Perfection is defined in the dictionary as: “the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects,” and also “the action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible.”
This word resonates deep in my soul: I crave perfection. I long for everything (and I really do mean everything) to be perfect. I constantly notice flaws and identify areas for improvement, from a typo on a printed sign at the museum, to a picture hanging crooked on the wall, or how someone is completing a task. It is rare for me to be completely satisfied with something, be it an item, place, experience or relationship.
Now, depending on the situation, this character trait can be a good thing! I am great at thinking through potential problems before they arise, allowing for a plan to be made to prevent issues from springing up. I am great when polishing and editing designs and documents. I can work hard to create a wonderful finished product.
All that being said, I find that most often, this desire, this need for perfection steals my joy, and takes away from whatever it is I am judging to be lacking. I easily become obsessed with idealistic tendencies, only seeing the negative, never the positive. The most dangerous application of this is when I turn my judgmental gaze on my own behaviors, because I am hit with the reality that I will never measure up to my own standard of perfection. If you connect this with my (rather prideful) tendency to define myself by my performance, you will find it is a pretty dark place to be. I become discouraged and often paralyzed due to my fear of failure: if I can’t do it perfectly, why should I try at all? I shudder to admit the number of times I have sabotaged myself or completely missed out on a wonderful opportunity because I feared imperfection. Even when I DO attempt something, I am often left to deal with the disappointment of failing to meet my own unrealistic expectations.
So how does this affect my job as a teacher? I would like to share how God is using my profession to teach me humility, grace, and patience with myself. First, teaching is a job where preparation time is at a premium. In college, we had days or weeks to write and prep one 45-minute lesson. Now, the time I have to prepare for a whole day’s instruction is dramatically less than that. There is simply not enough time to perfect every detail. According to one website, “The average classroom teacher will make more than 1,500 educational decisions every school day. In an average 6-hour school day, that’s more than 4 decisions every minute.” With the sheer volume of decisions that must be made, I surely make the wrong choice a good number of times!
Which brings me to the main way teaching has changed me. One word: kids. This Spring I am concluding my ninth year in education and that means I have had the privilege of teaching more than 200 students! And while I was teaching them, they were teaching and shaping me.
Teaching people means that it is not a controlled environment. The reality is that my class is made up of tiny humans with their own personalities, agendas, and lack of self-control. Because they are not perfect, and I cannot perfectly control all of them in the classroom, I therefore must live with imperfection on a daily basis. This forces me to face the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be the perfect leader of my classroom that I strive to be. I could give you a myriad of examples, but I want to share an anecdotal story from my own educational journey and how that sparked a change in my pedagogy.
My pre-calculus teacher was a tall, loud, and proud man. He was also a coach and ran his classroom much like his basketball court, where he was “it” — the one in charge, no questions asked. The problem was, a few times each week he would make mistakes when solving problems on the board. This did not hinder the few of us for whom math came naturally. However, there were many kids who desperately wanted to learn and do well, but who would get confused due to his mistakes. When corrected, he took it as a personal offense, and created an atmosphere that made us hesitant to point out his errors. I was one of the kids willing to raise my hand and offer correction. Sadly, the most important lesson I took away from this class was not a lasting understanding of pre-calculus, but a negative impression of my teacher and a glaring example of how not to teach.
Three years ago, back when I had my current 3rd graders in kindergarten, I vividly remember standing in front of them and having this realization: that God created so many of them with the same innate drive for perfection that he had given me. I am not yet a parent, but I have heard friends describe that seeing themselves reflected in their kids is like standing in front of a mirror to the past. In that moment I could see how craving perfection would serve them well in this temporal world, but also the struggles and potential crises of faith they would face because of it. God used this “mirror” to remind me that just as He had created them, He had created me. It was not a mistake that I longed for perfection, because He is a perfect God and I am made in His image. In fact, one day I will get to live with Him in Heaven where everything is perfect!
I quickly realized my teaching had to change. From them on, I made mistakes. Lots of them. All day long and on purpose! (In addition to the ones I was already making.) It became a challenge: how could I make at least one mistake in each lesson? I was excited for the chance to model how to fail well. We laughed, a lot, but I also didn’t hide my frustration with repeated mistakes. They got to see a teacher who wasn’t perfect and who didn’t expect perfection from them. And you know what? I had fun, and being allowed to fail was freeing.
This year, I have gotten the chance to teach this same group of kiddos as 3rd graders. Like my coach, I am teaching Math, and like him, I inadvertently make mistakes on the board. I have also continued to make mistakes on purpose. But earlier this year, I got to share this story from high school with my class and how this experience impacted me as a student and later as a teacher. I also taught them how to politely and humbly correct a teacher. I have created a culture in my class where the kids know that if they catch me making a mistake I will laugh, and thank them! It’s not perfect and there are still tears of frustration when facing failure and disappointment. There are still little souls who desperately want everything to be perfect, especially their own work and accomplishments. There is still a teacher who craves perfection and to never make mistakes. Together we are learning to live with imperfection.
Each time I hand out a graded assessment we remind each other, as a class, that our worth is not in our achievements. We are not defined by how many mistakes we did or did not make. God has made us all uniquely, wonderfully, and in His image. He empowers us with grace until we are made perfect in Heaven. What began as a dreaded experience, has become one of my favorite moments with my students. Some verses we share in class are: “[We] are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:4). “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (1 Cor. 12:9a). “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
I may have been made to crave perfection, but it does not have to define my life, just as my accomplishments don’t define me. His truths cover me when I begin to let my love of perfection trickle down into how I understand my self-worth. God has used teaching to minister to my heart, and because He is teaching me how to live imperfectly, I can teach my kids how to live with imperfection and rest in Him in the midst of this imperfect life.
by Karen McCarty, CCS 3rd Grade Teacher