Ask the average person what it takes to achieve excellence in any field, and you won’t have to wait very long before hearing some variation on the expression, “You gotta give 100%!”
This attitude goes largely unquestioned. Until only a few months ago, I wholeheartedly believed that, to be brilliant or successful, you must be single minded and resolute. And then a friend pointed out the simple arithmetical error in that line of reasoning:
“Make a list of all the things that are a priority in your life,” she said.
So I did.
· Personal Hygiene
· Romantic life
· Home maintenance (cleaning, yardwork, etc.)
“Good. Now, if you give 100% of your effort to being brilliant at work, how much is left for everything else?”
Even if we accept the cliché of “giving 110%,” and we hold that 10% in reserve, that leaves me spreading myself awfully thin.
Paradigms don’t fall easily, and so I argued, “But every person I’ve ever heard of who did something amazing said they put their all into creating that success!”
“And if you do a little digging, you’ll probably find out they were terrible spouses or cruel bosses or absentee parents or just miserable people all the way around.”
I had never considered this. It certainly went a long way toward explaining why every other facet of my life seemed so empty.
I shared this wisdom with a group of beginning teachers. One of them in turn related a chilling anecdote about a colleague who had recently passed away. At the wake, dozens of her former students approached her children with comments about how significant a presence she was in their lives.
After smiling through many such interactions, one of her daughters finally said, “Well, I’m glad you got to see that part of her. We never did.” In giving 100% to the job, she had nothing left for her own children.
Most of the young teachers I work with are immensely grateful to receive permission to have a life. Others are harder to sell on the idea. It’s not difficult to understand why.
Teachers are typically great students, and great students have an annoying habit of believing that everything they produce is either perfect or garbage. And because there is nothing in between these two binaries, and obviously garbage is unacceptable, they cannot stop tinkering with a lesson plan or a seating arrangement or anything else until it is perfect.
And suddenly it’s 7:30 pm, and you’re still at school, and you haven’t gotten to the gym, and you’re too tired to meet up with the friend who invited you to dinner, and there’s no time to take the dogs for a walk so you just let them out in the back yard and you fall asleep on the sofa, and tomorrow you’ll get up and do the same thing.
Some Uncomfortable Realities
You have to recognize and accept that your work will never be perfect. Your students are unpredictable and there’s 25 (or 41 or 155) of them, all of whom have quirks and preferences and intentions. Stop trying to hit a target that will not stand still.
You should also know that the work is never done. You can do this job twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and never finish because there’s always something else you can tweak or add or omit or polish.
Only you can say when the work stops. Set a timer when working after hours. When the timer goes off, go home. If you’re worried about not fulfilling your commitments, make a list of all the things you have to complete. Sort it into three categories: (1) must be done today; (2) complete before the end of the week; (3) mid- or long-term project. Address the items in that order.
Trust that there is a huge range of acceptability that lies between perfection and garbage. “Good enough” is actually good enough much of the time. You’ll have lots of opportunities to improve if you don’t make yourself crazy in the process.
Outlasting the Odds
Teaching is an unusual profession for many reasons, not the least of which is that the responsibilities of a rookie on his or her first day are identical to those of a veteran of several decades. Let that sink in for a second. It may go a long way toward explaining the oft-cited statistic that fifty percent of all teachers leave the profession within the first three years.
If you want to last, you have to learn to prioritize, and one of those priorities has to be you. Schedule gym time, a date with your significant other, a nap, etc. Put these appointments in your calendar and respect them as much as you would if you had made an appointment with someone else. Don’t treat yourself worse than you would allow another person to treat you.
I know some readers will remain skeptical. Only the students matter! Fair enough, but it’s worth noting that you cannot give what you do not have. If you work yourself to the point that you have no energy, no joy, no humor, no love, how will you give those things to your students?