I have been thinking about perfection and teaching a lot lately. So many teachers are sharing on social media that they don’t feel like they are doing enough or they aren’t good enough. It’s heartbreaking to see the lengths that teachers are going to do better and be better, especially this year. Perfectionist teacher, I see you. I tried to be a perfect teacher. It was impossible and made it very hard. While there is no quick fix, there are a few things we can do to be kinder to ourselves. Here are the lessons my teacher friends have taught me along the way.
Your small win is a big win
Do you talk to yourself the same way that you talk to your students? Your children? Your best friend? I know I don’t. If you are a perfectionist you are really hard on yourself, and it’s difficult to turn off your negative self-talk. Look, I’m not naturally an optimist and I don’t believe that putting on a happy face and soldiering through is the best approach, but I have learned to be kinder to myself. It’s not easy to change your chatter, but if you’re looking for a place to begin, start noticing your small wins.
There’s no perfect 10 in teaching
Every Friday I asked my students for feedback. It was their ticket out the door, and I used it to figure out my Monday lesson plan. The last question asked students to rate, on a scale of 1-10, how the class was going(1=not great, 10=couldn’t be better). Before I left school for the weekend, I’d spread all of their papers out and count up the numbers. Anything below an eight ruined my weekend. I’m a terrible teacher! I’d think as I drove home, replaying all my lessons in my head. When I shared this with my teacher bestie, she shook her head. “You’re going to be a really stressed out unhappy teacher if you expect perfection,” she said. “There’s no perfect ten in teaching.”
The glow instead of the grow
Instead of asking my students to rate our class, I started asking them to share a glow and a grow from the week. What did they feel went well? What did we need to work on? Instead of obsessing over numbers, I read the glows first. “I like the book we are reading.” “I usually hate grammar, but I am starting to get it.” Then, I’d move onto the grows. “I’m a little lost. Can you slow down?” “I don’t like this book.” Small win: a student felt she was starting to understand something that had been hard for her. That’s progress. In fact, that’s a big win.
You’re not good at everything, but you’re good at a lot
Right now it feels like none of us are good at anything. After all, how, when, and where we teach has been blown up and turned upside down. If there was ever a more important time to focus on what we are good at, now is it. I would never attempt to create a Bitmoji classroom. I’d drive myself crazy and spend way too much time and I wouldn’t be happy with the result. But, I can write my students’ haikus that make them laugh, and write alongside them (even virtually). I’m not saying we shouldn’t be open to trying new things. I am saying that when we have a tendency to beat ourselves up and set the bar really high, it can be helpful to focus on what we are good at instead of trying to be good at everything.
Your productivity doesn’t make you a good teacher
I know. Bear with me here. If you are an enneagram three you are rolling your eyes right now, but you are also paying attention. Working hard is something to be proud of. But working hard isn’t what makes you a good teacher. Taking the time to ask a student how they are doing and really listening to their answer makes you a good teacher. Recognizing that your students are frustrated, and pausing your lesson to take a break makes you a good teacher. Realizing that you are exhausted and hungry, and not finishing your grading so you can make something to eat and get some sleep makes you a good teacher.
Celebrate these small moments, and see them for what they are: big wins. You are showing up every day despite the uncertainty, anxiety, and impossibility of pandemic teaching. Celebrate that for what is: a big win.
Are you a perfectionist teacher? How are you handling these times? Please share in the comments! And subscribe to our newsletter to get more teaching tips and ideas.
Plus, check out 16 Teachers Share How They Are Creating Boundaries Right Now.