Doing my best, trying my hardest, giving it everything I’ve got is a big part of my identity — especially when it comes to work. As a kid, school (the junior version of work) came pretty easily to me, but I would still try my hardest, study diligently for tests, strive for my personal best, look for ways to challenge myself, all that. Even in high school, most Friday nights I’d sit at my convertible dresser / desk, consult my meticulously written out homework agenda, and get to work. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get it out of the way to open up the rest of my weekend, it was because I wanted to feel that feeling of achieving and doing things well. Same thing in college, grad school, and on into my adult work life. Problem is, this work ethic and my perfectionistic tendencies have caused a lot of stress and heartache.
I’m currently in my eleventh year of teaching and sometimes I still feel like I put in as much time and effort as a rookie. Lately I’ve been reflecting on reasons why — and I don’t want to make excuses for myself — but from what I can see there are a few major factors, some that I can control and others that I can’t and never could have.
First and foremost, teaching is one of those professions that can become a 24/7 occupation. If I spent my full energy thinking about each of my students, their unique talents and needs, and then designed meaningful and personalized learning for each of them that in itself could be an endless task — not to mention developing a beautiful, enriching, and engaging classroom; creating attractive and interactive bulletin boards in the hallway; reaching out to all the kids’ parents regularly via their preferred communication method; continuing to develop my professional capacity with after school, weekend, and summertime opportunities; applying for grants and writing Donors Choose proposals; the list goes on and on and each task — when done to the best of my ability — could be a nearly full-time job on its own besides the task of teaching the kids who come to learn something with me everyday. So there’s that. Teaching is hard.
Second, my early career — and even my pre-service experience — was rocky at best. As a student teacher my cooperating teacher didn’t even know I was going to be with her (for the entire school year!) until I sat down next to her in August and introduced myself. Just imagine — she had had no idea that for the entire school year a 25-year-old was going to be shadowing her, observing her, and hoping to eventually take over her classroom instruction. She was also not the best model of how to teach creatively or use time efficiently. Just to give you some context: she had 15 students and taught out of basals — essentially pre-written curricula in all content areas — and was still at work every day until after six o’clock at night reviewing lessons and wondering to herself what to teach. Once I got into my own classroom, the first four years were a different grade level, a different classroom, or a different school. First it was first grade, then it was a triple split with first, second, and third graders all in the same room, then it was just third grade but I had to move classrooms, then I was in a brand new school with no curricula at all and I was responsible for writing essentially all of it with a team of strangers. Phew! After that, I was in the same classroom teaching the same grade, but turnover at my newer school was so high that for four years the entire team was new each year — except for me — so I was responsible for guiding my new team members through curricula I’d written and then managing, revising and rewriting that curricula with each new team. So there’s that. Teaching is really hard.
All the while, through every major change, I felt very responsible for my students and an obligation to do my very best. Because the kids needed me and because doing a job well is an expression of me, of who I am as a person. It’s been a huge part of my identity to do things well, actually — if I want to be fully honest — it’s been a huge part of my identity to do things the best, to be the best, to be outstanding. And for many years I’ve strived to do just that and many times I’ve stayed at work 11, 12, 13 hours a day, working half-days on Saturdays and Sundays, and over breaks, too. I’m doing things “the best,” but when I’ve had those moments to step back and look at my life as a whole rather than just work, work is the only thing getting done — no time or energy for eating right, exercising, socializing. And now that I’m in my eleventh year of teaching, I’m tired. Because teaching is hard, and because it’s hard to give it my all, all the time, and in many cases for it to make not that much of a difference to anyone but me.
So this is where I am — stuck — and maybe in transition. Some days I leave my classroom feeling like a failure: I have dozens of things left on my to do list and it’s unlikely they’re going to get done anytime soon. Certain lessons or moments didn’t go the way I planned or wanted, and I just don’t feel like I gave it my all. Other days I look around the room — mess that it is — shrug, tell myself I did the best I could with what I had, remind myself I have a life to live outside of work, turn off the lights, and leave.
And on those days, even though I’m gone, in my car on the way to the gym or home to cook dinner, looking forward to a new episode of Fixer Upper or another couple of chapters from a library book, there’s this nagging, needling feeling that keeps me wondering — is it okay that today was good enough, or should I have really tried my best?