The sharp stare, the cold delivery, the rhetorical question…It’s a perfect recipe for behaviour management. It can be far more effective than shouting, so save your voice, work on your serious gaze and rule without emotion. Expert tip: practise saying "I am the one who calls your parents" in the mirror until you’ve nailed it.  

Set your standards high and never falter

Think back to series one: when Walt and Jesse Pinkman made their first batch of blue, it was grainy and inconsistent and – much to Jesse’s disgust – Walt bins it. It’s here that we can bring in Teacher Standard 1: set high expectations. Poor effort from students in lessons will lead to poor outcomes. Aim for brilliance, support them to get there, model it from the front and soon they’ll see how much more they get from lessons if they give you total commitment. Walt would never have accepted less than exceptional, and you shouldn’t, either.

Repeat your instructions again, and again

Three words are all that are needed here: bathtub, acid, ceiling.

Seasoned educator Walt made a rookie teaching mistake in this scenario: he didn’t reiterate clearly enough the instructions and consequences to Jesse (who, like some students, believes he knows more than his teacher) and just assumed Jesse would do as asked. When giving directions, teachers should repeat instructions and consequences and do a quick questioning check to be sure. Don’t just assume students will do as you’ve asked – check before their final assessment to avoid surprises.

Swat the fly

The fly episode is a perfect metaphor for low-level disruption. Accepting something small and annoying that has a chance of poisoning the whole was something that Walt refused to do, and I agree. If you accept the annoyances of low-level disruption, you’re potentially creating a culture that will ruin the rest of the class’ learning – over time, it’ll grow. Remember, there’s no such thing as low-level disruption: there is only disruption. Swat the naughty fly early on and focus on creating the right environment for success.

Don’t take your work home

Is there a person out there whose heart wasn’t thundering when Walt's brother-in-law Hank picked up the Walt Whitman anthology in the bathroom? Foolishly, Walt had allowed his work and home life to blur: use your time efficiently at school and where possible, try to create a divide between the two. Working at home will eat into family time and create unnecessary, avoidable pressure on everyone at home. I think it’s also worth mentioning that you shouldn’t keep your work by the toilet (mainly for hygiene reasons, but also to avoid GDPR breaches/FBI investigations).

Lauran Hampshire-Dell is a secondary English teacher

For World Teachers' Day 2019, Tes is having a new teacher takeover – every piece published on our website on 5 October will be by a new or early career teacher. Find the rest of the articles at our World Teachers' Day hub

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