It takes a very special person to embark on a teaching career, let alone sustain one. We teachers want so much for our students that we set the bar very high on what we do to help them. Yet this can lead to a problem that looks good on the surface, yet steadily erodes our ability to enjoy our jobs: perfectionism.
Perfectionism – such as trying to “do it all” and not prioritizing (to let some things go) – makes regular appearances in the lives of teachers experiencing burnout. It is like burnout’s evil sidekick, ready to jump in at any moment to make a hard job even harder.
Perfectionism is a topic I addressed in my book First Aid for Teacher Burnout (a book around which Learners Edge offers a course), as the advice to “avoid perfectionism” is not robust enough. Teachers deserve specific strategies to identify and sidestep perfectionism in various areas of the job to cut workload and make the profession sustainable and enjoyable.
Perfectionism Wants You to Be Your Worst Critic
As a junior high school English teacher for many years, I often crafted lessons, resources, assignments, and more for my students. If a line of text was slightly off-kilter or something was not perfectly organized, I would take a “quick moment” to fix the small flaw. The problem is that these small moments perfecting something add up to many moments, all of which could be spent recharging from a difficult job.
Perfectionism means your standards are high, but ultra-high standards for things that are not crucial to student success compound standards that are already hard to sustain. To improve this problem:
- Set healthy boundaries. Purge the unsustainable mindset that you be superhuman and stop short of exhausting commitments. For example, do not teach the after-school intervention program your first year of teaching (I learned this lesson the hard way).
- Surround yourself with encouragement. For example, display an encouraging mantra above your whiteboard or somewhere else where you will see it regularly, or change your computer password to “Not2Perfect”.
- Vent with solution-oriented colleagues regularly. Rather than lunch in your classroom with students every day, make time for adult connection to maintain a realistic sense of the profession you are in, typical struggles, and the emotions that are naturally involved.
Perfectionism Wants You to Control Everything
We are in a field that involves a certain level of chaos. We never know how every student is going to act, how every lesson is going to transpire, etc. An attempt to control everything results in work overload and anxiety as you try to control aspects meant to be more flexible. Try some of these:
- Find chores you can hand off to others. Keeping my bulletin boards current was one more stress until I made them “boards of love” and asked students to maintain them by posting the heartwarming letters and art they gave me. Alternatively, I could have asked students to post their goals and what they had mastered in class. The boards will not look tidy and perfect, but they will help students take ownership of the classroom and surround you all with reminders of your impact.
- Brave letting kids speak. Teachers who strive for perfection in student behavior sometimes mistake a silent classroom for a successful classroom; they fear group activities and student voices will mean chaos. Yet highly engaged students are better behaved, achieve more, and contribute to a more pleasurable classroom. Even if a more active learning environment gets out of control on your first try, keep attempting and tweaking the process so you can soon see spectacular results.
- Let other teachers take the reins. For example, maybe you do not have to orchestrate the school’s American Heritage Trip all alone or be Department Chair year after year.
Perfectionism Wants to Isolate You
I am about as Type A as a person can get, so I understand having your own high standards for how things “should be done”, but you must find areas to collaborate or your work is not sustainable. For example:
- If you are prone to think you cannot co-plan lessons because you like your lessons planned a certain way, share your lessons with colleagues in exchange for ancillary components. For example, the warm-up exercises, post-quizzes, English Learner support materials, home projects, etc. all constitute extra work someone else can cover.
- When you strive to do everything to perfection, you do not have time to bond with colleagues and vent/de-stress. Instead, choose walking with colleagues in the morning over perfecting a handout, choose laughing with your neighbor during Snack Break rather than assigning and grading nightly homework.
- If you are hunched over your laptop or a stack of papers more than you are interacting with human beings, consider what can go. See Dr. Denise Pope’s research on the limited value of homework and rethink what you assign. Find one or two colleagues who share your work ethic and plan to share lessons to split your workload. You simply cannot do it all if that “all” leaves you exhausted and discouraged.
Perfectionism Wants Your Health Goals to Fail
Healthy eating, adequate sleep, and exercise have all been shown to boost happiness, invigorate the brain, and combat stress and burnout. Yet a perfectionist approach steals time from these important activities. Try these;
- Partner with others so you have help getting a workout to happen. For example, speed walk the track with colleagues during lunch, or choose to eat lunch together in a location where “staff donuts” are unlikely to be placed. You can also partner with a spouse or family member on going to bed at the same reasonable hour.
- Keep diet changes simple. A strict diet where you count every calorie will not help you much if you can only stay on it for a couple of weeks, whereas giving up meat and dairy is simple, leaves you with a wide range of food options, and is surprisingly easy to embrace for the long haul. Start each day with a healthy protein shake so daytime cravings subside.
- Keep exercise plans simple. A plan to work out for an hour at the gym every morning at 4:30 AM before school is likely too ambitious to last, whereas a 35-minute YouTube yoga video in your living room might have more staying power. You can even do this in rotating teachers’ classrooms after school to purge stress before going home.
What works best for each teacher differs, so try different strategies to see which helps you the most. One thing that does not help any teacher, however, is perfectionism. It might seem helpful in the short term, but we need fantastic teachers to keep teaching for the long term. You deserve to have more time and resources to enjoy your profession, so do not let perfectionism – burnout’s evil sidekick – into your life.