Frowning and stressed over a pile of student essays, Mary wrings her clenched hands and searches her desk drawers for another working red pen. Had all of them died already? Within only four hours of marking? “Oh, well,” Mary thinks to herself. “I’ll stop by the dollar store to get some on my way home from school.”
At 6:30 PM, she pushes the school doors open and says her goodbyes to the night custodian as she scrambles to her car, shoving the unmarked essays in the back seat—her hated companions for the night and the next morning.
“The students must get their papers back as soon as possible with lots of comments on the pages!”
Mary heard this advice at a professional development session, and she took it to heart.
After buying red pens at the dollar store, Mary makes her way home. As she flops on her living room coach, she inhales her dinner—a fried chicken leg with fries, bought from Walmart on the way home, and glares at the bag of essays lounging by the door. It’s 8 PM now, and she’s really rather spend time with her fiancé or read Moby Dick, but the essays are waiting.
Students must get their papers back as soon as possible! With lots of comments!
Mary remembers. She has a responsibility to her students. So, she dutifully plods through the essays on her coffee room table, writing insightful comments on each paper, until she falls asleep close to midnight.
The bell tolls at 6 AM, and she is back at it, showered and dressed, marking essays on her coffee table. She’s only got through four essays in an hour! Oh no! The students must get their essays soon! It’s already been three days since they handed them in!
Wracked with guilt, Mary goes to school and goes through the motions. Even though she has presented her lessons dynamically, and she helped many students one-on-one, she feels like a failure. She’s taken too long with her marking. She should have had these papers back by now!
To add to her suffering, a student comes back to her desk demanding an extra mark on his test. While he argues his point, he shows Mary where she made a spelling error. “It’s spelled ‘intransient,’ he says, not ‘intranscient.’” Mary blushes and curses her luck. “How could I make such a careless mistake?” she wonders. “How can I call myself an English teacher, anyway?”
THE PAIN OF PERFECTION
Can you relate to Mary?
I can, because I once was Mary! In fact, the story you read was my nearly daily experience for nearly two years when I was a beginning teacher. Needless to say, I was miserable. However, my experience taught me to know my enemy—perfectionism. As a recovering perfectionist, I know too well the traps of this enemy called perfection. Here is my advice for any teachers battling perfectionism:
Understand the characteristics of perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the misguided belief that if a person acts perfectly, or reaches exceptionally high standards of performance, then happiness will follow. Perfectionists insist that they reach their very high standards of performance, and, if they do not, they personally judge themselves and expect judgement from others. To avoid self-judgement and or judgement from others, perfectionists are motivated to achieve.
Common traits of perfectionist teachers may include: 1) procrastination (fear of failure causes delays in work), 2) excessive time spent on work (e.g. two hours on a poster display), 3) fault-finding (e.g. “the poster display was good, except for that faded paper in the corner”), 4) goal-driven, not process driven (e.g. more focused on the goal/result of making the best poster display, rather than the joy of creating the poster display itself), 5) self-esteem based on performance, not inner worth (e.g. “If I am a great teacher with a 100% success rate, then I will be worthwhile”).
Perfectionism is reinforcing. When a perfectionist seems to behave perfectly—for example, when a teacher feels he or she taught the ‘perfect lesson’—he or she is rewarded by a rush of dopamine and a powerful feeling of goodness. Because these powerful feelings occur once in a while, and are memorable, perfectionists chase those moments of perfectionism relentlessly.
Know the consequences of perfectionism.
Teachers can easily fall prey to the consequences of perfectionism, for they may not only be battling perfectionism from within themselves, but they also hear messages from professional development, and possibly administration, expecting very high standards. I once went to a PD session, for example, where I was told to assign practice each night, mark it the following day, and give it back to students the next day! With a daily teaching roster of 150 students, these standards are totally unrealistic!
But if teachers aim to reach these unrealistic standards, the will suffer: 1) burnout, 2) lowered self-esteem, 3) loss of friends (e.g. due to critical nature), and 4) loss of life goals/pleasure in life.
Look at Mary, martyred by her students’ English papers, when she wanted to read a book and spend time with her fiancé!
It can help the perfectionist to visualize the long-term effects of daily perfectionist habits, which may include very poor health, isolation, and depression.
Notice and argue with perfectionistic thoughts.
The first step to dismantle perfectionism is to monitor your thoughts and dispute the perfectionistic ones. Here are some examples of perfectionist thoughts/beliefs:
- All-or-nothing thinking—Believing something is either excellent or terrible; a person is either a success or a failure, with no in between. This all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking, can send you into misery. For example, Mary did not see how much progress she had made in marking. Instead, she spent the day feeling like a failure because she hadn’t met her self-imposed, very high standard of handing back papers within three days. If she had caught herself thinking this way, she could have told herself instead: “I’m engaged in all-or-nothing thinking. I am forgetting the shades of grey. In fact, I’m not a failure of a teacher. I spent many hours this weekend marking—I did my part. I did my best!”
- The musts and the shoulds—Any time you hear your thoughts telling yourself you “must” or “should” do something, refute the thoughts. For example, Mary told herself that she “must” hand back work within three days and “should” continue marking in the night. These “must” statements are a sign your exceptionally high standards at work. Refute them with more realistic expectations. For example, Mary could challenge her must and should thoughts by stating out loud: “It’s unrealistic for me to always hand back work within three days. Of course, it is ideal for me to hand work back as soon as possible, but some weeks are more challenging and busy than others. This week was one of those weeks. I am also spending a lot of time writing useful comments on those papers. Those useful comments will be more useful than the timing in the end.”
- Critical thoughts about mistakes- When you make a mistake, and you inevitably will, challenge any self-defeating thoughts with empowering thoughts about the universality of failure. For example, when Mary made a mistake in her marking and her spelling, she thought she was a poor English teacher. If she had monitored and caught this thought, she might have challenged herself by saying, “Wow, just another reminder of my humanity. I’ve made a mistake, just like everyone else. It’s no big deal. Now I know how to spell the word correctly!”
Show yourself compassion.
When you make a mistake or fail to live up to your exceptionally high standards, engage in some self-care. Take a time out. Drink a cup of tea. Take a warm bath. Make your health a priority again. Leave school. Sit with your feelings. You will be more motivated to get back into the ring when you are well-rested and clear-headed. Here are some ideas of exercising self-compassion.
Aim for good enough.
When I was deep in my battle with perfectionism, I had a coworker who was my polar opposite. While I was stressing about marking and reaching self-imposed tight deadlines, he spent his prep time texting his friends plans for the weekend and catching up on the news. When it came time to decorate our rooms for open house, he stapled some posters nonchalantly, crooked and bent, onto the wall outside his door. Meanwhile, I laboured over a masterpiece.
From him I learned an important lesson: good enough is good enough.
As a perfectionist, your good enough work probably already reaches very high standards because you hold exceptionally high standards. So, aim for good enough. See what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised—and relieved—that no one notices that your posters aren’t straight and that you haven’t handed the essays back yet.
Focus on the key wins.
My easygoing teacher coworker was in no way a poor teacher. He was an excellent teacher, well-liked by coworkers and respected by students. While he didn’t worry about handing essays back right away or the aesthetics of his classroom, he did put effort into his lessons. He researched stories to engage. He smiled. He showed passion.
He focused on the few things he knew would have the greatest effects, and he was okay with being mediocre at the rest.
What do you consider most important to your students’ success? Can you formulate some realistic standards (that are good enough) in these areas? Outside of these key areas, what can you do in a mediocre way?
YOU CAN BEAT PERFECTIONISM!
Though perfectionism pops in a self-judgemental thought or a late night at school once in a while, I have largely overcome perfectionism, and you can too. Take it one step at a time, perhaps find a coworker or friend to keep you accountable, and share your successes with us below. I would love to hear your stories!
For your students and for yourself, here is an excellent video explaining perfectionism and some strategies for coping with it:
To your teaching success and work-life balance,