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PrimaryHealth & Wellbeing

Teacher wellbeing – Stop striving to be perfect

We need to bin the idea of relentlessly trying to achieve the unachievable…

Peter Radford
by Peter Radford
Scarlett Fife teaching resources
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PrimaryEnglishHealth & WellbeingScience

My guess is that you became a teacher because you believe in education and you want to make an impact on young people’s lives.

You went through the significant challenge of teacher training and the NQT year. The learning curve was steep. You gave yourself and invested fully in the job. You sacrificed free time, family time and any semblance of a social life. Over the past year you adapted to every change and new government directive. You jumped through the hoops and even risked your own health and perhaps that of your family. But no matter what you do, whether in the eyes of the senior leadership team or the media, government, parents or the general public, it seems your best is never good enough.

And this feeling chips away at your sense of self-worth and your mental wellbeing. The bar of ‘outstanding’ seems to lie forever beyond reach.

Here’s a thought: maybe there’s no such thing as ‘outstanding’. “Nobody’s perfect,” we tell ourselves, but hang on, maybe ‘perfect’ isn’t even a thing?

We’ve bought into this notion of perfection as a culture and as a profession. If we affirm the idea of ‘perfect’ or ‘outstanding’, we inevitably set ourselves up for repeated failure as we relentlessly try to achieve the unachievable. We need to bin the idea. Your only requirement is to be you, and you are the best you there has ever been.

There’s never been another you in the history of the universe, and there will never be another.

We don’t look at the sun and ask whether it’s a perfect or imperfect sun. It’s the sun. It’s perfectly what it is. The notion that you are not a perfect teacher is nonsense. There’s no such thing. You are a perfect you.

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s 1997 book The Four Agreements, the author suggests that your only responsibility is to do your best. And, he adds, no one else can say what your best is:

“All your life you tried to be good enough for somebody else … you sacrificed your personal freedom to live according to someone else’s point of view. You tried to be good enough for your mother, your father, your teachers, your beloved, your children, your religion, your society … You can relearn how to love yourself by accepting yourself unconditionally.”

Your best is not a static thing. It changes every day. Your best first thing in the morning is different to your best last thing at night. Your best at the beginning of term is different to your best at the end of term.

Your best when your kids are ill or when your car has broken down is different to your best when everything is going beautifully. Your best is not the same as someone else’s. You’re not supposed to be like them; you’re supposed to be like you. You’re supposed to be a you kind of teacher.

Teaching isn’t like delivering a speech or making a cake. It’s not a one-way thing or a functional task. That was the educational philosophy in the 1950s: deliver your knowledge into the recipient’s brain – job done, like filling up a car with petrol. That’s nonsense. Teaching is personal, interactive and transactional.

Our ‘clients’ are not passive recipients, so teaching cannot be a one-dimensional exercise.

If you’re going to achieve balance in this area, you must abandon the idea of ‘outstanding’. Instead, embrace a very simple question by which to self-evaluate each day: did I succeed in helping my pupils to grow today?

The various other measures will vary from day to day, class to class, government to government. You will have better days and worse days. But keep this as your baseline and you will have a better chance of maintaining balance in life and teaching.

Give yourself permission to be yourself and teach as yourself. Abandon perfect. Commit to do your best, but remember to balance being your best as a parent, a friend, a partner and so on. Don’t rail against yourself for what you could have done differently.

Tomorrow is another day, when you get to go at it again and be even better than today. Today you gave your best and you learnt, so go to sleep with a clear conscience.

Peter Radford is a teacher, trainer, public speaker and coach. He is the author of Love Teaching, Keep Teaching (£16.99, Crown House Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @pradfordspeaker and visit his website at beyondthis.co.uk.

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