That I definitely am.
Ideal, I am not.
One of the greatest drawbacks of teaching is that we are never done. Nothing is ever done perfectly.
When my family are working their nine to fives or their shifts, I am either in school or working from home. When they can measure their performance by an anaesthetic well done or a car that now actually runs safely, I could always have completed a task or a lesson differently, better.
With an unending workload and no specific route for success, how can we continue to enjoy teaching and thrive for our own sakes and those of our classes?
I can’t say that this is something I’ve smashed. Perfectionist that I am, I’m still frequently struck by the fact that I’ve either spent an entire evening making a research poster look more attractive (which definitely doesn’t deserve that sort of time!) or that the lesson I’ve just taught could have gone better, even if it went well in the first place. This isn’t something I am now an expert in.
I guess that being idealistic but not ideal really comes down to a few key principles.
Accept that you are who you are and you need to do things your way.
For the first four or so years of my teaching career, I copied others in the classroom. I watched what they did and then did it myself. Not a problem, as such, but not the most effective approach I’ve ever taken either. When I realised that I wasn’t making it my own, a lightbulb exploded above my slightly frazzled teacher brain.
It wasn’t enough to copy good practice, I had to be me too.
Making the move from mimicry to adaptation was life changing. I’m so much more at home in my own classroom now, so much more content to run with my own strengths and quirks, to let students know my weaknesses and how I try to work on them.
Make your work load and classroom practice work for you specifically.
When I was training, I was told not to use sarcasm. Ever. That’s fine. No one has to use sarcasm in the classroom; the issue was that I am sarcastic. Sarcastic and deadpan. Taking that out of my repertoire took humour out of my repertoire and, now, a decade on, I realise that my humour, when used wisely and in a mutually appreciated way, can avoid conflict and direct confrontation, build relationships and get around the defences of the most difficult to reach students. The students off whose backs compliments glide like water off the proverbial duck’s back.
Accept that good enough is good enough. No one can be perfect.
So many of us going into teaching because we really are idealists. We are in earnest. We want to make a difference and we really believe that we can.
Perfectionism is so tempting in such an environment and with such motivation because it ties in with our core belief that what teachers do really matters. With this as our guiding light, it’s so easy for us to become blinded. We can invest countless hours into making beautiful displays, worksheets, lesson plans, schemes of learning in ways that have no impact.
Our work may be nigh on perfect but the hours we put in don’t equate to impact.
What I’ve had to force myself into is the guiding principle of: “good enough”.
I have to ask myself, from this point onwards will what I’m doing make a difference? Is it “good enough” already? When remaking my research poster for the second time because I didn’t like the initial design, I should have been stricter with myself. I like to work and the temptation to make the research beautiful, to try to make it the best poster, obscured the fact that it really didn’t mater.
The first poster was good enough.
In fact, it was good.
I’d lost sight of my need for work-life balance and time off, wasting precious time at home without there being any measurable, tangible impact, unless you count someone telling me that they liked the design (use Adobe Spark, it’s amazing).
Speak to the voice in your head that tells you that enough is not enough, that you are not good enough.
We’re largely naturally comparative and naturally competitive. In a world where we’re constantly scrutinised and many of us find ourselves with performance related pay, it’s no surprise that we want to be the best at what we do. When our outcomes are the grades that enable our students to live the lives they want to lead, that enables them to be contributors to a better world, it’s not surprise that we want to be the best at what we do.
If you’re like me, it can be easy to quickly slide along the slippery mental slope from contentment to fear of inadequacy like a chute at a waterpark. One moment I’m fine, the next I’ve seen someone else’s amazing powerpoint and I feel like a failure.
When that voice tells me I’m not good enough or that someone else is better or that I’m not doing enough, I have to speak to it.
I speak to it.
Listening to that voice has never been productive. Silencing it by telling myself a more realistic narrative, guided by my idealism and desires to do my best, is something I’ve learned over time. Learned to apply more or less effectively depending on other factors like my general health, happiness and life situation.
If we’re not able to do this for ourselves (practice makes perfect), this is something we need our colleagues for. They’ll see where we shine when we feel like failures.
That voice cries out accusingly: “I am not ideal.”
That I definitely am.
Ideal, I am not.
And I don’t have to be, that’s the key. It’s enough to be the teacher I was made to be, to be me, to try and to persevere.