How Perfectionism Holds New Teachers Back
The insidious internal drive for perfection, especially in the early years of teaching, is a recipe for frustration and burnout. Here’s how to embrace the messiness of learning.
As a novice teacher, John Spencer set a lofty goal for himself. In his classroom, he planned to emulate the gifted and charismatic social studies teacher who’d inspired him as a young middle school student.
Very soon, he realized that this might be an unattainable objective.
“I wanted to be just like that teacher I looked up to. I might not have articulated it that way at the time, but my own perfectionism stemmed from that picture in my head of what ‘good teaching’ looks like,” says Spencer, now an author and associate professor of education at George Fox University. As those first weeks and months of the school year rolled by in a blur of late-night grading and lesson planning, the difficult realization set in that “I could never be that teacher,” and he said to himself, “I would only be a worse copy.”
Meanwhile, in Lisa Dabbs’s first kindergarten classroom, a similar storyline was playing out. “It all started with making sure that my room was painstakingly organized, down to the last color-coded crayon holder,” writes Dabbs, who eventually became an elementary school principal. “This carried over to the ritual of covering all my white cardboard box storage containers (no plastic for me) with decorative contact paper.” Bulletin boards had “perfect themed borders, selected by season or lesson focus.”
Lesson planning, of course, required similar attention to detail, eating up the fledgling teacher’s evenings and weekends. “I’d spend most weekends on the living room floor with curriculum tools spread around me,” Dabbs recalls. “I’d forget to eat at times, turning down social invites, until the perfect lessons were developed.”
Perfectionism, the insidious notion that we must not just be good, we must excel at everything we do—classroom management, lesson planning, color-coded classroom supplies, and picture-perfect decor—can be an especially powerful drive among new teachers. At its core, it’s the belief that “in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best at all times,” writes author and educator Elena Aguilar in a three-part post for Education Week. This harmful (and futile) tendency “consumes a great deal of time and energy because every time we feel shame, blame, or criticism, our response is, ‘I wasn’t perfect enough. So let me be more perfect next time.’”
Unchecked, perfectionism is “a career-killer that will rob you of your joy,” says Spencer. For new teachers, it drives them to meticulously grade everything, overprepare for class time, volunteer for too many extracurricular activities, and expend energy addressing every single hiccup or misbehavior in the classroom. It leads to burnout and an early exit from their career.
Is it just an artifact of time and place—a natural-enough inclination for new teachers, given their abundance of energy and hope? In search of answers, we spoke with teachers and dug into our archives to collect advice and strategies that might help novice teachers prioritize what truly matters and embrace their imperfections.
Accept the Messy
If there’s one thing veteran teachers come to accept, it’s that kids and the day-to-day classroom environment are unpredictable and sometimes chaotic, even with extensive planning and oversight.
“When the wasp enters the room, when the brand-new assessment that the district purchased fails to load on the laptops, when the substitute list has been expended—there are multitudes of challenges that wait for teachers (and students) each day in the classroom,” writes Jason DeHart, a high school English teacher and author. But teachers aren’t “limited to the trajectory of curriculum or the next line of a script,” says DeHart. “Teachers are the scientists and artists who deal with the changing demands of the classroom.”
Starting from a place “where you recognize that you’re going to be imperfect, that teaching itself is going to be messy and there will be mistakes,” is key, says Spencer. Because when you always expect perfection, you lose “that sense of joy and accomplishment. That’s a huge part of avoiding burnout, the feeling that what we do matters.”
Delivering perfectly tuned lesson plans every day may be the goal, but it’s also unrealistic. To fill in the gaps, create and keep updating a set of backup strategies, a tool kit for when things get messy and don’t go according to plan—DeHart calls it having a Plan B (or C). Some of his favorites include a wall chart with ideas for early finishers or craft projects “that can be pulled out in a moment to continue the conversation about content in a new light.”
Collect a few simple graphic organizers, prepared question stems, or a “quickly drawn T-chart to explore a story or the plot diagram that could be traced on the wall.” During unplanned free moments, have students do sticky-note annotations or journal jots responding to a text they are reading or connecting what they’re reading to everyday life (the research suggests that this links learning to purpose and drives better academic performance). Developing an evolving set of these types of strategies—check in with colleagues for their favorites, as they’re likely to have their own clever go-to strategies—allows for quick adjustments when things don’t go according to plan.
“Freedom can be found on the other side of a panic-stricken moment to engage in some of the work that we’ve been meaning to get around to,” writes DeHart.
No Trophy Is Forthcoming
As a new teacher, Spencer “believed I had to give 110 percent in everything I did,” he writes in a blog post. “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.”
Eventually, when exhaustion began to take its toll, he realized that “you don’t get a trophy for packing your schedule with more projects and more accomplishments and meetings. All you get is a bigger load of busy.” He dialed back his work commitments, set a time when he’d leave the school building each afternoon, and made choices about where to go all-in and where not to.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, Spencer advises new teachers to “make a list of the things that have to be great, and the things that can be mediocre.” For him, lesson design and assessment were important, and conferencing with students was important. “Grading everything was not, so assessment was on my great list, grading was not.
“My goal was to narrow it down to five key things in the important list of what I want to be good at. That didn’t mean I’d be great at them all the time, or even perfect,” he says. “But I had to find where I’d give 100 percent, and where I’d give 20 percent. You just have to do that.”
The Scrapbook Years
In that first year in her “perfect classroom with the perfect lesson plan, hoping to be that perfect teacher,” kindergarten teacher Lisa Dabbs was astonished when the day-to-day reality of her new profession set in.
By year two, weary and overwhelmed by new schoolwide initiatives and sometimes-fussy students, she made the “difficult discovery” that she’d gotten it all wrong: “Seeking ‘perfection’ from myself as teacher was not what it was about,” she writes. “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 that made a difference.”
Tracking that progress, including the highs and lows as she learned and grew as a teacher, became her focus: She snapped photos of the less-than-perfect moments, and of her classroom, her colleagues, her lessons, events, and students. In that same vein, teacher Lisa H. told us via Facebook that she keeps a “feel good” box where she collects nice things students give her: notes, drawings, trinkets, etc. “Then on those days when you wonder what you were thinking when you became a teacher—and you will have those days—look in your feel-good box to be reminded that you are loved and are making a difference.”
Dabbs also took a few minutes to journal, either daily or weekly, tracking the hits and misses so she’d have a “lens into the who, what, and when” of her work, a long view that gave her perspective and a feeling of accomplishment.
Balance May Not Be What You Think
Educators are “constantly told that we need to make sure we have a good work-life balance and that we need to embrace self-care,” writes Joe Mullikin, an elementary school principal. “To the point where a quick Twitter search will provide you with literally thousands of self-care, relaxation, and #InvestInYourself tips.”
For all educators, but especially new ones, work-life balance is an elusive, often guilt-inducing, concept, and a very difficult equilibrium to establish and maintain, given the reality and unpredictability of teachers’ busy lives. Refusing to take work home, for instance, is a common—but unrealistic—suggestion, maintains Crystal Frommert, a middle school math teacher. “If a teacher has an unusually busy week and must take work home, is she ‘out of balance’? It’s inevitable that work will occasionally seep into personal time and vice versa. Work and life are not a zero-sum game,” writes Frommert, who favors the Eisenhower Matrix system of prioritizing tasks by urgency and importance.
Other time- and sanity-saving approaches: Develop high-level strategies that put more of the responsibility for learning in the hands of students by assessing more, grading less; reducing teacher talk; and encouraging students to hunt for answers rather than immediately asking the teacher.
Meanwhile, although establishing boundaries around teacher work and personal time is important, there’s another definition of balance that’s worth examining. “Finding balance isn’t necessarily about a scale, like a device that moves back and forth as you add or remove weight on either side,” says Spencer. “Balance is the ability to get back up when you fall down. You’re going to fall down a lot as a new teacher.” Have you developed strategies that allow you to recover, both emotionally and in terms of time management? “Can you get back up?” Spencer asks. “Are you developing that sense of balance?”