The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Don’t do your best!

Sometimes a job only has to be done well enough. John Dabell argues that teaching is one such job and explains why it's better not to give 100% all the time.

If you are ‘trying your best’ all the time it’s a one-way ticket to the GP with burn out.

Perfection, or chasing perfection, is a huge time-waster and isn’t good for our mental health and wellbeing (MHWB). Not trying too hard is a skill because you still have to put plenty of effort into what you are doing but not just 100%. Close enough is perfect.

Good is good enough

In her book Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson recommends focus on trying to be average, mediocre or good. She says this releases the volcano of pent-up pressure most teachers feel everyday as they pull into the car park. Not giving 100% allows you to breathe and removes the feeling that you must be perfect all the time. To be effective and the best version of you, then you must try not to be uber-effective, brilliant, perfect or outstanding.

Simone Seol (2019) agrees and tells us we should be adopting the mantra ‘I will not do my best’ to save our sanity. She says that we should embrace our personality flaws and we should be willing to do mediocre work. It’s about working smarter, not harder.

When teachers can take it easy on themselves they begin to release more of their personality and relax into teaching. This is clearly a good thing for children. Not trying your best is transformational and liberating although it can seem counter-intuitive given the pressures and expectations of the job.  

Teaching culture is obsessed with overworking and perfectionism, but this often leaves us feeling inadequate, broken and walking round with imposter syndrome. The pressure to ‘always try your best’ sets us up for failure. What matters more is being effective.

The enemy of good is perfection

Madson says we need to take the pressure off and ‘A healthier climate is one in which we tell ourselves to just be average.’ Being average doesn’t mean not caring or being below professional standards. It doesn’t mean giving up or throwing in the teaching towel. It is about being realistic, vulnerable, and aiming for balance.

She suggests we change expectations to get rid of perfection anxiety and lower our standards because these will still get the same results. Teach but don’t kill yourself in the process. You don’t need to teach the perfect lesson, just a good one.

A bad lesson doesn’t mean a bad teacher

‘Doing your best’ is a way of life for a perfectionist and that’s a stressful way of living because it’s tiring. Teachers who ‘do their best’ all the time can suffer from poor self-esteem because it’s impossible to keep chasing outstanding. 

The compulsion to do our best at all times can be based on false expectations and something we might self-impose. Do senior leaders really expect their teachers to be delivering outstanding lessons every time? I don’t think so.

The problem stems from wanting others to think well of us, especially pupils. We want the school community to see us as talented and capable and able to do anything that’s expected of us.

Give yourself a break

In reality, our teaching needs to be separated from our sense of self-worth. If we have a bad lesson, that doesn’t mean we are a bad teacher. It means we just had a bad lesson. What other people think of us shouldn’t come into it either - the only opinion that counts is our own. 

Your self-worth does not depend on brilliant lessons, success, or being the best. If we strive all the time to be outstanding then we become afraid to experiment and fail. The enemy of good is perfection and that’s why chasing ‘outstanding’ is just plain folly. Good is better than outstanding.

Outstanding is unsustainable, untenable and unworkable because it isn’t representative of real teaching life. It is the mistakes we make and the flaws we have that drive improvement.

Outstanding lessons are a pedagogical potion of impractical expectations and emotionally intelligent schools don’t buy into the ‘need’ to be anything other than good. You can simply settle for being average or good most of the time. Good is fine, good is outstandingly normal, good is great.

When we think too much outside of the box, we forget about thinking inside the box and why this is sometimes good enough too. The most effective teachers out there are the ‘good’ teachers and not the outstanding ones.

Trying your best has problems because it suggests ‘your best’ is what everyone expects of you, all of the time

Improvise

A large part of teaching is improvisation and continual editing. There is only so much you can prepare for. You can over-prepare and leave no wiggle room for spontaneity and curious minds to ask questions. 

Lessons sometimes must be radically changed or even abandoned depending on what the learners in front of you bring to the table. Bullet-pointed lesson plans and overly-scripted lessons might offer anxious teachers a mental crutch and safety blanket but they do learners no favours at all. Lessons shouldn’t be carefully choreographed routines like a theatre performance because this makes learners merely spectators. It takes more effort to teach like this anyway because you are a slave to your notes and any challenge from the children can be exhausting if not anticipated.

Teaching content is not a package to unwrap and share. Teaching has to be organic and open to constant change according to the learners needs. Adjustments have to be made all the time and that comes through reading the room, knowing the children and meeting them on their terms not ours.   

If you possess good content knowledge then you can lean on this knowledge and see how a lesson unfolds without fear because you will be able to react and respond in ways that helps learners progress. Not trying your best is about teaching in the here and now, trusting yourself and being exactly who you are without having to teach like a superhero.  

And finally….

You simply don’t need to do your best in everything and neither do our pupils. Trying your best has problems because it suggests ‘your best’ is what everyone expects of you, all of the time. But we aren’t machines and we can’t keep that pace up. We have off days and bad days. We mess up. And that’s okay.

‘Do your best’ can be particularly hard on pupils with anxiety issues and highly sensitive children because it puts them under more pressure than they can handle. The next time you tell your pupils ‘just do your best’, think about whether it’s actually the best advice to give them or they are just repeating the same mistakes as us.

To get the best out of teaching, don’t try to be the best.  

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