Striving for perfection is demoralizing…

Today was the last day of school and just as I promised the kids, I waited to crack open the envelopes and read their evaluations after they left.  This year I was determined to not focus on the negatives, but of course it is so hard not to.  90% of the evaluations could be wonderful and I would focus on the other 10%.  I have come to learn that 3-6% of the kids simply will not “like” the class due to a variety or reasons.  This year I hit 2%.  But there were 3 small pockets of kids who while they reported overall to get a lot out of our time together, had some issues.

Issue #1-They though that I should do more “teaching.”  They weren’t happy about having to figure out things on their own.  They didn’t like when they had a question that I would ask them a question in return and help them determine what they next step would be.  In their words, they simply wanted to be told what to do so they could learn more.

Issue #2-They did not “learn” enough.  They equated “learning” with the amount of facts that they were responsible for knowing. One in particular sticks out that essentially said they would like to cover more events instead of going in depth into fewer.  Another one said that their friends “learned” more because they covered more history.

Issue #3-They interpreted me brainstorming with them, working things through with the class, changing plans because of a tech problem, and changing direction simply because we figured out how to do something better based on the previous days work as me not being prepared.

What was also interesting is that most of the kids who had one of the issues above agreed that they became “stronger” because of the issue in spite of me “not teaching,” not giving them enough “facts,” and coming in “unprepared.”  The three issues above always plague me.  When I first started shifting from a more tarditional style there were A LOT of kids who had issues #1 and #2.  I still have a bit to go I guess in making sure I help them interpret why doing things so differently than what they are used to is a good thing.  Could be as simple as adding a “here is why we are doing this” sort of statement when they are happening.  I have tried to add more “here is how the skills used on this project will help you when you…”  I think that makes a big difference for them, and for me to make sure I am having them do something that is important.

Drives me crazy that I am still sitting here in school focused on the several evaluations that pointed out problems.  The reality is though that by focusing on those is what will make my class stronger for everyone. Yea the good stuff makes me all warm and fuzzy and feeds my soul, but the ones that rip me are the stuff that challenges me. The stuff that drives me to become a master at what I do.  It’s funny how I am kind of a messy person.  My desk is piled high, my clothes are usually a bit ruffled, and I don’t care if my lawn is 5 feet high.  But when I am in front or with the kids I want to be perfect(however, I work really hard at pulling off a class that seems to be spontaneous in nature).  I don’t want to be good, I want to be perfect.  That quest burns me out, it sometimes sucks me down.  I constantly feel as though I am not good enough or I should be doing better.  I end up focusing on the negative instead of the positive.  I totally lack balance.  Grrr….alright, a future post should be about all the good stuff they said to balance this one 😉

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.  ~Harriet Braiker


  1. I have very similar reactions to my class where I don’t really “teach”, but they seem to learn something despite of that. I always feel inadequate because it often seems like I’m not doing anything.

    As I return to the music classroom I am curious how I will change. Being a conductor almost forces hierarchy.

  2. Hi ya,

    A pre “this is why we’re going to do this” and a “what did we all learn from this activity” would help but you know, Paul, it’s obvious you’re a great teacher so go on ahead and write that post about the positive stuff they said.

    All too often we spend ages thinking about the ways we’re not good enough without thinking of all the ways we shine.


  3. Paul, this post terrifies me. I teach in a private school and I too have a messy desk. I was told some parents complained about it this past year. It’s just a place to pile stuff, really, and a place to hide the milk $ til turn in day. (I hope to get it replaced by 2 tall file cabinets for next year, will find out mid July if my wish will come true) I roll my chair next to whomever needs an extra presence to stay on task or squeeze into an empty spot in the group most of the time. I am taking very baby steps into non-traditional teaching because it is SOOO different from what my kiddos did last year and from what their parents expect. I feel I have to make sure there’s paperwork going home and still try to do some deeper things that I know will stick. I had one parent (my suspected desk-hater) who seemed disturbed on the occasions when there weren’t math sheets or spelling words to do for homework some nights. They don’t hesitate to complain to administration if they don’t like something, and as they are paying, every comment is taken as if they are going to pull their child the next day and create a hole in our budget. Our new principal/teacher has been teaching in an online school for the past few years, so I hope this means the beginning of a culture change. I can’t afford any issues like your #1-3, so I am going to go super slowly in this endeavor to go beyond the way it”s always been done. My “hater” did like it when I used an online spelling site to have the children pretest themselves every day near the end of the year (if they got a 100, they didn’t have to take the ‘real test’ or have spelling homework for that list from that day on) Even though her daughter had to take the ‘real’ test that week, she still viewed it favorably. Eh, better late than never;).
    Sorry for the overly long comment, but this struck a nerve…located in my toes…lol.

  4. Paul,
    I really enjoyed your honest reflections here. It is “growth-inspiring) ( yes, I am making up my own phrases.. 😉 ) to look at areas where we can grow, but it is definitely “demoralizing” to focus on perfection to the point where we miss the joys of our successes. It sounds like you had numerous successes, and the reality is that we will never achieve 100% positive responses when we deal with people. Each student and parent has an agenda that is written far before they enter your classroom, and sometimes teachers who ask for the truth get muddled in the responses of people who don’t even know their own truth! I hope this makes some sense to you.
    Keep up the awesome work. You have inspired me to keep up the good fight for teaching from the heart.

  5. I loved reading this post. At first, I just felt sad at your students reactions. But then I realized something–I was a teenager who had similar reactions when teachers were like you. So now I’m trying to understand teenage self. I think I just didn’t understand. I thought the teachers were just being vague and elusive on purpose, to confuse me and make me feel dumb. Plus, I was such a product of the system that yes, I just wanted to know, what do I need to know for the test?

    Ridiculous, I realize now, but it makes perfect sense from a traditional school standpoint. Why would I want to think deeply about something if it’s not on the test?

    I think it would definitely help to explain your reasons. Maybe go so far as to tell them, it really doesn’t matter if you can remember xyz fact for a test. You’ll forget it the moment the test is over. I want you to experience the thrill of deep, critical thought. I want to share with you these things that are so interesting to me, because I think they might interest you too.

    I don’t know, perhaps I’m too idealistic though.

    Good for your for being so reflective. And yes, trying to be perfect is counter-productive. At least for me. I’ve gone through the same thing as a mother. I’m finally realizing, perfection is NOT attainable, and it is so nice to be able to just relax, shrug off the mistakes, and keep going!

  6. Paul,

    Reading this puts me in mind of a similar teacher I had way back when in 1983. He taught a class that even had a vague title (Humanities). I couldn’t wait for the class, which was only open to seniors. It was one of those classes that students talked about a lot. I don’t know what my classmates were expecting, but several of them voiced the same points you’ve mentioned, even mid year. It amazed me that they couldn’t see that the broad range of things we were discussing and the challenge projects we did were giving them space to really think and come up with their own thoughts. I vividly remember getting into an argument with one of them just before a class mid year. I’m not in touch with any of them, but I wonder if any of them get it now. For my part, I think John Nelson of Farmington High was doing a great thing for his students in this class and others.

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