Monday, 6 July 2015

Escaping Perfectionism

Today's blog post has a slightly less 'scientific' basis than some of my others, although it still revolves around education. Specifically, it has to do with what myself and many other teachers suffer from: a problem of perfectionism. I know I'm not the only teacher out there who has struggled with, or is currently struggling with, issues concerning workload.

Anyways, I was reading through the February 2015 edition of Psychologies magazine when I came across an article by Oliver Burkeman entitled 'Escape the curse of perfectionism'. Now, a bit of personal background information is needed here: a few months ago I was having cognitive behavioural therapy, where we focused on my tendency towards 'perfectionism'. The counsellor felt that  many of my struggles were based on a ridiculous desire to be an 'Outstanding' teacher (I use a capital letter O to signify that I've based much of what it means to be outstanding on Ofsted standards).  She told me that I needed to learn how to 'do less' and accept that being 'good enough' is, in fact, good enough. I'm sure many of you might agree with me that this is easier said than done.

As I was saying, I stumbled upon this article, and many of my counsellor's words seemed to come back to me. First of all, I liked that it described (but didn't cite, tisk tisk) research which 'shows it's detrimental to productivity and creativity' to strive for perfection. It also said that perfectionism leads to 'unhappiness' and 'higher rates of suicide'. Even more reason for me to kick the habit; I do enjoy living.

It then went on to describe how perfectionism itself is rooted not in the desire to be perfect, but to 'protect yourself from feelings of inadequacy'. Yes, I thought, that does sound quite a bit like why I struggle to be so 'Outstanding' all the time; I'd hate to be seen as 'Inadequate' (again, intentional links to Ofsted implied here). However, the article goes on to say that 'by trying not to feel inadequate, perfectionists condemn themselves to feeling that way all the time'. Again, that's me all over.

What does the article suggest by way of 'escaping' this 'curse'? Well...this is where I start to have some issues with its suggestions. First of all, Burkeman suggests that it's all about training the subconscious to 'realise that it's OK to do 'good-enough' work; the world won't collapse when you stop straining for a perfect outcome'. While this may be true, it doesn't really take into consideration the standards that I'm held to. If I were to 'do less', I have a pretty strong feeling that the quality of my lessons and resources would drop. If those things drop, then my lesson observations won't go so well, my rates of progress might very well drop, and students might not achieve as well. It seems a slippery slope.

Burkeman then goes on to cite David Burns' self help book Feeling Good, by saying that to 'have a deliberately mediocre day, in which you try to operate at only 60 percent of your ability' is a good thing. I'm sure it might be, in any other 'business' than teaching. If I only put in 60% effort, on any given day, I can guarantee that chaos would ensure in my lessons. As mentioned in my analysis of student feedback, for some of my challenging groups, it takes 100% of my effort to control them, and they STILL don't think that I'm doing a good enough job. Imagine if I decided to only put in 60% effort? It'd be a disaster! I don't think teachers are able to have 'mediocre' days. Mediocre lessons happen, on occasion, but I certainly don't think it would be professionally wise to suggest teachers specifically plan for mediocre days.

Some tips provided suggest that you should 'split work into 'private' and 'public' in order to cut the risk of people judging you. Sadly, I don't think this would work in teaching; everything we do is judged and evaluated, from lessons to results! There's no 'hiding' in the world of teaching (and I'm not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing, by the way).

One thing it does suggest that I can take on board is the creation of a 'done' list instead of a 'to do' list. Often, I can start to feel bogged down by all the things that I have to do; it might make a nice change to list the things I have accomplished every now and then, just for that little boost of encouragement. I don't think teachers get the chance to consider their strengths very often; there's too much on the line to waste time with self-praise, after all.

So ultimately, I'm not sure what to make of the article. I think it's well intentioned, but somehow I don't think it took into account the extreme demands us teachers face, day in and day out!