On Being Good to Good Enough

Summer Institutes - Mary Asgill

“I’m like a recovering perfectionist.  For me it’s one day at a time.”  – Brene Brown

I inherited a gene that makes me always want to get it right.  My father was a fantastic cook, so he did the majority of the cooking in our house, but whenever my mom would cook, he’d quietly get up from the table with his plate – take it to the kitchen and remix, reshuffle, re-season everything and come out with an entirely different-looking  (and smelling) meal, which left us lusting after his plate.  Or when I’d get a B+ on a paper, my dad would ask why it wasn’t an A.  And in my senior year when I took three AP classes, had daily after school band practices and a 25-hour a week job, I cried when I didn’t quite finish the year with a 3.85 GPA.  It was a 3.84. Good enough was not enough for me.  To this day, I’m one of those people who has to work hard to resist walking past a crooked picture on a wall without straightening it – no matter whose wall.

So, a few years ago when I reflected on my teaching practice, I realized that I was doing a good job.  This was evidenced by the good feedback I received from students, parents, and administrators who knew and understood my practice.  But I continued to strive for perfection.  On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with working hard to improve and exceed my prior accomplishments, but there is something wrong when striving for perfection is the goal.  It causes burnout.  What I realized was that striving for perfection should not have been my goal.  Striving for excellence should have been.  With excellence comes the confidence that I have done a good job, and that the job is always good enough when I put forth my very best effort.  Perfection yields just the opposite.  The difference?  Excellence is connected to my own growth and my own internal drive to be my very best.  Perfection is connected to an effort to be someone else’s idea of the very best.  In this case, growth comes at a high cost since perfection is not attainable.  The cost is usually burnout.

I was falling out of love with teaching.  The job was becoming a stressful, angst-ridden chore that left me exhausted.  It would be easy to attribute some of the stress to the myriad changes in educational philosophies teachers endure with each federal or state mandate, but it was not that.  I had rolled with each tide and weathered each storm with the confidence that as long as I maintained  tried and true, research (and result) driven teaching practices, I would continue to do what worked for my students no matter the next wave of change.

I was burning out because I tried to do too much and still expected to do it all perfectly.  Part of me carried my father’s voice with me in everything that I attempted.

I used to believe that striving for perfection was a good thing. I used to believe that I could have it all – maybe not all at once, but that I could meet every goal I aspired to reach and perfect each endeavor.  Given this, I used to worry that my students, their parents, the administration, and other teachers would think that I was not a good enough teacher if I didn’t do it all.  I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to be the best at teaching all aspects of English:  reading fiction, nonfiction, academic vocabulary, writing, grammar, critical thinking, academic listening and speaking and so on.  As English teachers, we have our specialties. I, however, was determined to perfect all aspect of English curriculum.  Insane!

Suffice it to say, I’ve taken a second glance at this idea of perfection.  I’ve come to realize that I cannot teach it all perfectly not just because it’s impossible, but because I no longer want to do it all. I’ve become selective about what I can effectively teach in 182 days in a particular class period.  And I’m especially selective about what I allow to consume my thoughts about teaching.  Momma used to say that if I showed her my feelings, she could show me my thinking.  She was right.  When I felt my worst about what I was teaching my students, it was because I chose to emphasize the worst thoughts.  I would feel like a failure when I did not teach them everything I had in my lesson plan by the end of the week – and especially when I failed to meet my goal of returning student essays in a timely manner.

I felt shame each time my students would ask (every day during each class period and via email) whether I had finished grading their essays.  Shame – the lowest negative emotion.  To stave off the shame, I would repeat the mantra of my friend and mentor Susan Davis:  “If I gave you two weeks to write the paper, you should give me two weeks to grade it.”  Huge mistake!  After two weeks, their questions and emails would begin again.  I did not have Sue’s tenacity or strength (or one child…I had three).  It would take me a month (or more) to get the papers finished – and even then, the perfectionist in me caused me to grade every single item on their pages.  From content to conventions, I pored over their papers with precision and depth, believing fully that I was helping my students become better writers, better thinkers.  All I succeeded in doing was sharpening my own ability to grade papers and work myself down to a pulp.  Students rarely revised their writing based on my comments.  Suffice it to say, they were more interested in the grade than my thoughts on the page.  Who knew that striving to move from good to great was a bad idea all around?  Who knew that what I was really doing was striving to move from good to perfect.  Were my students going to think less of me if I did not crank out their papers within the two weeks I promised?  I had to learn to reach but not overreach, to do my best without pushing myself beyond my natural (and physical) limit, to strive for excellence over perfection. I had to learn to pace myself not kill myself.

Ten Ways I Changed My Grading Life, and Moved from Good to Good Enough

  1. I only grade for certain components:  ideas/claims, organization/detail, word choice/tone, sentence fluency/syntax, voice/imagery/figurative language, conventions/rhetorical grammar/rhetorical devices, presentation/MLA format, etc.  I also teach writing this way – in small bites.  In the first quarter, we only write paragraphs, and include a sentence-level focus.  Master certain skills – then layer on the next.
  2. I ask strategic questions in the margins of their essays so that students have to use their notes or handbooks to find answers before our writing conferences.  They now join me in doing the work of revision and proofreading.
  3. I teach students to use my very detailed rubrics – one for each writing type.
  4. I strategically group students into 3:00 a.m. groups – groups of three who remain together for the entire year, learning to trust each other and support each other as they follow the rubrics and discuss and comment on each other’s work.  By the time I received the essays, the students will have revised and proofread most of what needed to have been done.
  5. I shorten the length of papers.  A goodly quantity of writing does not translate to good quality writing.  With limited space, students now have to do more thinking than writing.  They are forced to write with purpose and precision.
  6. I have them write daily.  As they enter class, a quote or question or sentence stem on the board greets them.  They write for 5-7 minutes a day.  They then discuss their thoughts with a partner or 3:00 a.m. group for a few minutes.  By the time the upcoming paper is due, students would have engaged in short timed “daily writes” where they would have written short pieces about the readings that they might incorporate into their papers.
  7. I use creative alternative summative assessments in lieu of written essays:  verbal essays, PhotoStory essays, speeches, and the like.
  8. I design “writing to learn” assignments in lieu of long papers when I want to assess their specific knowledge.
  9. I ask them to write “sections” of a paper in lieu of an entire paper.  They write one-claim papers, where they argue their ideas in one paragraph – no more.  Or perhaps they might only write an introduction.
  10. I grade their four-quadrant reading logs in lieu of an essay.

Three Books that Helped Me Work Smarter

Carol Jago’s Papers, Papers, Papers:  An English Teacher’s Survival Guide

John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas:  The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom

Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfectionism:  Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

I still have not mastered the paper load, nor do I want to anymore.  My goal is to go to work every day and do the best I can.  I want to strive to reach my version of excellence – not anyone else’s.  I want to be okay with myself when on certain days my 100% is really only 30%.  I want to work hard enough to give my students the best that I have without killing myself.  I no longer want to be a great (perfectionist) English teacher.  Great had me in my classroom until midnight on more days than I want to admit.  Now I leave my classroom at a reasonable hour each day, knowing that I got some good things accomplished, knowing that my good may not have been great, but it was certainly good enough.

I welcome your ideas and comments – especially on how you manage your paper loads.

Be well, my friends.  Life is always good.