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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

"A goal is a dream with a deadline." - Napoleon Hill

I'm a goal setter (and a teeny bit of a perfectionist). Although I don't always reach my goals, I know it's important to set them.

Visions of Perfection

When I was a new teacher, the goal to have the "perfect" classroom was top of my list. It started with making sure that my room was painstakingly organized, down to the last color-coded crayon holder. What is that, you ask? Well, it was a system I developed to house my students' crayons by placing them in milk cartons, which were cut, taped together, covered with construction paper to match the color of each crayon, and then covered once more with clear contact paper! Each little eight-box set was covered with the color of the crayon, so that students could place them back in the right little color-coded box after using. (What?)

And that's not all. This carried over to the ritual of covering all my white cardboard box storage containers (no plastic for me) with decorative contact paper. And to top it all off, designing perfectly coordinated bulletin boards with perfect themed borders, selected by season or lesson focus.

How in the world did I ever manage that? I'm shaking my head as I remember how. I spent way too much time in that room, long past the school day and into the night, seeking the goal of the perfect classroom long after others had already gone home. The custodians on my campus frequently had to usher me out the door at 10 PM!

With all that time spent on perfect classroom decor, the perfect lesson plans followed close behind, starting with the planning system. As a new teacher, I took great pains to find just the right lesson planner, markers to color-code my lessons, and stickers to give their appearance some pizzazz. The planning process took me days, and I'd spend most weekends on the living room floor of my apartment with curriculum tools spread all around me. I'd forget to eat at times, turning down social invites, until the perfect lessons were developed, all written out by hand. No fun, no life!

So there I am: new teacher in the perfect classroom with the perfect lesson plan, hoping to be that perfect teacher. Meanwhile, the demands on my time start to pour in, my school starts a new initiative, and my adorable, not-so-perfect kids are in my classroom, crying, acting out, running around, and needing me to be anything but perfect.

So when did I finally stop and take a breath? Thankfully, through difficult discovery in my second year teaching, I soon learned that seeking "perfection" from myself as teacher was not what it was about. (What was I thinking?) Rather, it was about the journey or progress that I made in my work as a new teacher, and about how I unpacked that learning, set goals for myself when I failed, and laughed out loud with my kids (sometimes till I cried) that made a difference!

Savoring and Learning from the Experience

It’s important for me to share this background, because I want you to know that I made it harder on myself than it needed to be. Teaching is far from perfect; rather it's "messy," and in that "mess" is where you will craft your teaching life and truly enjoy the journey.

Take a look at three tips with me today on how to chart -- and enjoy -- your early teaching progress:

1. Get Out and Have Fun

The process is simple. Take time for yourself, make play dates with friends, kick up your heels and have fun! This simple strategy shouldn't take much thought, but many new teachers neglect to do this in those early months or even years of teaching. If you take my advice and make time for fun, in the end you'll be glad that you did. You'll be a happier person and a happier teacher, not to mention a more inspired one. I make this important point because I think that when we forget to have fun, as I did in my early career, we lose a bit of ourselves, and then have to work hard to recapture it. I want you to learn from the beginning to have balance. It will truly enhance your level of satisfaction with your teaching career.

2. Capture It With a Camera

Get out your cell phone or digital camera and photographically chart the progress of your career. Snap pics of your room, colleagues, lessons, kids and events. I'm sorry I didn't take the time to do this. Early on, I was so busy seeking perfection that I forgot to capture it. Imagine that -- all those memories, lost! In my mind's eye, I can still see the crayon holders, contact paper boxes, bulletin boards and adorable kids in my classroom like it was yesterday, but I don't have any visuals to share. Don't let this happen to you. Slow down, snap a pic of the less-than-perfect (fill in the blank), sit back, enjoy it, and then share it. You will treasure these images for years to come.

3. Journal About the Journey

I know you think that you don't have time to do this, but believe me, you do. Once a day or week, 15 minutes is all it takes. And you don't have to put your thoughts in the form of a "traditional" journal. You can do it at the end of the day, in your lesson plan, on your cell phone or -- better yet -- in a blog. Charting and writing about the progress in your practice, whether you choose to do it publicly in a blog or privately to reflect on later, will be priceless. It's what will give you that lens into the who, what and when of your career, that story you'll never want to forget.

I wish that I had taken the time to capture my early career with photos or a scrapbook, or journaled my dreams and goals. There were many roller coaster rides over the years, and it would have been great to have details that I could share. It stings a bit not to have those, but for now, I'll have to be content with sharing written tidbits of my early teaching journey on my blog, in hopes of offering encouragement to those who are just beginning their journey.

Comments (48)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rebeca Lozano's picture
Rebeca Lozano
Spanish Language Teacher , PYP and IBDP International Baccalaureate & IGCSE

Although life is imperfection but when we start something we have in our mind that we want perfection.This will be my third year teaching and I am still fighting with my self when i decide not to go out because I need to plan to prepare or do things for school. It is hard to get out of this when you are new on teaching. So thank you so much for sharing this tips, I think I will follow all of them. :)

Melanie Link Taylor's picture
Melanie Link Taylor
Educational Consultant/Author, Southern California

Encouragement par excellence! Teaching is like gardening--plant ideas, fertilize with encouragement, weed poor learning habits, water the curiosity, keep in the sunshine of fun activity. But kids are also like a garden growing at their own pace. We teachers (gardeners) cannot compel them to learn (grow and produce) with our structure and force of personality. It's an organic, natural process.

angelaechols's picture
angelaechols
Third grade teacher from Hattiesburg, MS

As a new teacher this information is very informative. I will be sure to take your steps and enjoy my beginning years of teaching. I will also remind myself to relax a bit and enjoy the experience.

Melissa's picture

As a first year teacher, I think that this post really hit home to me. I wanted my classroom, lessons, etc to all be perfect. However, perfection was not a reality. I think that rather than trying to reach for perfection, I should learn from my imperfect classroom and lessons and let them be a guide to becoming better. I realized quickly, that perfection was not going to happen, but it was hard for me to accept this. All three points discussed about savoring the experience seem to help with enjoying teaching and becoming an great, not perfect, teacher.

Laura Coble's picture
Laura Coble
4th grade science and health teacher in Raeford, North Carolina

I am about to start my first year teaching this coming week! I am so excited yet very nervous about getting started. All that is running through my head is where do I start first? Planning or decorating/organizing my room? Will my ideas for classroom management be effective? I know that I should not worry myself because I will not REALLY know until that first day comes along. Your post was very helpful though. It is nice to know that it is okay to take time for yourself and everything does not have to be 'perfect' from day one. I think I will take you up on your suggestion and start a blog of my first year teaching journey.

Ashley's picture

Wow thank you for this article. I am currently in school to be a teacher and working at an SAT school part time. With my students I can be harsh on myself for not being a perfect teacher but I am learning more and understanding the true value of experience. Hopefully I will be able to learn from more than just my experience but also the experiences of others by reading articles like this one!

Esther Reed's picture

Lisa,
I am a new teacher and as I read your blog I can see myself in your words. I complete forgot about having fun, I stay home working on my masters homework or researching for new materials and activities to add to my lesson plans that I forget completely how to be and young adult that also needs to have time for myself. Before the school started I stayed so late cleaning and getting my classroom ready as well as stayed up until the wee hours of the night planning what I was going to teach and how I was going to teach it. But to tell you the truth, after only a month after school started I realized that no matter what I planned to do, it will never be as I planned it. I had to change my lesson plans more times than I can count on due to the levels of knowledge of my students or because activities outside of my classroom, or because my students do not always are willing to learn what I want or need to teach them and/or they are never cooperative with my activities. But at the end of the day as tired as I am I still love to see their little faces of surprised when I introduce something new to them. I am learning as I go, which forces me stay focus on my duty and looking out for the well being of my students. Thanks to folks like yourself that are willing to help novice teachers like me, is the reason I am still going forward with my classroom decor, keep looking for better and more entertaining activities that I can do with my kids and provided them with the education and the knowledge they will need to face the world of tomorrow.
Thanks for the bottom of my heart for all your support and your tips are great and I will keep them very much in my mind!!

Kristina's picture
Kristina
Fourth grade teacher from Rochester, New York

Lisa,
Thank you for this blog, because I myself am trying to be the perfect substitute teacher. I am trying to make the day run smoothly and exceed the teacher's expectations, and most of the time that back fires on me. I do journal about my journey, as I am not a teacher yet, I do have some time to write in a journal and reflect upon my day. I always reflect on any behavioral problems that happened during the day, "Why did it happen?" "How can we avoid a situation like this in the future?" "Could I have handled it differently?" I do this in case I have a similar situation in another class, or I sub again in that class, I now know what to avoid and how to handle it better. I also reflect on my day and certain lessons that I think could have gone better, and journaling really helps me progress as a substitute. I also like you said I made a scrapbook of students I have had, bulletin boards I have made, game boards that were implemented successfully, and my mission and goals that inspire me to be a teacher. I feel that this is a great motivator if you are every feeling burned out, or just needed to look back on all the hard work you have done. Like you said "it's a story that I will never want to forget". This post really has showed me not to try and be the perfect teacher, but to savor my experiences and reflect on them to help me become a better teacher, or the teacher that I want to be.

Alisha Malone's picture
Alisha Malone
2nd grade teacher from Bangs, Texas

As most others who have commented, I too can relate with your story. I was hired three weeks into the school year and did not have the luxury of spending hours prepping for the first day of my first year of teaching. I was given one week to prepare my classroom! Up until Christmas break I stayed up late trying to catch up for the summer I didn't have to prepare by making the most perfect decorations or activities for the following day or week ahead; I was disappointed when the students quickly ruined something I spent hours making just because of their age and understanding. By this point in the year I am not so hard on myself to be the perfect teacher with the perfectly decorated and organized classroom. Our time in room 2E is about getting comfortable with our information, making messes, being completely flexible, and having fun; sometimes this means having a dirty countertop that is long overdue for a clean up, or completely ditching a lesson plan and running with an idea off the cuff! These are the joys of teaching; there is beauty in the imperfections.

Deshaun's picture

Hello, my name is Deshaun Harris and I am currently a pre-service teacher and elementary math tutor. I want to begin by saying that this blog post is exactly what I needed to read. I often think about how can I structure the perfect classroom when I become a teacher or how can I structure my tutoring to where it is flawless. I must admit, I am extremely hard on myself, making sure their are no errors, and when things are not done exactly as I planned, I tend to worry. This article has molded by way of thinking and now I am aware that I need to focus on progression, all in efforts to see how far I have came along (in which I believe brings great joy). As of today, even as a tutor, I am going to start my own reflection journal to record the progress of my experiences in education. In about a year I will be a first-year teacher. In your opinion, what are some measurable goals I should set for myself as a rookie teacher?

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