When Did I Become Vernon?

Thoughts from an aging educator

Adrian Neibauer
10 min readOct 29, 2023

I vowed to never become a cynical teacher. I became an educator so that I could positively impact the lives of my students. I have always had a rapport with children. As a twenty-something, bright-eyed, pre-service teacher, motivating children always came easy. I could scrunch up my face, make a joke, and instantly, children engaged with what I had to say. Getting my students’ attention was easy.

Or so I thought…

I don’t remember much about my early days in the classroom. I don’t remember making conscious choices to have the “cool classroom” or be the “cool teacher.” I never set out to be friends with my students, but I did (and have ever since) make concerted efforts form strong relationships with my students. Students can’t learn from people they don’t trust, and I wanted my students to trust me. Even though I heard, I don’t get paid to form relationships with my students I worked to buck that mindset. I refused to do things the same way as my veteran colleagues. Over the years, I’ve done a lot of things differently.

I taught free verse poetry to Kindergarteners during my student teaching because my coordinating teacher told me that poetry was too hard for the Kindies.

I created an after-school boys writing club because a colleague told me that boys are more interested in sports and video games than creative writing.

I teach fifth-graders how to analyze primary and secondary historical sources, critically think, and write essays because I believe that students shouldn’t have to wait until an AP History course to do authentic and demanding thinking.

Most recently, I’ve stopped teaching my students faux-writing assignments and instead opted for John Warner’s writing experiences.

I take my students outside and play music in the classroom because…why not?

Yet, every year seems harder than the last. As a twenty-something teacher, I naively thought that teaching would, at some point, get easier with more experience. I remember watching one of my veteran colleagues teach her class and thought that it looked effortless. She had been teaching for ten years and I had been teaching for three and I remember thinking that once I hit the 10-year mark, teaching would get easier.

I have to be careful here because as Alfie Kohn recently wrote, it’s dangerous to get lost in “good-old-days” nostalgia. Especially since the pandemic, I find myself falling prey to complaining about how much more challenging my students are now than the before-times. In fact, I even wrote an entire blog post about my observations. Are students today less engaged in the classroom than twenty years ago? I feel like I’m struggling more to engage my students. Do students have less social-emotional intelligence and higher levels of anxiety and stress? Research seems to say yes.


Reading Kohn’s article put things in perspective and gave me a good intellectual tap on the shoulder. Every generation complains about the younger generation. Kohn states, “any claim that society has changed for the worse will depend on the criteria for that judgment and the subset of the population we’re talking about” (Kohn, 2023).

He’s absolutely correct! When people gripe about how much better things were 30 years ago, it’s important to ask, better for whom?

“Nostalgia is only amnesia turned around.” — Adrienne Rich

I swore that I would never become the grouchy, bitter, cynical teacher that I so often saw in the teacher’s lounge complaining about their students and parents. All educators, especially after a long and challenging week, probably question the sustainability of their career path. I’ve been teaching for 20 years. I’ve dedicated my career to redesigning public education through love, vulnerability, student-centered design thinking, and learning experiences.

So, how did I become Vernon in the basement?

I’ve written about Richard Vernon from the Breakfast Club before. I love the Breakfast Club and make a point of rewatching once a year. Now that my own children are teenagers, it has been fun to watch them watch Bender, Claire, Alison, Brian, and Andrew struggle with their identities while simultaneously forcing Principal Vernon to see them as more than their stereotypes.

Every time I watch that closet scene between Bender and Vernon, I cringe and feel sick to my stomach. I’ve seen adults talk about students the way Vernon speaks to Bender. Luckily, I’ve never seen an adult treat a student that way. It still sickens me to think that there are some adults who work with children that refuse to see potential and only see limitations.

There is another scene, though, that recently got me thinking about my teaching career. Vernon and Carl, the janitor, are in the basement drinking a beer and talking about “kids today.” I’m not going to analyze the entire scene, but there is one sentence that stopped me in my tracks.

The Breakfast Club — Teaching Career

Vernon looks at Carl and says, “I’ve been teaching for twenty-two years, and each year these kids get more and more arrogant.”

Replace the word arrogant with whatever you’d like: lazy, disengaged, disrespectful. I’m pretty sure that I’ve said something similar.

Then, Carl replies with a brilliant comeback. “Aw bulls***, man. Come on Vern, the kids haven’t changed, you have!”

There it is. I’ve changed.

I don’t usually read YouTube comments, but I was struck by a comment from Derek Gabrys.

“Carl is more realistic than Vernon about the teaching profession. He realizes the older you get as a teacher the less you have in common with the students and how they think and act. It becomes more of a ‘going through the motions’ job for most eventually and patience starts to wear thin with their behavior. Because the students don’t grow up and age with him. They graduate and then they are replaced with a new crop of 14–18 year olds. Teachers in their 20’s can relate to the students a lot easier because they aren’t very far removed from those high school days themselves” [sic].

Now THIS comment got me thinking.

As a younger teacher, did I have an easier time relating to my students because the age-gap was smaller? Did I struggle with the same things twenty years ago?

If this is true, it means that every year I get older, the harder it will be for me to engage my students. That does not bode well.

Can teachers in their 20’s more easily engage and relate to their students? I posed this question to my own teenagers and their answers were fascinating. My 16-year-old son relates to and respects his older teachers more. He loves learning and is pretty compliant with what is expected of him. My 14-year-old freshman hates school. He has always struggled academically because of his dyslexic thinking. Unfortunately, he has never really related to any of his teachers. My 12-year-old daughter cringes when her older teachers try to “relate to us.” She hates it when older teachers try to talk about TikTok or pop culture. In fact, she swears that most of her older teachers are condescending to their students. This could be more of a commentary on the culture of middle school, but her comment is interesting.

Perhaps how I see my students is what has changed throughout my 20-year career. Why do I have less patience with my students than I used to?

My values as an educator have not changed. I still believe in challenging the status quo. I still love teaching. I still believe that all students can learn and that learning should be fun, engaging, and NOT standardized. I know we test students too much, which has negatively impacted their mental health. So, if my values are the same, then why do I feel that I struggle more to engage my students in the classroom?

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

I’m 43 years old. I would love to believe that I’m aging gracefully, but I know that isn’t true. I complain about my aching joints. I say things like, They don’t make music like they used to. I can’t seem to stay awake past 9:00 PM and I have to get up to go to the bathroom at least one overnight.

I think what has changed is how I view myself. Once I hit 40, I started to view my age as a deficit. Things became harder because I made them harder. Instead of looking at my years of accumulated knowledge and experience as an asset to my profession, I started to let the grind of teaching and the frustrations of public education wear me down.

I recently chatted with a colleague who has similar years of experience as I do. She left the classroom to become an educational consultant. We were talking about early retirement and I mentioned that I probably have another 10+ years before I can consider retiring, and that I wasn’t sure I could last another decade in the classroom. “Yeah,” she said, “teaching isn’t a 30-year career any more.”

Maybe it’s not. Maybe 20 years of continually bucking the system, trying to do things differently, working to close disproportionate academic gaps based on race, while simultaneously working to improve the culture of public education, and all with substandard pay and constant criticism from stakeholders (e.g.: parents, politicians, celebrities, talking heads) is just too much to handle.

Were the pressures of being a teacher were easier to bear when I was 23? There has always been pressure to standardize pedagogy. Teachers have always been loaded extra responsibilities. Parents have always complained about teachers. New curricula come and go frequently. Educational technology is relatively new, but the complaints against it are not.

In that basement scene, Carl is calling Vernon out on his lack of empathy with the students. Vernon’s just in it because he wanted a job with some nice benefits. I never became a teacher for the benefits. I never thought teaching would be easy. I always knew it was going to be a lot of hard work. If the students and the job haven’t changed, then I have to change.

Time for a reframe

I know that I am not the only educator who feels demoralized and burned out some days. Many teachers feel helpless. They are scared to try new things in their classrooms because if they fail, they will be reprimanded. How can you try new and innovative things when over half of your class struggles to read at grade level? Some teachers even see themselves as expendable. It is difficult to imagine another ten years in any profession if this is how you feel.

I only feel this way on my most difficult days. I love my students and even though they present challenges (some old, some new), I still believe that my students matter. It is always and only about them. I show up every single day for my students. Teaching is hard and most days, I don’t know if I am making a difference. But what I am certain of is that my students are worth the struggle.

I wish that working conditions for teachers would improve. Valuing teachers by paying them as professionals, providing them with adequate planning time, allowing them to continually grow their pedagogical knowledge and practice with high-quality, free professional learning, entrusting them with professional autonomy, and keeping class sizes manageable would all ease the burden teachers feel every day. I don’t expect teaching to ever get easier, but I never want to become someone who is just “going through the motions” and barely surviving. Educators work their butts off in service to their students. I don’t know any complacent teachers who only do the bare minimum. In fact, it’s the complete opposite: teachers work miracles with very limited resources. Unfortunately, expectations placed on teachers continue to grow, and they are blamed for all the problems in public education.

In the meantime, I plan to reframe my mindset. Instead of viewing my age with cynicism and resentment and grumpiness, I am going to view my years of experience with reverence. This doesn’t mean I plan to develop a huge ego; instead, with intellectual humility, I will do my best to continue to serve my students. Their disengagement and misbehavior will still annoy me, but I will work to make my profession sustainable. I will continue to advocate for my students’ needs as well as my own. I will continue to interrupt systemic problems and champion equitable, liberatory pedagogy.

I don’t want to end up like Vernon in the basement: jaded and derisive. I want to see my years of experience as an incredible gift, not a beleaguered frustration. I will continue to teach with humanity. I love teaching! I love working with students. I love being a tiny part of their amazing lives. I love helping students learn and seeing their faces light up when they understand something. I love connecting with my students.

I’m not going anywhere. I don’t know what the world will look like in another twenty years or how I will feel at that point, but I do know that I will continue to see my students as beautiful human beings, imperfect and curious, energetic and loving and infinitely capable of changing the world. I still believe in public education and I believe in my students. I still believe that I have a civic and moral responsibility to be an educator because every student matters.

They always have. They always will.


Alfie Kohn. (2023, October 26). Aggressive nostalgia. https://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/aggressive-nostalgia/



Adrian Neibauer

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.