Out of the Box Part 2: Silly is as Silly Does

There are a number of reasons why people won’t “get out of the box” in terms of their teaching style, or approach to education.  One of the biggest ones I have seen is that they are afraid of looking silly.  It’s a logical thought – if you stay with the herd, don’t make yourself stand out, you won’t look foolish.  You are doing what everyone else is doing, so there is no risk of looking silly.  Stick to tried and true methods and lesson plans, and you will be fine.  You’re colleagues can’t judge you, and your students already expect it.

The opinion of your colleagues can be a strong factor in the choices you make, especially early in your career.  With older and more experienced colleagues looking over our shoulders, we want to prove ourselves, and definitely don’t want to disappoint them.  This can lead us to follow the paths they have already created, using materials handed down to us.  We can then say “See, we’re doing the right thing.  We’re doing what you did, so there can’t be anything wrong with it!”.   But, it has to be noted that we get pressure from the other side as well.  Newer, younger colleagues coming up behind us, looking to us to guide the way, make us nervous, and wanting to be sure we are doing the right thing and setting a proper example of what it is to be a teacher.  Sticking to tried and true methods or lessons is a safe bet.  If anyone asks any questions, all you have to say is “That’s how it is done; that’s how the people before me did it, and are doing it”.  With pressure to perform “properly” coming from those who went before us, and those coming behind us, it is no wonder that so many of us choose to stay the course, rather than blazing our own trail.  Choosing to go along with the norm should make us feel better, less worried.  But, does it?

When I was on my teaching practicums, I worked in very traditional schools, for the most part.  I felt like I had to use exactly what was given to me by experienced teachers, because they were evaluating me.  Surely, the best way to get a good evaluation was to do what more experienced people had done.  I did fine, but I wasn’t really happy with what I had done.  I knew I was capable of more, and that made me feel stressed and dissatisfied.  Sure, my supervisors and colleagues were pleased with my work, but I wasn’t.  When I came to my current job, my first instinct was to go with what had been done before, to use what was given to me.  But, I decided to be true to what I wanted to do as a teacher.  Yes, I could have easily been seen as foolish, yes I did some things that were very silly, but everything I did I approached believing in it, and it has worked out very well.  10 years at the same school, still doing the unconventional, and my colleagues haven’t lost respect for me yet.  I may be silly, but I’m no fool.

It’s not just our colleagues we fear looking silly in front of.  It’s our students as well.  One big fear among teachers is if our students are laughing at us, how can they respect us.  If we choose to do something unconventional, and it doesn’t go well, will they laugh?  Will they ridicule us?  Will they think less of us?  Will they judge us? I would argue no.  Respect is much deeper than that.  And, chances are that they’re going to judge you no matter what, so why not be judged for being different than for being old and boring and the same as everyone else.

Over the years, my students have involved me in a number of their projects, including a three-part radio play about Banbury and the zombie apocalypse.  At the end of the first play, they created an “after credits scene” a-la Marvel movies, and asked me to do a Nick Fury-esque cameo, complete with eye patch.  It could have been humiliating, I could have felt foolish, but I believed in what they kids were trying to achieve, and I ended up loving doing it.  Being willing to be silly helped me to connect with those students.  Another time, one of my younger students was feeling low, and asked me to put on the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” and do the Baby Groot dance with him.  Being willing to do that helped him not only to feel better that day, but to trust me and be more willing to work with me.  Students need to see you being silly to know that you are human.  If you can have them laugh at you, and you can laugh at yourself, it shows them that it’s ok to be out of the norm.  It’s stress relief for everyone to laugh.  And, most importantly, it is a way to connect with students.

We don’t want to be silly, because we don’t want to be thought a fool.  But, I maintain the silly is only foolish if you don’t do it with confidence.  If you feel awkward doing something silly, you probably aren’t confident in what you are doing.  If you believe in what you are trying to do, and genuinely see value in it, then it shouldn’t matter if you look a bit silly.


Coming Soon: Out of the Box Part 3: Put Down the Textbook!


Out of the Box Part 1: Seeing the Possibility

I am often accused of being an “out of the box” thinker.  Yes, yes, it’s true. I am.  Big shocker there, right?  What I always say in response is that it’s easy to think outside of the box when you never got in it in the first place.

Some see “out of the box” thinking as easy for me, and , in a way, it is.  Not because of any great secret or talent, but, because when I look at anything, I look for the possibilities.

Once you start looking at everything as having the potential to be a teaching tool, there is a whole world of possibilities that opens up, and that makes teaching just that much more fun.

The first place to look, and I can never stress this enough, is to your students’ interests.  As a group, I generally find teenage boys to be reluctant writers.  Definitely for short stories, and especially for poetry.  Last year, Dungeons and Dragons started to gain popularity among the boys at my school.  Voila – possibility!  It would be easy to dismiss the game, and someone’s interest in it, but, if you consider it, D&D is a great platform for creative writing.  It requires a detailed plot, complete and well developed characters, conflict, resolution, and can contain multiple written forms, including stories, poems, essays, articles, endless options, really.  Using their love of D&D, I have been able to engage a number of my reluctant writers, and have found that they are excited about their assignments, and are producing more, higher-quality work than they were before.  And why wouldn’t they?  More importantly than getting me off their backs, they are getting support in creating awesome campaigns to wow their friends.  Plus, a couple of actually discovered a passion and talent for writing.  Talk about a win!

Sometimes, possibility arises within another possibility.  Recently, I took my students to see the play My Family and Other Endangered Species.  The polite way to describe the experience is that the play was not what was expected.  Some of my students were straight-up traumatized.  As one students eloquently summed it up: an unfocused pile of provocative garbage, My Family and Other Endangered Species is a play the pleases no one.  Needless to say, my originally-planned assignments weren’t working so well after that. But, in our shared disgust of gratuitous puppet violence and scattered plot, my students and I found a platform for ongoing discussion where we actively critiqued the various aspects of the play.  Students had a chance to further develop critical thinking skills and work on showing relevant evidence to support their arguments.  Beyond that, more than one hilarious creative writing assignment ensued, and, a very spirited debate.  It just goes to show that event something that initially appears disastrous can turn into a valuable teachable moment.

Pop culture is the biggest source for possible teachable moments.  I went to see Captain America: Civil War a little while ago, and it is a goldmine of opportunities! It is centered around one of the big Social Studies questions: To what extent should governments have control?  More than that, is is an excellent basis for a discussion of character motivations, why we identify with some characters rather than others, and how a well developed story line can sway our perspective.  Our students are very much in tune with pop culture.  It is a way for us to connect with them, and bring about real, meaningful learning.  But, it has to be done in an authentic way.

If you see the possibility in new source material, you also have to see the possibility in new ways of teaching and demonstrating understanding.  Keep doing the same of type of assignments, and you will lose student interest, no matter what those assignments are based on.  Consider the skills you want your students to develop, and start looking for ways they can be shown.  There are always possibilities!

Changing over to this mindset isn’t easy, and it won’t happen right away.  But, be willing to take that first step – admit that there are other possibilities, and that you want to see them.

Need help getting started?  I am always happy to share resources! (tarafry@banburycrossroads.com)


Coming Soon: Out of the Box Part 2: Silly is as Silly Does

Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 3: Patience!

Patience – it is the single greatest thing needed when working with a-typical learners.  And, it is probably the skill most likely to desert us when we need it the most.

First, and foremost, we need to have patience with our students.  That should be a given, but, sadly, is often not the case.  Somewhere in there, we forget a couple of key things: (1) they (most of the time) are not purposely trying to annoy us; (2) they’re still learning; and (3) they’re still kids.

It is easy to believe that students enjoy bugging us, that they purposely set out to make our lives more difficult.  In some cases that might be true, but that brings us to another kind of teachable moment, where we and work with the student to understand where their need to elicit that kind of response comes from, and to channel that into a more productive means of behaviour.  However, in the case of a-typical learners, at least in my experience, that isn’t usually the case.  Most of the students I’ve worked with have had at least a few very, very annoying moments.  Some even to the point where the best course of action was for me to walk away before I did or said something I would regret.  Once I got a bit of distance between myself and the students in question, I realized that they weren’t actively trying to annoy me – they had a need to talk, to express themselves, and their need to do so was, to them, greater than my need for them to be quiet at the time.  Thinking about it like that helped me to put it in perspective, and to go back and work with them to come up with a mutually beneficial solution – like a limit on a particular topic of conversation, or them being able to go outside for a few minutes to burn off the excess energy that led to excessive talking.  If a student is engaging in a behaviour you find particularly annoying, there is generally a reason why.  Recognizing that leads to teachable moments, which brings me to my next point.

Students are still learning.  That’s why they’re in school.  And, they’re not just there for academics – they’re there to learn social and emotional skills as well.  Who better to help them with that than us?  With atypical learners, what I have found over the years is that they don’t understand a lot of social interactions the way most of us do, and often need some guidance as to what behaviour is appropriate and what isn’t.  Once they understand, they are able to put those skills into practice.  This may be explaining to them that particular topics are not appropriate for conversation, or that things like talking over other students isn’t the best way to be included in a conversation. I had a student who, whenever he needed to talk, he would.  He had to say whatever was on his mind, or it became very emotionally uncomfortable for him.  This resulted in him butting into conversations, talking over his peers, and interrupting on a regular basis.  Over time, with gentle reminders, and some strategies in place, he is able to join in conversations, interject thoughts in a way that invites others into discussion, and manages how long he speaks for, rather than monopolizing the conversation.  All he needed was some guidance and a chance to practice the skill.  It wasn’t an overnight success, but patience paid off, and he is feeling better among his peers, and feels like he is being heard.

Sometimes, we forget that our students are still kids.  We expect them to behave like completely rational human beings, and act/think the way we do.  Yeah, that’s not the case.  Think of yourself as a teenager.  Most likely you are not the same now that you were then.  Teenage you probably made a few (or more) decisions that adult you looks back and says “what were you thinking?”.  Our students are currently like teenage you, but haven’t had the luxury of reflecting on their choices yet.  What we are looking at as them pushing our buttons , is them trying to figure things out.  Patience – it took you a while to get where you are.  Give your students that time as well, and, in the case of atypical learners, that might take a little bit longer..

Beyond being patient with your students, you need to be patient with yourself.  I’ve said this before, and will continue to say it – we are human, we are going to make mistakes.  Especially in the beginning.  I have been working with atypical learners for the better part of a decade, and I still don’t get it right 100% of the time.  Every student I’ve worked with is a little bit different.  Some strategies work for multiple students, some only work for one, and it takes time to figure out the best way to best work with each student.  You are going to make mistakes along the way.  I do, and I usually feel pretty horrible about it at the time, but you know what?  The kids are pretty forgiving.  If you are able to say “Well, I messed up.  How can we fix this so it doesn’t happen again?” they will help you come up with ideas.  Kids are pretty quick to forgive if you can admit you made a mistake.  If they aren’t going to be hard on you about it, why are you being hard on yourself?

Working with atypical learns requires patience, both for them and yourself.  It may seem like it has deserted you at times, but if you take a step back, and consider that they are just kids, who want to learn and understand how to be better, and if you can see the same traits in yourself, it is much easier to have the patience needed to help these kids truly become great.



Coming Soon: Out of the Box Part 1

Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 2: He’s Not Creepy, Just Socially Awkward

Think about your classroom.  Almost guaranteed, you’ll be able to pick out at least one student who has been labelled “creepy” or “weird”.  This student probably keeps to themselves most of the time, and when they do interact with you or other students, it feels very awkward.

Being human, our instinct is to avoid things that feel “creepy”.  We think that if we ignore it, it will go away.  But, these “creepy” kids are the ones we absolutely should not ignore.  These are the kids who, more than anyone else, need us to step up.

Students can appear “creepy” for a wide variety of reasons, but the one I have encountered the most was because of a lack of social understanding.  Over the years, I have worked with a large proportion of students with Aspergers.  In traditional classrooms, these students would be thought of as weird, creepy, or anything else along those lines. Some of them say strange things, some don’t say anything at all.  Some won’t look at you, and some don’t stop looking at you.  It is different behaviour, and it is sometimes hard to see past it, to what the student is capable of, and what they really need.

When I first started working with students with Aspergers, before I educated myself and learned strategies, all I had to go on was instinct.  And instinct was exactly what I needed to fight against.  Earlier in my teaching career, I had a student in grade 7 who would walk into my room, stop, and appear to be staring at me for 15 to 20 minutes.  It was very disconcerting to say the least.  Instinct told me to leave the room when he came in, to move away from him, and avoid the situation.  But, I actually chose to do the opposite.  If he wasn’t going to talk to me, I would talk to him.  For weeks, I had one-sided conversations with him: asking him questions, talking about what was going on in the school, sharing some things I found interesting about science.

Finally, he started responding.  And that’s when I learned, he wasn’t staring at me, he wasn’t trying to be weird or creepy, he was just thinking.  My classroom what a place he felt comfortable, and when he came in, he could think about whatever he wanted to.  He just happened to stop and think in the middle of the room, rather than sitting down.  He wasn’t staring at me, he was just looking off into space while he thought, and I happened to occupy that space.

Taking the time to try and connect with this student, and understanding what was actually happening, rather than “avoiding the creepy kid” allowed me to develop a very trusting, mentoring relationship with that student.  He felt safe and comfortable around me, and because of that, I could make suggestions on how he could modify his behaviour, without offending him or making him feel bad.

This student is still with me, in high school now, and soon to graduate.  He has become one of the leaders in the school, He is respected by students and staff alike, and is a positive role model for new students.  Had I not moved passed that idea of “the creepy kid”, I wouldn’t have the amazing student I do today.  It took patients, hours and hours of conversations, and a lot of hope and faith for what he could become, but seeing this student every day, and seeing how happy he is being part of the school community, all of the effort was worth it!

It is so easy to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, to try and move away from it.  But, if you keep moving away from students that are unusual, we are missing out on the opportunity to help them become so much more, and to know some truly remarkable individuals.


Coming Soon: Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 3: Patience!

Teachers Are People Too!

I have been away from this for a while, for a number of reasons.  One of the biggest was a very hectic work schedule – report card season and such – but a major contributor was taking time to work on my own health issues.

Long story short, I’ve been dealing with a number of health issues for almost two years now, and I thought I was doing well.  It was affecting me, physically, but I kept going.  Rarely did it interfere with my work, and so I kept a lot of what was going on and how I was feeling too myself. I thought that that was the best thing I could do, sort of protecting my students from the thought of me not being well.  But, this was a mistake.  Because, it turns out, I wasn’t hiding it.

What I wasn’t aware of was how much everything affected my mental and emotional health.  In the last few months I noticed I was a little bit more irritable than normal, and maybe not as patient as in the past, but, again, I didn’t think it was having an impact.  I thought I was covering well.  I wasn’t.

Recently, a student sent me an email, asking what she had done wrong, and why I was so frustrated with her all the time.  That made me stop and think. She hadn’t done anything wrong.  She had asked questions, and needed a little extra support getting a concept, that was all.  Why had I been so frustrated with her.  At first I wanted to get mad and yell “Don’t you realize what I’ve been dealing with?  Of course I’m frustrated!”  But, I paused, and in that moment realized that no, she didn’t know, because I had never given her the opportunity to know.

As a teacher, I have always thought I was fairly open about how I am doing on any given day.  I mean, if I know I’m in a bad mood, my students deserve fair warning, right?  At the same time, I know that there is a professional distance.  You don’t mix you personal life with your school life.  But, do we take that separation too far?

As hard as it is for teachers to admit, we’re only human.  And, what affects us in one part of our lives is bound to carry over to other aspects.  Think about it – when you have a particularly amazing day at work, doesn’t that transfer over into all parts of your life?  When you have a bad day at work, doesn’t that affect your night as well?  Why shouldn’t the opposite also hold true?

So, if what is happening in your life is affecting who you are at work, shouldn’t your students know a bit of what is going on?  Keep in mind I’m not advocating telling your students every detail of your life.  No, they are kids, and can’t solve your problems.  But, share a little bit.  If you are having a tough time, admit it.

Students respond to how you are.  Even if you think you are protecting them, they know something is wrong.  And, if you don’t give them a sense of what it is, they are going to assume it is them.  That puts them in an awkward situation, and can damage a positive, trusting relationship.

I’m thankful for the note my student sent – it helped me see what was really happening, and focus in on getting back to the person my students need me to be.  Things are much better now, but there will still be some bad days, and that’s okay. I’m just going to be more honest with myself, and stop trying to “protect” my kids – they’re too perceptive for that!




Coming Soon: Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 2: He’s Not Creepy, Just Socially Awkward (for real this time!)


Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 1: Thriving in the SDL Environment

I have a great group of students. That’s something I find myself saying every year, and something I mean every year. One of the things that I love about my students? They are all a little bit different. Okay, some of them are a lot different, but that’s part of what makes them amazing.

Every year at Banbury we gain a few students and lose a few students, so the student population composition changes. But, one thing remains constant – we are a school that attracts A-typical learners. There are a lot of reasons why Banbury is so attractive to A-Typical learners – small class sizes, individualized instruction, choices in what is worked on, when, and where, etc. But, what it all comes down to is Self Directed Learning.

I want to clarify – in the SDL world, there is a spectrum of approaches, from self-managed to self-determined, and Banbury falls more towards to the self-determined side of things. There is more freedom and choice here, because it is a smaller environment, and there is more opportunity for students and teachers to collaborate.

Over the years, I have seen many students, classified as A-typical learners, go from being sullen, withdrawn, and low-achieving academically, to bright, engaged, and academically successful, when they moved from a traditional environment to an SDL environment. Why is that? Because, they actually have the freedom to learn in a way that makes sense to them.

As I have previously said, a big part of teaching in an SDL environment is negotiation. This is especially useful with A-typical learners. I know the curriculum and what they “have to” learn, they know how they can best process the information, most of the time; sometimes we have to work together to figure out what learning strategies are best for them. Taking the time to listen to them, and help them find strategies that work for them, means that my A-typical learners are already more relaxed, because they are now getting the knowledge they are expected to acquire.

Once they have the knowledge, the second part is how do they demonstrate their learning? Once again, negotiation. Yes, there are skills that students need to develop, but why not introduce them over time, and combined with things that the students are more comfortable with? If a student struggles with expressing their own opinion, and with structured writing, don’t start them with an essay. Why not develop the “opinion” skill first, through speaking, journaling, drawing, or however they can express themselves best. The flexibility of the SDL environment allows us to scaffold, and build necessary skills, in a way that isn’t overwhelming for students, especially those who might have more challenges.

The flexibility we have comes largely from having time. Not all, but some, SLD environments (including Banbury) don’t limit kids to the traditional school year. Not done a course by the end of June? No problem. Keep going with it in September! Knowing that we can take the time to help students learn concepts and develop skills, is a huge advantage, removing pressure and allowing us to do what we need. This is particularly helpful for A-typical learners, who might not easily grasp a concept, and need more time to work it through. Of course, there is the converse of this – students who learn much quicker than average. The flexibility of SLD is wonderful for them, as they can move through material at their own rate, and advance through courses without the constraints found in the traditional classroom.

Flexibility is not just in how long learning takes, but also what is learned. In the SDL community, even based on the provincial curriculum, we have the ability to adapt ideas and enrich learning, based on the interests of the student. I have a number of students who are exceptionally interested in different aspects of science, including zoology, astronomy, and physics; their level of knowledge and understanding in these topics is astonishing. However, they are still developing in their writing and expressive skills. Some have Asperger’s, some have ADHD. Each one has their own challenges, and no one strategy works completely, but a support that worked across the board was basing their assignments around their own particular area of interest. Making a speech about spiders, sure. Arguing why the dinosaurs in Jurassic World are way off the mark, why not? Creative writing about space travel, absolutely! Different assignments, different skills developed, because different students have different needs and different interests.

SDL isn’t an absolute fix for A-typical learners – there are still many supports that need to be in place for them, but the flexibility offered by the SDL community, in terms of what is learned, how it is learned, and in what timeframe, can go a long way to improving the learning experiences of A-typical learners, and helping them to feel better about themselves.


Coming Soon: Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 2: He’s Not Creepy, Just Socially Awkward

A Final Thought on Perfectionism: Stop “Should-ing” Yourself!

Do you know what one of the most dangerous words out there is? Should. It is an evil little word we use on ourselves and others to apply pressure when our perfectionism starts taking over.

Right now I am in the throes of report cards, and I have been should-ing myself to death: I SHOULD be done writing reports by now, I SHOULD be doing more for my students; I SHOULD be helping my colleagues more. No, I shouldn’t. I would like to, and my perfectionist brain is trying to turn “I would like to” into “I have to”, which gives us “should”.

As teachers, we should ourselves constantly. And, the only thing that really comes out of it, is more stress. Instead of being honest with ourselves about when things need to be done by, how much we really need to do in a given situation, or what the expectations of us are, we take our ideal and try for force that to be the reality. Consequently, we’re working harder, towards harsher deadlines, and for increasingly more outlandish goals. And we’re the ones to blame! Yes, there are increasing external demands being put on teachers, but we’re not helping the situation.

Possibly even worse than should-ing ourselves, is when we start should-ing our students. Please stop doing that. One of the worst things we, as teachers, can say to our students is “You should be doing better”. No, we would like them to be doing better, and probably they would like to be doing better, too. “Should” leads to “Have to”, which increases perfectionist tendencies, which causes stress. Students already have enough stress. We don’t need to be adding to it.

Should is a word we need to ban. Be honest with yourself and your students. Is it a situation of “I’d like to” or “I have to”. Don’t try to turn the former into the latter. We already have enough stress in our lives. Why create more?

Practice Makes Progress Part 2: The Failure of Perfect Students

Teachers aren’t the only ones who are prone to perfectionism. Increasingly, our students are succumbing to perfectionist tendencies – very bright young people are worrying themselves into a frazzle over school work.

Along with this, I have noticed that the highest rates of test anxiety are among high-achieving students. These are students who, in day to day situations, can answer any question I throw at them, who will take the initiative to help explain concepts to other students, and who are capable of genuine inquiry and analysis of ideas. But, when it comes to tests, these same students are bombing them. Badly! So what’s getting in their way? Their fear of failure.

Within the education system as a whole, so much emphasis has been placed on the importance of the test as the be-all and end-all assessment of students’ learning.   And, that idea of “the big test” determining their grade in a class is driving students to live in fear of, and ultimately do poorly on, tests. So what can we, as teachers, do? We need to teach our students that it is okay to fail.

So-called “failure” is only another step on the path to learning. Instead of looking at a test as the final analysis of students’ knowledge, why not use it as a way to judge what still needs to be learned? Why is it we take those marks, and say “That’s it, that’s all we’re doing on that topic”? At Banbury, where I teach, it is common practice to sit down with students after they write tests, and review, one-on-one, what they did well, and areas of further development. Often, weaker areas are revisited, material is re-taught, and students are given another opportunity to prove what they know.

But, the funny thing is, even with knowing they get another chance, students still fear their tests, and through that fear end up doing worse than they normally would. Even though the teachers at Banbury have shifted their thinking on tests, we are still working on helping students shift their thinking, as many of them come from a traditional schooling environment, and have already developed that fear of tests.

Beyond all of that, consider this – taking tests is a skill, one that needs to be developed over time. So why are we constantly testing someone on a skill while it is being developed, and then punishing them (with low marks) because they are still working on that skill? Why not set up situations so that students can practice how to take a test, without fear of their marks dropping while they learn to do it?

There is a lot to be said for alternative means of evaluation, and YES!!! use them, embrace them, give students the chance to show you what they know in the way that is best for them. But, unfortunately, standardized tests are still a reality for the education system, and as long as that is true, students need to learn how to write tests. But, we, as teachers, can work with students, giving them to opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful in those circumstances, without punishing them, and having them live in fear of failing while they are in the learning process.

Failure isn’t something to be feared, it’s a learning opportunity. If we, as teachers, can embrace that and make it part of our teaching practices, we can help our students move out of a state of fear, and into one of learning and growth.

Coming Soon: Taking on A-Typical Learners Part 1: Thriving in the SDL Environment

Practice Makes Progress Part 1: Curb Your Perfectionism

Perfectionism limits thinking, plain and simple. That desire to have everything “Right” makes us fearful of trying anything different, stopping innovation and exploration. Being right could mean “right” in terms of not straying from the established how-to, “right” in terms of covering only the curriculum – the “right” material, or “right” in terms of always needing to have the right answer.

When there is an established way of doing something, it can feel as though you HAVE to do what has been done before, especially if you are a new teacher, or new to that teaching situation. The pressure to conform to the established norm can drive a perfectionist to prove how in sync they are with the rest of the team, and to try and deliver material “perfectly” like their colleagues are doing. This is fine in places where innovation and exploration in teaching are the norm, but what about all those places stuck in TTWWADI-ville? All you’re going to get are perfect replicas of the teachers you already have, doing what has been done for the past umptifratz years.

The curriculum can be a real sticking point for a perfectionist. You have to cover the curriculum, all of the curriculum, and nothing but the curriculum. If your idea of “right” is making sure you only cover exactly what is on the curriculum, then you are missing out on so many opportunities to engage kids in discussion and critical thinking. Is Star Wars on any curriculum? Probably not, but having kids bring up topics they’re passionate about – like the new Star Wars movie – leaves an opening to segue into other topics, like good vs evil, character development, plot holes (all things that can be a part of English), or even what the political climate has to be like for a party to seize total power (Pre WWII Germany, anyone?). Maybe not all students are studying those topics at that time, but it gets them thinking critically, analyzing ideas, and participating in the back and forth of conversations – all skills they should be developing. But of course, deviating from the curriculum means the possibility of ending up in unfamiliar territory.

One of the hardest things for a perfectionist is admitting that they don’t know the answer to a question. Because of this, many teachers fear moving away from any material they aren’t completely familiar with. What if someone asks them a question they don’t know? What if a student knows more about that topic than they do? The possibility can be so frightening to a perfectionist that they refuse to stray from a prescribed set of topics that they perceive themselves as experts in.  But, in my opinion, some of the best learning happens when students and teachers are learning together. Teachers can use opportunities to model inquiry and research, and demonstrate to students that learning is an ongoing process.

Innovation in these situations can seem impossible – it takes time and patience, and willingness to have your ideas rejected, by students and colleagues. Not exactly a good time for a perfectionist.

Beyond all of this, the most immediate danger to teachers is burnout. Over the years, I have seen a number of teachers come and go, starting out strong, and eventually succumbing to exhaustion, stress, and physical breakdowns. They were so determined to be perfect, that they worked themselves into a frazzle, trying to make sure they never made a mistake in front of students, or that they were never less than the best in any situation. Some of these teachers were well loved by students, doing lots of activities and trying to be friends with everyone, but it didn’t last. These teachers couldn’t keep it up forever, and when they started to fade, students drifted away, which seemed to crush their spirits even more. On the other end of the spectrum were teachers who were not only focused on their own selves being perfect, but on having perfect students as well. All this did was stress the students out and drive them away, which, in turn, caused the teacher a lot of stress. (A side note here – please stop expecting your students to be perfect, they’re hard enough on themselves!) Whichever way the perfectionism pendulum swung, the fact remains that perfectionist teachers are going to burn out.

Let’s face it – a lot of teachers are perfectionists. I fully admit that I am, and it’s something I have to fight every day. Because perfectionism is absolutely the one thing that will keep you from being a perfect teacher.


Coming Soon: Practice Makes Progress Part 2: The Failure of Perfect Students

An Interjection on Support Systems

I know I said this next one would be on perfectionism, but, in light of recent events, I feel compelled to start off with something perfectionism-adjacent: recognizing when you need to use your support system, and actually using it.

Many of us are used to being the ones everyone else depends on: we solve problems; we make things happen; we get things done. That is our role, and we fill it, gladly. But, in doing so, we can come to see that as our defining characteristic. So, when something happens to us, and we need to rely on the support of others, it is particularly hard to do. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the help of others; it’s just that we don’t know how to accept it.

I would argue that this is especially true for those of us in leadership roles. We are so used to being strong for everyone else that we are afraid to let them see us any other way, as if they will think of us a weak, and will lose respect for us.

I have had to rely on my friends, family, and coworkers quite a bit over the last little while, and I admit that that was hard for me. I’m used to being the strong one, the one with all the answers (quite literally, one of the most commonly heard phrases around my school is, “Ask Tara, she knows everything.”) and to not be in that position scared me. What if people started to see me as less of a person? Or, even worse, what if I really wasn’t as strong as they, and I, thought I was. Those thoughts brought out my stubborn side, making me do things, like going into work while sick, which probably just made things worse. When I wasn’t willing to use the support system around me, I ended up hurting myself more, and not being there for my students, as I had feared.

So here, on day five of the flu, and taking the sick day I should have taken yesterday, I finally realized this: relying on the people around you doesn’t make you weak, it means you are smart. No one will lose respect for you because you succumb to the flu, or need help to get something done. But, they might if you are too stubborn to take care of yourself properly, or to make use of resources you obviously need out of pride.

As much as we hate to admit it (and as much as we don’t want our students to know, ever) we are human. We give help, and we need help. And we definitely aren’t perfect.