When I first decided to become an educator, I remember thinking to myself, “I’m going to be a perfect teacher.” As a student, my teachers (even the ones I didn’t have the best experience with) always seemed to have it together. They knew the answers to all our questions, their lessons (even the more uninteresting ones) were well planned and they had us doing something from the second we entered the classroom to the moment the bell rang signaling the end of class. On top of it all, they were able to manage a class, with 35+ students, with little problem. They were like superheroes. As such, I wanted to emulate them. I wanted to wear a metaphorical cape in my own classroom, soaring perfectly from lesson to lesson and handling any issue that came my way like a pro.
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Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m suddenly in front of my own classroom. I was ready to shine and flex my superhero muscles and prove to myself that I could be the perfect teacher. So, in my experiences of teaching, I planned lessons for hours, I tried to make the most engaging lessons, I provided detailed feedback on assignments; I did the works. Still, things weren’t adding up. I quickly realized that I did not have it together. There were times in the classroom that my lessons, that I’d spend hours planning, would flop as soon as I tried teaching it to my students, assignments started piling up, and students would be chatting and distracting one another while I was teaching. I had no clue what my own teachers had that I didn’t. Were they born with a ‘teacher gene’ that somehow skipped my DNA during birth?
These thoughts and overall my experiences in the classroom made me vastly uncomfortable. As a perfectionist, not being absolutely perfect every day in the classroom felt like a punch in the gut. Furthermore, I thought that this was an experience that only I had. I peeked into other classrooms and the other teachers were always teaching so effortlessly. I was just seeing superheroes everywhere and I felt left out. This made me feel anxious to reach out to other educators, in fear of being “the odd one out” or the one who wasn’t getting it. So, I struggled in silence. I went through each day internalizing that I was a failure, unable to live up to the educators before me, those that surrounded me and my own goal of achieving perfection. Eventually, through back-door discussions with other teachers, they were all feeling the same things – even teachers who had been teaching for a decade – and this was jarring at first but reassuring. I realized that there is no shame in feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing 100% of the time, because perfection is not only an unrealistic expectation, it’s a damaging one; feeling pressured to be a perfect teacher all the time will get in the way of the process of the learning that is so critical to becoming a better educator. I mean, if we were perfect, then what’s the point of honing our craft?
So, from my time of being a teacher, here is what I’ve learned in terms of the dangers of seeking perfection:
Perfection is not possible – I know all the perfectionists out there probably spilled their drinks reading this. It’s a tough pill to swallow – accepting that there is something you won’t be perfect at and never will be perfect at is difficult. However, this is 100% normal and 100% okay. No teacher is perfect and no teacher should try to be (and this applies beyond the education field). We will exhaust ourselves chasing something that is impossible to attain. It is important to slowly let go of these constraining expectations so that we aren’t consumed by disappointment over something that is completely out of our control.
Seeking perfection is hypocritical – Yes. Seeking perfection (especially as an educator) is hypocritical. We tell our students all the time that making mistakes is quintessential to personal growth. We encourage them to take risks, to step up to the challenges of life and to step out of their comfort zones. This is all uncomfortable for our students but we support and guide them through that anxiety. As such, if we preach this to our kids and in the same breath cower in the face of taking risks and moving away from perfection then we are not practicing the very principles we teach. Like our students, we should feel more accepting of not being perfect.
Perfection breeds complacency – Chances are if we chase perfection, we won’t push ourselves to take risks because we would be fearful of making mistakes. Eventually, we won’t be experimenting in the classroom and we will be satisfied with a certain level of work if we’ve felt like we’ve “perfected” our routine. However, we won’t be willing to make any changes because it could disrupt our flow and what’s already “working for us.” Educators need change (in moderation) to keep our students challenged and interested, and to push our own skills to the next level.
Perfection is an illusion – This is similar to point #1 but perfection is not only impossible, but it’s also an illusion. I know, crazy right? We may have seen educators on social media dominating their classrooms, we may have heard our friends talk about how their favorite teachers were so “perfect,” and we may have poured over educator do-how books and wondered why we can’t successfully execute the activities the writers describe in their books. However, perfection does not exist and even if it did, the definition would be so subjective that it could lead us to strive for something that doesn’t truly exist. We all have a different group of students, we all work in different school districts, we have different access to resources and so our ideas of perfection will vary as we all cannot meet the same “standard of perfection.” It’s an illusion so Let. It. Go.
Chasing perfection distracts us from the journey – When we are drunk on the idea of being perfect, we don’t revel in the beauty of our complicated and unique journeys. A key part of teaching is learning. We learn every day and chasing perfection takes us away from the learning experience which is the crux of becoming better educators. As such, if we anchor ourselves to this idea of perfection then we’ll sink below our opportunity to grow and become better.
I’m in my third year of teaching and I still catch myself getting upset at not being perfect but I’m also acknowledging that it’s dangerous to think like this. As tempting as it is to want to be perfect, it does more harm than good for our self-efficacy and our personal growth. Even our superheroes make mistakes trying to save the world.
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