Pursuing Perfection

It is estimated that the average classroom teacher makes over 1500 decisions per day in the classroom that are impactful. You know these decisions; they are the ones that go beyond should we go left or right out of the classroom to head to the cafeteria and what color post it should I use for this note. They are the decisions about how to deal with a student that is misbehaving, how to explain a concept, which technology to use, etc. That’s a lot of meaningful decisions, and when we are pursuing perfection in the classroom it is adding a ton of unnecessary stress to those decisions.

If there is one thing that I feel like the pandemic has brought to my attention, it is that things will not always go as planned and we have to be okay with that. I have been a pursuer of perfection my whole life. It has lead to procrastination because I don’t want to start something until I have the time to do it perfectly. It has also led to imposter syndrome and a lot of extra pressure that I place on myself. So, I’ve decided to give it up. I am no longer pursuing perfection in my classroom. I’m still setting high standards and having high expectations of myself and my students, but I’m no longer looking for the perfection that I used to seek.

I found this graphic, and it speaks to the heart of why I gave up the pursuit of perfection in my classroom (and in my life). At the heart of education; beyond the curricula, the standards, the books, the knowledge, the classroom decorations, the rules, the procedures, and all the other things we jam into education, there is one thing. At the heart of education, you find people. There are a variety of people, educated and uneducated, young and old, happy and sad, motivated and unmotivated, etc. But still, when we move all the other things out of the way, education is people.

Yes, I said it. People aren’t perfect. That means a pursuit of perfection in things involving people is something that will just leave us frustrated and feeling like we have failed most of the time. I’ve got news for you, your students can see that and they internalize it whether they mean to or not. Even your challenging kiddos can see when things didn’t go right and they may internalize it more than any of the other students because they know they challenge you.

I’m going to drop another bomb here: striving for perfection doesn’t make you a better teacher or person. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying strive for mediocrity. What I am saying is we should strive for things to be the best they can be on any given day and we have to accept that the best they can be looks different every single time.

So why should we drop the pursuit of perfection? For one thing, we are putting unnecessary stress on ourselves and setting ourselves up for disappointment. This trickles down into how we relate to the people around us, and can be the cause of relationship difficulties and even medical issues. But, since teachers are not great at doing things just for ourselves, let’s look at another reason to stop pursuing perfection and start pursuing the best we are capable of doing. It’s our students. Most of us would step in front of a bullet or a speeding train for our students (in fact it is kinda part of the job), and the thought that we are damaging them is something that we can’t bear to think. However, have you ever thought about how our constant pursuit of perfection in the classroom can negatively affect them?

We talk about modeling appropriate behavior and learned skills all the time, but lets think about it in another way for a second. If we have conditioned our students that we model the correct way to do things, that means they could/should/will also try to follow us when we are moving a pursuit of perfection. How many times have you been let down by your pursuit of perfection or felt like you were less than because you didn’t achieve perfection? Is that a feeling you want your students to feel? The other piece of this is that our students see us in one piece of our lives. They will automatically assimilate the rest of our lives to look like that one piece. If you don’t understand what that looks like, watch when kindergarteners see their teacher out at the grocery store for the first time and comes to the realization that they don’t live at the school in their school clothes. If our students see us striving for perfection in the classroom, they will automatically apply that concept to the rest of our lives. Why is that dangerous? Because when students think you are striving for perfection in all areas of your life, they may strive for perfection in all areas of their lives. We know that there are things outside of our control that keep perfection from happening, but do the students? Are they able to look realistically at the things going on in life and realize how little control they hold? The pursuit of perfection can not only affect your general well-being, it can also create a fear of failure. Fear of failure holds us back from trying new things. Do we want our students to be so scared of failure that they aren’t willing to try anything new? I am pretty sure that is not where we want them to be, and it probably hurts your heart a little to think that you could contribute to that feeling. At least, it hurts mine. So how can we maintain high standards without pursuing perfection?

  1. Strive for Excellence – It is important that we are striving to be the best we can possibly be. When we put a categorizer on that like excellence, it gives us wiggle room that perfection doesn’t give. Perfectionism is unobtainable. It is just that simple. When we strive for excellence, we are giving our students an obtainable goal and helping them learn to set obtainable goals.
  2. Utilize Growth Mindset – Perfectionism is a fixed mindset that leaves us all wanting because we can’t achieve it. Utilizing growth mindset in our classroom allows students opportunities for self-reflection and problem solving, as well as helping them to see the diversity in what we each bring to the table as both strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Focus on Relationships – By building stronger relationships with students, we are better able to help them through self-reflection and we know better when and how to push them for more. Not everyone is capable of the same thing, but everyone is capable of some thing. Building relationships helps us help students identify where they fit and what they bring to the table.
  4. Ban Perfect – I know this one seems crazy. There are just a few things in my classroom that I have banned, and perfect is one of them. My rationale is that I want to teach my students to talk about things in achievable ways. When we place the word perfect in front of anything, it is doomed to fail. For example, even when say a dress is perfect for an occasion, it is subject to failure because of things like weather, body image, body changes, and surroundings. Why place the undue pressure on looking perfect for anything? How much time have we wasted searching for that perfect thing? I don’t like to waste time anywhere, but I especially hate wasting time in my classroom. Banning perfect has encouraged my students to look for the best fit, not the perfect fit.

For me, perfection is something that I have tried to attain all my life. I can tell you firsthand the damage it has done to my self-confidence and all the ways it derailed me throughout my life. It has almost derailed this podcast multiple times. I don’t want that for my students, and I don’t think you want it for yours either. This week, stop pursuing perfection and start pursuing excellence. There is a reason that the only time I ever use the word perfect is to describe my chaos. It is the juxtaposition of perfection against chaos that truly describes our lives. So, until next time, keep working, living, and loving in your perfect chaos.

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