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