Why Striving for Excellence Could be Harming You and Your Students

As a tired English teacher working through piles of exercise books, I used to think it was just me who struggled with striving for evermore excellence.  Then I became a therapist and now my practice is full of tired teachers who tell me the same stories.  They mark into the small hours and spend precious hours on daunting administrative tasks, all in the name of raising standards. 

Now there are stories about 11-year-olds harming themselves because they fear they won’t achieve Level 4 in their SAT's. Education has become obsessed with excellence.

What’s so bad about that?  Surely we don’t want sloppy, lazy practice.  Nor do we want children failing to achieve just because no one bothers to notice.

In my work, I talk to teachers one at a time, in private. They are weary about telling me how they feel but slowly a worrying picture emerges.  There’s a dark cloud lurking over teachers’ heads. It’s the nagging feeling that ‘I should be better than I am’.  It never goes away however hard you work.  And it’s haunting our children.

What happens in a world that is always striving for perfection? First, we learn that we’re not perfect, but we need to put on a brave face and make out we’re doing just fine. If we admit we’re struggling, we will be marked as a weakling or a failure. We will become someone who doesn’t deserve promotion, responsibility or success.

The pressure of this one bit of dishonesty causes more illness and unhappiness than you can imagine. I know. I see the fallout in my practice.

My clients are not weak, self-pitying characters looking to blame someone else for their inability to cope.  In fact, most of them are very successful, well-respected professionals.   Many of them are subject leaders and senior managers.  And they are all just about coping.   In fact, their colleagues would never guess how desperate they feel. 

They are simply the ones who are brave and honest enough to admit what it’s costing them to keep working at this pace.  They are the ones who see how they short change their loved ones and neglect their own well being in order to meet deadlines and stay afloat at work.  And they often believe everyone else is coping much better than them.

Want to know a secret?  I’m not convinced that having Ofsted tell you you’ve met the criteria to be ‘outstanding’ means what we think it does.  Why do I say that?  Because I visit a lot of schools, and a lot of the time it’s the schools that aren't officially 'outstanding' that I like being in.

The staff and the students seem more relaxed and open. I feel more welcome.  And I feel more able to let my guard down and be myself.

I’m not talking about seriously failing schools where things are out of control.  I just mean schools where people aren’t constantly under pressure to be better than they are.  Because in schools that constantly strive to be 'outstanding,' everyone is a little bit guarded.  They don’t want to let their guard down, or stand out for failing to match up.

The problem with creating a gold-standard, one-size-fits-all criteria for excellence is that everyone gets the idea they have to be a certain way to match up.  People stop taking risks.  They stop experimenting.  They stop being themselves.  And it all gets a bit boring and up-tight.

So, if you’re feeling like you’re just not excellent enough, can I encourage you to just be yourself?  Children need teachers to teach them how to take risks and be okay when they fail. 

They need teachers to be honest about their shortcomings.  How else can a child learn it’s okay for them to struggle with some things?

Most of all, children need teachers who show then that there are all kinds of different ways to be a valuable, successful person. There’s no one way to be perfect. The outstanding teacher is the one who teaches children how to embrace their own unique perfection and use it for good.


Photo source: Dollar Photo Club

Hilary Cooper

About Hilary Cooper

After 20 years as a teacher, Hilary now works as The Teachers' Wellbeing Champion. Her mission: to help teachers regain their sanity and sparkle. Visit her website www.aliveandthriving.co.uk

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