There Are No Perfect TeachersMay 19, 2023
When I started teaching, I wanted to be that teacher every kid remembers. The one students visit years after they graduate. I wanted to be the guy who gets invited to a hundred graduation parties and makes it to all of them. I wanted to be that teacher who actually got to know every one of his students, and listened to them when no one else will.
I wanted to be that person who could make grammar, or geometry, or photosynthesis, or the French Revolution come alive. My classroom would be colorful and comfortable, and I’d burn candles so kids walking by in the hallway would smell French vanilla wafting from my room. I wanted my evaluations to score as “Highly Effective” every year because I wanted to be the best teacher in the school.
When I got into teaching, I wanted to be the perfect teacher.
And then I actually started teaching and learned what the weight of this pressure feels like. But in my first couple years, I bore this weight almost like a martyr. I ran myself ragged making sure every unit and every lesson was engaging and fun for my students.
I chaperoned every dance and never said no when asked to do something by administration or other teachers. I was calling home to parents every day, tutoring students before and after school. I was reading teacher books, doing nightly teacher Twitter Chats, listening to teacher podcasts on the way to work.
I refused to call in sick, and would hack my way through my lessons. I always smiled, and made sure kids knew that I loved my job and that I did it all for them.
And those difficult kids in my class, the ones who acted out but I could see behind their eyes that something was wrong, and that was why they were rude in my class, well I poured everything I had into them, and believed that if I worked hard enough, I could save them.
I was constantly striving for perfection.
And after several years of this, I burned out.
My tank was empty. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and the result of this was me bringing a substandard version of myself to all aspects of life. I wasn't showing up with my best energy at school, but also not really having it at home either. I was like a candle burning from both ends, and that does not end well.
Then a teacher who’d been one for a long time, over 40 years and she still loved the work, said something to me I’ll never forget. She said:
“Trevor, you don’t have to be perfect.”
I responded, “Yeah but-”
“ No buts, you don’t have to be perfect.”
“But I want to change lives and for my class to be memorable-”
“Me too, Trevor, but you don’t have to be perfect to do that.”
I let her words sink in and sit with me, and that was when I decided to start over and make some important changes in how I approached teaching. I stopped relentlessly beating myself up when I lost my patience with students. There were times when I ran out of good ideas, and students had to learn about the French Revolution from reading a book, making the class a little boring at times. I stopped grading every single assignment. I still made time to listen to my students, but I started to create boundaries to protect my emotional health as well. And sometimes, I would turn off the lights during my planning period so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone at all.
I used up all of my personal days. I didn't always chaperone prom. I had to choose only three graduation parties to attend, disappointing the rest. As much as I knew how effective and important simulations, projects, or hands-on learning are, there were times when we did quiet, individual work in my class because I had papers to grade.
And you know what I discovered? You don’t have to be perfect to get to know your students and build relationships with them. Perfection isn't required to make your class memorable and even fun. Heck, sometimes it won’t be memorable and fun, and that’s okay.
Students still learn and grow and fail and succeed in my imperfect classes.
I still strive to do my best and always get better at what I do. But I know I won’t be perfect, and so don’t have to carry the weight of trying to be. I don't know about you, but that's a heavy weight for me.
But with that weight gone, I find I’m a lot freer to be a better teacher.
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