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The Perfection Trap: Why Teachers (and the rest of us too!) Need to Embrace Imperfection

Repaired violin with quote 'This lovingly repaired violin still plays beautiful music'

Teaching can be a stressful profession; it is intense with the level of human interaction and multiple plates we have spinning at any given time. To be honest, I don’t see that changing in a hurry. I do however think we can influence the impact this stress has on us by getting real about success as a classroom teacher.


Teaching is a little like having a career in a fishbowl, everyone can see us and make judgements if they wish. This can trigger massive insecurity and over-compensating which, ironically perhaps, more often than not leads to poorer performance. We try so damned hard to be perfect and it just doesn’t happen. I often say that the only perfect lesson I have ever taught is the one in my imagination! What can we do about this then?


The first thing I suggest is adopting a healthy perspective and this means letting go of our love affair with perfection. Please give of your best, we are talking about the lives of children here so they deserve us to do the best we can, but that is not about perfection. Perfection is actually a lie we tell ourselves to keep us small and stop us taking risks where we might fail. Have you ever not started a project because you are afraid you wouldn’t get it right? Or have you deliberately self sabotaged e.g. binge watched Netflix instead of writing that article, putting in that application or finishing a given task? It may well be that perfectionism was sitting underneath the procrastination or self sabotage. I would argue that our learners don’t need perfect teachers but they do need real people as teachers who can demonstrate living and loving with all their imperfections.


When we let go of perfection we open up the door to learning. We allow ourselves the freedom to make mistakes and, importantly, to be OK with it! What a wonderful example that is for our learners. Another thing with letting go of perfection is it enables us to be more accepting of other’s mistakes, imperfections and flaws- perhaps it allows us to be more empathetic and relatable. When we let go of perfection we stop wasting energy on wishing that the world and everyone in it meets some arbitrary ideal and can invest our energy more wisely on the things we actually can influence. It also gives us space to create goals and define success in healthier ways that actually work for us, not against us.


Destination addiction is when we keep deferring our happiness until various things have happened, it goes a little something like this: I will be happy... when I get a promotion, when I have all of my planning done, when I get through this term or semester, when we go on our holiday at Christmas, when I get a new car etc. You get the picture. Chasing happiness is a fool's errand. Happiness is more likely to be found when you enjoy whatever is happening right here and now. All emotions are fleeting and we miss the good stuff that happens now if we are always looking for a more perfect moment at a later date. Letting go of perfection opens up the opportunity to enjoy more of the life we are living right here and now, in all it’s glorious imperfection and messiness.


If perfection isn’t what we are aiming for then what is? I think the magic lies in setting achievable goals and noticing our own progress. As an example when starting with a new class your most important jobs are, in my opinion, building relationships and creating routines. So I’d wrap my goals around this, one goal might be to learn to pronounce all learners names correctly and when I can do this it’s pat on the back time. It might be that I am aiming to see all students participate in the classroom programme, it will take some learners longer to settle into a rhythm than others but I celebrate as each person comes on board and acknowledge the progress that we make along the way. It is about knowing where we are heading and then acknowledging the small steps we take as we move towards our larger goal. This is one place where we will find a sense of success and happiness in our work- it helps us to focus on what actually is important rather than be distracted by what is happening outside of the fishbowl we work in.


The beauty of this is when we gain a sense of success and happiness, then we are often more efficient and effective in our work which leads to further success and happiness… it is a positive spiral. In the end it has to be better than beating ourselves up for not being perfect eh?


Megan Gallagher writing in a book

Megan Gallagher, is a mum, teacher, coach, speaker, PLD facilitator and consultant. She weaves her teaching experience, intense interest and curiosity about the brain, and coaching skills together in all that she does.

One of her greatest pleasures in life is seeing others shining and this is the basis of the work she does. She specialises in coaching for children, families and educators, and shares her expertise in wellbeing, curriculum design, and impactful teaching and learning as a speaker and facilitator.

For more information please check out meggallagher.nz. You can contact her at meg@meggallagher.nz

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