The following is a variation on a post I created for the New Teacher Academy.
Each year, I ask my pre-service teachers to describe what teaching will be like when they move from surviving to thriving.
Common themes emerge. “Every student will listen each time I’m talking” or “I won’t have any upset parents” or “I won’t be nervous when I get evaluated.” Sometimes they describe the classroom itself, with sparkling decor and tidy bins. Other times they describe the perfect pacing with each student receiving the right amount of scaffolding.
Then I break the news to them. What they’ve described isn’t thriving. It’s perfection. And perfection isn’t possible. Perfection is the enemy of thriving because it robs teachers of the joy they can experience in an imperfect environment. Perfection whispers, “you’re not good enough to reach that ideal, so you might as well give up.” Perfectionism is a hamster wheel race without the permission to slow down and rest. Perfection will tell you that every paper needs to be graded, that every bulletin board needs to be Pinterest-worthy, and that every kid needs to like you all the time.
Here’s what happened to me when I fell into the perfectionism trap:
- I became judgmental. When I started working toward perfectionism, I would seek out validation that I was somehow better. Look at those teachers who leave right after the bell! They don’t care as much. They’re treating it like a job instead of a calling. Never mind that those teachers were picking up children from daycare or driving to a hospital to visit a loved on. In those moments, I couldn’t see the whole story because I had become self-centered.
- I would give up. I went through a cycle of setting unrealistic goals, trying hard to achieve these goals, and then giving up once I made a mistake.
- I said “yes” to too many things. Part of being a perfect teacher involves saying “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. After all, if I really cared about my students, I would build relationships and that meant I would go to every sporting event and chaperone every dance.
- I put 100% effort into everything. In the process, I worked myself ragged. I would show up at 6:00 a.m. and leave at 6:30 p.m. As for breaks? Well, I decided to tutor students at lunchtime and organize a book club before school. If cross-country practice ended at 5 p.m., I would run to the vending machine and scarf down a bag of Cheez-Its before taking on the never-ending pile of papers.
- I quit exercising. Perfectionism is the enemy of self-care because it whispers the seductive lie, “It’s not about you. It’s about your students. If you really cared about them, you’d work harder.”
- I quit doing creative work. I generally write every day and on most days, I draw little sketchnote doodles (that I often put into videos). However, in those moments I slipped into perfectionism, I quit doing creative work altogether.
- I became angry. When I expected perfection in classroom management, I then transferred this expectation onto a group of hormonal thirteen and fourteen-year-olds. These were the moments when I yelled at my class or let out a snarky comment toward a student.
- I was busy. All the time. In the process, I found myself missing out on moments with my wife and my kids. I was unable to live in the moment and enjoy the present because I was always planning for the next big thing.
- I became risk-averse. Instead of innovating in my own practice, I attempted to use only the “best practices” that would lead to guaranteed results. I could risk a mistake. The problem? Teaching doesn’t work that way. It requires iterative thinking and creativity.
So, where do you go from there? How do you push back against perfectionism?
How to Kick Perfectionism in the Teeth
Perfectionism can be a career-killer that will rob you of your joy. It will also prevent you from doing your most creative work. So, here are some strategies that can help in the battle against perfectionism.
#1: Break up with Busy
When I was a new teacher, I believed I had to give 110% in everything I did. I thought that the best teachers were the ones who arrived first and left last. I was a busy teacher, taking on all kinds of committee work and saying yes to every project. But then I had a moment when I decided to “break up with busy.”
That’s when I broke up with busy. I quit committees. I limited my projects. I set a curfew for myself at work. I learned when to give 110% and when to give 11 or 12 percent.
See, I was drowning in busy and yet I’d been wearing busy like a badge of honor; like I was winning some imaginary competition. But life isn’t a game. Actually, Life is a board game and I think it’s also a cereal (at least according to Mikey).
But here’s the thing: You don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and more meetings.
All you get is a bigger load of busy. But busy is hurried. Busy is overwhelmed. Busy is fast. Busy is careless. Busy is a hamster wheel that never ends and a sprint up the ladder without ever asking where it leads. There are moments when life gets busy. I get that. But I never want busy to be the new normal. I never want to look back at life and say, “Wow, I was really good at being busy.”
There’s a difference between being busy and being productive.
Being busy is about working harder while being productive is about working smarter. Being busy is frantic while being productive is focused. Being busy is fueled by perfectionism while being productive is fueled by purpose. Being busy is about being good at everything while being productive is about being great at a few important things.
Which leads to the next big idea . . .
#2: Choose where to be a slacker.
One of the worst pieces of advice I ever got was “always give 110% percent.” I heard this from family, teachers, and coaches growing up. But life is all about prioritizing what matters and putting your efforts into those things.
However, a better answer might be the essentialist approach. Essentialism is the idea of doing fewer things better. As the author of Essentialism (a book I highly recommend), Greg McKeown describes it this way:
“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”
This means focusing on the few things that actually matter and learning to say “no” to opportunities that aren’t essential. It’s also the idea of choosing to engage in deeper work with fewer distractions. It’s why I’m on Facebook and Twitter less often lately.
I love the drawing he created of two different approaches to how you spend your energy:
In the first diagram, you focus on so many areas that you end up scattered. By contrast, in the second one, you are going in a single direction and actually accomplishing more. You can focus your time, attention, and energy on a few singular goals that you care about rather than frantically putting out fires.
So, choose where to be a slacker. Maybe it’s the classroom decor. Perhaps it’s the need for a perfect newsletter to go home each week. Maybe it’s your drive to ensure that every student is at grade level, to the point that you are opening your doors an hour before and after school every day, doing one-on-one tutoring. Maybe it’s committee work or event planning.
#2: Set easier goals.
As a new teacher, I put up a poster that read “reach for the stars.” But that’s actually some really awful advice. Reach for the stars and you’ll end up alone, in a giant void, without enough oxygen to sustain you. Maybe better advice would have been, “stay grounded and remember the people around you.” I guess that doesn’t work too well as a poster.
I remember setting really high goals, figuring, “it’s better to shoot for the stars and still reach great heights.” However, the moment I failed to reach these goals, I would feel defeated and often give up.
Jon Acuff describes it this way in Finish, “This is the first lie that perfectionism tells you about goals: Quit if it isn’t perfect.” One of his surprising solutions? Set easier goals and then set more challenging goals once you’ve already attained those goals. So, if you want to get into shape, choose three days a week for half an hour each rather than an hour per day for six straight days.
#3: Find a trusted community where you can be vulnerable.
Perfectionism requires you to put on a mask because you’ll never be able to live up to the ideal. So, you hide your faults and keep your mistakes a secret. When you need help, you try and solve things on your own. Over time, you get more and more isolated.
But there’s an answer. Find a trusted group of teachers and share your struggles. Don’t just be transparent. Be vulnerable. And the wild thing is this vulnerability will bring you closer to the people around you. I remember hanging out with two close friends from work and I would say something like, “I yelled at my class” and I’d feel awful about it and they would listen and remind me that I also apologized to my students and showed humility.
This is why I love the idea of a mastermind group. Here’s what I mean:
If you’re interested in joining a mastermind group for new teachers, check out our free New Teacher Academy Facebook group.
#4: Carve out your own Genius Hour time.
As I shifted out of perfectionism, my wife and I both decided to do a weekly Genius Hour. I set a few ground rules for myself:
- I can’t work on anything related to school. No grading papers. No lesson planning.
- There are no deadlines.
- I have to take at least one creative risk.
- The audience is optional.
Our kids were little at the time and it meant the world to each of us to be able to have a solitary evening to go work on a project. She joined a choir and expressed her creativity through music. I started drawing again and began making my earliest sketch videos. I recognize that this isn’t easy if you’re working a second job or if you are a single parent. But if possible, see if you can have a Genius Hour each week.
#5: Set a curfew for yourself.
This was one of the first things I did in pulling out of perfectionism. I gave myself a curfew of 6:00 p.m. The next semester, I dropped it down to 5:00 p.m. and eventually, I shifted to 4:30 p.m. The bizarre part? I was actually more productive because I had to work within a time constraint. I would shut my door and get to work rather than sit in the staff lounge and chat. I started working out again and taking the time to pack a real lunch (one that didn’t rely on artificial cheese flavoring).
#6: Choose a better story.
As a new teacher, I watched the movie Stand and Deliver and instantly decided I would start book clubs and tutoring sessions so that every one of my students would become a proficient reader. I watched several more teacher movies with the same turnaround story and it resonated with my need to feel that I was making a difference. I remember writing the phrase, “whatever it takes” above my desk until I ditched my desk because “real teachers are on their feet.”
Later, I realized that I had bought into a story of perfectionism. The silvescreen superteachers were amazing but they were like fireworks – loud, full of energy, and amazing for a moment but burning out way too fast. Meanwhile, the best teachers I knew were like campfires – warm, slow-burning, able to draw people together without keeping the focus on them. I decided I needed to choose a better story.
If the firework story was all about amazing results, the campfire story was about faithfulness. If the firework story looked for loud and colorful perfection, the campfire story looked for modest humility. While the fireworks explode above and demand attention, the campfire stays close to the earth, quietly crackling but always giving light. I’d rather be like a campfire.
Recommended Reading List
Looking for more? The following are some books you might want to check out on this topic of self-care and perfectionism.
- My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up, and Grew (Jon Harper) I love this book because it counters the perfect teacher narrative. It’s the perfect read if you’re struggling with perfectionism.
- Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day…No Matter What (Angela Watson): Although this book is a little older (and I can’t wait for her upcoming release) it is still as relevant as ever. She provides specific strategies for reducing stress, saving time, and thriving.
Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth: 6 Truths That Will Help you THRIVE as an Educator (Aaron Hogan): This is a great read for specific strategies to thrive as a teacher.
- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Brene Brown): This book helped shape my thoughts on the power of vulnerability.
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (Greg McKeown): One of my favorite reads about prioritizing what matters. It was a fast read that really pushed my thinking.
- Finished: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (Jon Acuff): This book has some excellent, counterintuitive advice on getting things done and it’s written in a conversational, humorous style.
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (Daniel H. Pink): There’s some fascinating information on the importance of sleep, the daily energy dip, and, my favorite, the “napuccino”
- Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Alex Soojung-Kim Pang): In this book, the author argues that rest makes you more productive. Although the book doesn’t quite jive with the busy schedule of a teacher, there were some great takeaways on the power of naps, walks, and play.