How new teachers can triumph over perfectionism

How new teachers can triumph over perfectionism

It's the joke answer to that difficult job interview question: "My biggest weakness is that I'm a perfectionist." But the reality of perfectionism isn't funny, with massive stress caused by unrealistic expectations.

When you start any new job – but particularly one as all-encompassing as teaching – it is natural to want to hold yourself to a high standard and make your mark. However, striving for an unattainable level of performance when you're just starting out will be of no benefit to you or your students.

Perfectionist traits can have their roots in many places, says psychologist Bradley Busch, particularly your childhood. And they can be further triggered or manipulated by the environment you're in. Ultimately, he explains, the problem boils down to having an unhealthy relationship with mistakes and setbacks, leading to a fear of failure.

"It's good to have high standards, and to want to be as good as you can be and improve," he says. "But that is quite a separate thing from perfectionism, which is often about never making mistakes. It's an important distinction to make."

It's also the opposite of what your teacher training is about. The whole purpose of this period is for you to learn – and that means making mistakes. A lot of them. You are discovering how to do a job that you simply don't know how to do yet, and mucking up is the fastest way to doing it better.

"You need to reframe the way you view setbacks," Busch continues. "When you make mistakes, you need to see them as learning opportunities. You haven't had lots of experience as a teacher yet, so it's unrealistic to expect that you'll be as good now as you will be in 10 years' time. You will make mistakes because you just don't have that experience and that knowledge base yet."

One of the most stress-inducing parts of training is lesson observations. You'll be observed frequently, by other teachers, by fellow trainees, by your lecturers from university and others – and there will be times when your observations do not go to plan. It is essential, then, to consider these moments in the right way.

"A lot of people get very, very stressed about observations, especially if they're graded, which we know from research is a terrible idea," Busch says. "They can feel that they are being judged as a person, rather than getting feedback on the task. But if you can just see it as a conversation about the task at hand, with someone who is wiser and wants to help you, all of a sudden that feedback isn't perceived as criticism and judgment, but a way of getting better."

If you're not already familiar with Carol Dweck's theory of growth mindset, you definitely will be soon, as it has reached ubiquity in education circles. In short, it proposes that the best way to make progress is to believe that you can improve, rather than thinking your ability is fixed. Teachers are encouraged to nurture this mindset in their pupils, but it's just as important for those who are starting out in education too. A rubbish lesson does not mean that you're rubbish – you just have some things to work on. Dweck's book Mindset is a good place to start, and Busch also recommends US teacher Ron Berger's work An Ethic of Excellence for advice that is applicable both to students and new teaching staff.

Just as crucial, he says, is learning not to be worried about other people's progress or opinions about your development. You will improve at your own pace and that pace is the one that's right for you.

"It's better to focus on getting good than worrying about whether people think you're good," continues Busch. "I have conducted research into fear of failure and if you look into any area – be it sport, school, business – the number one fear that people have following a failure is embarrassment.

"But you have permission to do that because you are learning. You don't want to be making those same mistakes in five years' time, so you have permission to ask questions and not be perfect right now. Every teacher has been there and done it themselves and they know that they didn't know everything at the start. It is completely OK that you're not the finished article yet, so take the pressure off yourself."

This article is taken from the EdCentral Alternative Student Teacher Manual, which is available to download now for free.​

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