Saturday, August 2, 2014

Am I Enough?

I am a perfectionist. Somewhere in my past, I internalized the message that my worth was tied up in being perfect. I do not blame the adults in my life for this message. Chances are they were dealing with their own perfectionism. The fact is that I thought I had to do everything perfectly, which has had a negative impact on my life.

In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown explains that perfectionism is one of the ways we try to protect ourselves from expressing vulnerability. The problem is, it is through vulnerability that we connect with others and access our ability to change and grow. My own struggle with perfectionism has at times left me feeling isolated and kept me from trying new things. As educators, if we are not able to appropriately express our vulnerability, then we risk passing along "gifts" like perfectionism to another generation of learners. (If you have not watched Dr. Brown's TED Talks on Vulnerability and Shame, they are worth your time - especially as you think about setting a classroom culture for the coming school year.)

Part of the problem, is that we are fighting against a culture of perfectionism in education. Here are two examples from this past week. (Be forewarned: one of the problems with being a perfectionist is that I read perfectionism into things where it might not exist. I will readily engage in a conversation in the comments if you think I am wrong about these examples.) First, I read a review of the book, Building a Better Teacher. The reviewer ends his piece with, "Learning on the job just shouldn’t cut it anymore." This seems to suggest that teachers ought to be perfect from day one. Then, I watched Campbell Brown on The Colbert Report. Her new project, Partnership for Educational Justice, is working to help "students fight laws that keep poorly performing teachers in their classrooms." While this sounds "common sense," it ends up creating expectations that teachers be perfect: perfect in their teaching; perfect in their implementation of district plans (even if they are pedagogically unsound); and perfect in student learning (even though they have little control over this aspect of education). Therefore, teachers are expected to be perfect from their first day to the day they retire. As Dr. Brown's research has shown, this push for perfectionism can inhibit teachers' ability to collaborate with peers, connect with students, and be innovative in their teaching. Is this really what we are after in education reform?

The woman who performed our wedding was the campus minister at Western Michigan University when I did my doctoral research. I think it is safe to say that my individual work with her helped me to overcome some of the perfectionistic tendencies that threatened to interfere with me completing my dissertation. She helped me to see that I am not called to be perfect but gracefully imperfect. This is the message I try to pass along to the teachers I work with. For me, graceful imperfection entails: (1) awareness when things go wrong; (2) acceptance so I don't resort to blame; and (3) adjustment so I can grow from the experience.

I still struggle with perfectionism. Now, however, I try to give myself permission to handle the struggle with grace. Hopefully, this post fits into that category.


  1. Thanks for sharing your vulnerability as an educator and these great reflections!

  2. I found your blog almost by pure chance, i am a mathematics enthusiast but your reflections on perfectionism seems apropriate and to the point, specially when you ask what we are really searching behind education reform. Congrats and keep up the good work.

  3. I keep reminding myself, the goal is to be perfectly imperfect. Thanks for a great post.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)