The Perfect Teacher

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley15 Comments


If you clicked on this post for some suggestions for teaching perfection I am sorry I misled you. This post has the sole purpose of disabusing people of the damaging notion that teaching perfection exists, or that you may become a perfect teacher.

Rest assured, you won’t.

And you shouldn’t really want to.

The very notion of perfection, never mind the impossible pursuit, is little more than a sure-fire recipe for personal anxiety, stress and burnout. Aiming to be the best version of yourself can be a positive driver – helping you persevere through gloomy nights full of lesson planning and stacks of humdrum assessments and nagging emails. But remember to aim sky high, only short of perfection.

I like the quote by William Faulkner:

“Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

There is aiming for brilliance in plain terms, but note the qualification. “Try” to be better. Try because you will fail and you will flounder. If you are a teacher, mired in the brilliant and chaotic complexity of the classroom, you will fail. Despite your best planning and preparation. Despite endless hours of effort. A perfectionist teacher will crack at the sign of failure, whereas the best teachers will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and stare the tough lesson in the face. Before coming back the next day for more. Indeed, the best teachers most often have simply failed more and have been acutely vigilant about such failures.

The perfectionist teacher will attempt to complete every job to their exacting standards, when the best teachers understand Parkinson’s law. The law that dictates that work expands to fill the time available. They therefore prioritise and do what they can do with pragmatism. No reinventing wheels, no hoarding every job because you don’t trust anybody else to do it just-so – just as you do.  The best teachers know that they have to delegate and even cut corners, whilst making the best decisions to put the students first as they do so. Yes – cut corners. Does someone have a template you can work from? Or is there a ready made resource you can adapt? Must everything be complete by the end of the day? Sometimes the unsent email is the best one. Sometimes an unmarked book opens the door to the best feedback conversation you have had in months.

The urge for perfection only serves to gorge on its unfortunate host. Such a hypercritical mindset leads to defensiveness, which leads to isolation. Spotting tiny imperfections in the efforts of others is a surefire way to alienate yourself in school. Such alienation is doubly bad because little mitigates work stress as well talking with your fellow teachers. Admitting your failures and not lowering the bar as such, but sharing its weight, can keep you sane and successful. No woman or man is an island. The best teachers know that.

As the new school year crashes into view and you attempt to prepare yourself to be your best self, be aware of the exhaustion caused by the fruitless pursuit of perfection. Have high expectations of yourself and those around you, but don’t expect perfection. It doesn’t exist. We are all too human.

Remember: nothing is better for our students than a teacher who is healthy and present in the classroom. Nothing. So consider the following as something of a guide to imperfect success:

– Accept failure. Reflect upon it, then move forward. 

– Prioritize and cut corners where they can be cut.

– Don’t reinvent the wheel.

– Accept that you will never complete all your work.

– Share your failures and fears.

– Know that your best will be good enough when you try to be better than yourself.


Lenard Cohen put it more lyrically than I ever could:

“Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”


Related reading:

Microsoft Word – Stoeber & Rennert _2008_ – KAR ID 4486.doc

14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out of Control, Huffington Post

19 Signs You Are an Incurable Perfectionist, Buzzfeed (GIF heaven!)





  1. Pingback: The Perfect Teacher | The Echo Chamber

  2. Thanks, Alex. I’ve just submitted this as my ’30 word advice on teachers’ CPD’ to Ross (

    “Teaching is hugely rewarding and energising but it’s also tough. An important part of your professional and personal development involves looking after yourself. You’ll be a better teacher for it!”

    I feel it’s related – if we drive ourselves too hard and expect too much of ourselves we can make ourselves unwell and stressed and ironically even LESS likely to be our best selves. Life is all about balance!

    Wishing you well for the new academic year when it arrives.

    1. Author

      Thanks Jill. I wish that the coming school year (I know your work doesn’t exactly track the tread of terms) is a successful one.

      Yes – you are spot on about balance and self-preservation. That personal and professional development, in my work at school and in my writing, is the focus for the year ahead.

  3. Pingback: Education Panorama (September ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

  4. Pingback: A start-of-term reading list | Making Our Best Better

  5. As a late comer to teaching I naively thought that my life experiences would help me cope with pressure. During my PGCE I listened with half an ear to the lecture on stress and ‘wells’ that should never be allowed to run dry. Now entering my 5th year and still feeling a novice in many ways your blog hit the spot. Salient advice that I should have heeded all those years ago. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Pingback: Finished? Never. | hayleymacca

  7. Pingback: Beating the 'Back to Work Blues' | HuntingEnglishHuntingEnglish

  8. Pingback: What makes a great teacher? | PGCEPhysicalEducation

  9. This is good stuff. Teaching has been the best thing for forcing me to leave my perfectionist tendencies behind!

  10. Pingback: Slightly updated: A start-of-term reading list | Making Our Best Better

Leave a Reply