On my first day as a teacher, I had a very distinct image of who I would be and what my class would look like.
I wanted to be that guy kids remember the rest of their lives. I’d have them drop their textbooks on the ground next to their desks as I loudly proclaimed that they would not need them in my class!
My class would be engaging and exciting. I would be a teacher who was always available to my students, ready to carry anyone’s burdens and go to any length to help kids succeed. I would coach soccer, chaperone dances, and design every lesson to blow kids away. And I would always score “highly effective” on my end-of-the-year evaluation.
I wanted to be the perfect teacher.
The difficulty of trying to be perfect
For a while, I was doing pretty well. I poured every ounce of energy into my class and my students. I arrived early every morning and stayed late every day. Whenever I learned one of my student’s troubling backstories, I took it upon myself to give them all the attention they needed.
I’d be ragged when I got home each day. My wife would say to me, “You have to slow down. You’re going to wear yourself out.”
But I didn’t listen. I believed that if my students were going to learn, grow, and transform in my class, I needed to be perfect for them.
After a couple years of this, I burned out.
A change of perspective
I told a brilliant teacher of 40 years that I wasn’t sure how much longer I could stay in the classroom. The weight and pressures of being perfect in this job are too much to sustain. I wanted to quit.
This veteran teacher looked at me and said, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a great teacher.”
Everything in me wanted to disagree with her. What if kids think my class is boring? Are they going to think I don’t care about them because I don’t show up at their soccer games? What if administration doesn’t see how engaging my class is? What about those kids who, like me in sixth grade, need that one teacher to listen while they talk about their parents’ divorce?
All of these thoughts kept going through my head. How can I possibly be a great teacher if I don’t consider all of those things all the time?
She responded, “You can. Trust me. Teachers cannot do everything, and you just need to realize that.”
Learning to be a great (but not perfect) teacher
Her words stayed with me, and I eventually decided to hit the reset button. If I was going to last in this career, I had to relieve myself of this pressure to be perfect. Some things had to change.
The first thing I adjusted was my planning period. Instead of giving it up for the good of helping others, I decided to actually use it for myself. I kept the lights off and the shades drawn. Not because I didn’t want to talk to kids but because I needed to recharge. It was a small start, but it definitely made a difference.
After that, more things followed. I stopped overextending myself. I quit saying yes to everything. And I found ways to take time for myself to reflect, refocus, and unwind.
It’s not like I stopped being an engaged teacher. I just started approaching teaching a bit differently. Sometimes I plan huge, epic projects where my students create work that changes the world. And sometimes my kids watch Crash Course videos and have to submit their notes.
I don’t coach soccer anymore. I chaperone homecoming or prom, never both. My class is sometimes exciting, and sometimes I have to let me students watch a movie so I can grade their papers.
I don’t need my administrator to score me “highly effective” to feel like the work I do is valuable. Therefore, I don’t carry that weight around either.
Because the truth is, you don’t have to be perfect to care for your students. You don’t have to be perfect to make learning relevant for them. I don’t need perfection to model for my students hard work and determination. I still sometimes want to be Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society or Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World. But I also know I don’t have to be.
And with that pressure gone, I find it a lot easier to be a great teacher.