Perfectionism and the honourable art of being good enough

Not that long ago, to my shame, I found that 15 minutes had passed as I scoured the web for the ‘perfect’ picture of an iceberg to illustrate a point about bilingualism in the classroom. Why did I do this? Did I imagine that my adult audience would struggle with the concept of an iceberg? Did I really think that one image of an iceberg would differ that greatly from the next for my purpose? No, of course not. What lay behind my foolish pursuit is a tendency towards perfectionism, something which has oft occupied me in fruitless endeavours as I’ve railed against the possibility of being ‘just’ good enough.

The ‘good enough’ teacher

As my most recent cohort of ITE students completed their PGCE, I have found myself reflecting upon the honourable art of being ‘good enough’ as a teacher. Teaching is a profession where there is ALWAYS more you can do – your marking can always be more frequent or more detailed, your lesson planning can always be more comprehensive or more ambitious, your resources can always be formatted more precisely or a better illustration selected, and your subject knowledge (at least in the context of history) can always be more extensive and aware of recent scholarship. Every year we work with our beginning teachers to try and help them to see where their time is best spent. We exhort them to work hard but to find a balance, to gain important foundational experiences of planning for themselves whilst also pragmatically utilising existing resources for other elements of their teaching. We support them to recognise that as novices some aspects of their role will take longer at first but that, over the training year, they should see a growing ‘efficiency’ in their planning and preparation for teaching.

However, despite these efforts we will always encounter those who continue to strive for perfectionism in all things, growing increasingly frustrated and beleaguered and exhausted when they find this to be unsustainable. As a teacher, juggling myriad priorities and factors which are simply not within the individual classroom practitioner’s control (factors such as school culture, children’s home lives, global pandemics) make this ambition of perfection even harder to attain. In these situations, I often find myself being moved to talk to my students as a parent rather than a teacher educator.

So as a parent what do I want for my children?

As a parent a key hope I have for my children’s educational experience is that they will enjoy consistency of practice from teachers who know and understand them – consistency that is of a high standard but certainly no expectation of ‘perfection’. I want my children to have the experience of being taught by a good teacher who is there day in day out, lesson in lesson out, supporting them to understand the knowledge they are acquiring and, most importantly, encouraging them to ask questions and be curious so they are motivated to learn more. Of course, I would also like them to have a teacher who takes their responsibility as an educator seriously, is keen to enhance their subject knowledge, improve their classroom practice and stay engaged with their subject/ phase community. Most of all though, I want someone who is there every day doing a ‘good’ job (obviously allowing for the inevitably difficult days that come along every now and then because we’re all human). This is not to encourage idleness or complacency but simply to recognise that flashes of brilliance, or phenomenally ambitious and super creative lessons, that burn the teacher out and are surrounded by below-par practice, are no good for my child in the long run. Solid, consistent practice is worth its weight in gold.

Coming to learn and accept this is one of the hardest aspects of the ITE training year for beginning teachers who possess these perfectionist tendencies. From the very start of the course, they push themselves in their efforts to be identified as ‘outstanding’ teachers – for this very reason I’m so glad that we no longer grade students like this on ITE courses, instead we now summatively assess if they have done enough to meet the Teacher Standards. These students find it very hard to accept that, no matter how well the lesson went, there is always room for a conversation about how to develop further; they often see these conversations as an inditement of their ‘failure’ to live up to expectations. I frequently find myself asking them ‘whose expectations?’ as I try to help them focus on their invariably significant strengths and successes they have demonstrated across their practice.

The art of being good

Did my perfect iceberg make a difference to my teaching session? Not in the slightest. Were there other things I could have spent those 15 minutes on that would have had more impact? Absolutely. Most of the time ‘good’ is ‘good enough’. If a teacher can manage to be ‘good’ all of the time, well, then they truly have achieved something rather impressive. Reliability, consistency and steadfastness in teaching practice means more than most perfectionists can dare to imagine.

And if you’re a teacher who is ‘outstanding’ (whatever that really means) in your practice 100% of the time and is thriving on it, well then, I doff my cap to you. Carry on as you were and remember to take care of yourself.

Further reading:
I found this article in The Guardian, exploring why accepting being good enough might be helpful in many areas of our lives, really useful when I read it a couple of years ago. I hope you might find it helpful too:


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