Nothing is Perfect, You Aren’t a Failure

Like all people, preschool teachers are really bad at a lot of things.  From the activities we design to the words we say to the way we behave, teachers bungle something on a daily basis.  Speaking for myself, I don’t dance, which as a preschool teacher, is a pretty big deal. It takes a lot of prodding to get me up and onto the classroom dance floor, and most of the time it ends in students saying something like “okay, you can stop now,” or “wow, that’s a really weird dance.”  I’m sensitive about it, and over time I’ve taken up the mantle of being the cheerleader during dance sessions, or the adult that sits with children who are feeling low energy and just want to watch.  It is hard for me to galvanize myself, and every time I opt out of a dance party, I become more and more entrenched in my role as the solitary stick-in-the-mud.

But from time to time, I give it a try.  While it might not be rhythm and movement, every teacher has something they just aren’t good at.  Because we are all unique, our deficiencies manifest themselves in all sorts of different domains.  Some of us are terrible at art.  Some of us lose things just as often as the children do.  Some of us are completely tone-deaf, or have a very low threshold for ambient noise.  Some of us have messy handwriting, or can’t spell very well, or are wholly incompetent at basic arithmetic.  The sad reality is that, because we are adults, we are wary of doing things badly around individuals that might judge us (whether verbally or mentally), which more often than not makes us avoid our deficiencies altogether.  From a very young age, we are socially conditioned to be averse to looking foolish in front of others.  But children are observant, capable learners.  Children can smell when we are uneasy, and try as we might, we are not ever going to be able to hide our weaknesses from them forever.

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Nor should we. Just because we are bad at things, sometimes the very things that are really important or directly impact the day-to-day realities of our jobs, doesn’t mean we should be ashamed or embarrassed. As Reggio educators, we espouse the virtues of considering children as fully-formed, complex, and highly capable learners, and it is hypocritical to not consider ourselves the same.  From the day we are born to the day we die, humans learn throughout their lives, and just because we don’t know something or cannot do something, we do not lose our designation as “competent.”  The competency of a learner is not derived from the amount of knowledge they have, but instead by the passion with which they pursue new knowledge.  In fact, the argument could be made based on the aging and the theory of neuroplasticity that the more we know, the worse we are at learning.  One or two inadequacies, or even ten, or a hundred, are not enough to rescind our status as complete, confident, and enthusiastic learners.

To be perfectly honest, children are bad at lots of things.  Many of them can’t tie their shoes or blow their own noses.  Plenty of my students can’t run without falling down, or work through social adversity using their words, or read their own names.  We have a choice: we can be frustrated by what they cannot do or we can view their lack of ability as a moment in which we can grow closer to them.  As animals, we are psychologically programmed to gravitate towards and care for entities that need our help.  This behavior is a biological imperative hardwired into us for the purpose of ensuring the survival of the most vulnerable members of our species.  What we often forget is that this gravitation goes both ways.  While it does help us feel a sense of attachment and guardianship over the children we teach, it can also help humanize us in their eyes. Making mistakes in front of the students might be embarrassing, but seeing a normally composed adult become embarrassed might be refreshing for them.  It might validate feelings they felt only moments prior.  It might help convince them to be more generous to others who make mistakes that directly affect them.  It might be exactly what it takes for them to internalize the old adage “to err is human, but to forgive is divine.”

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As much as we might like to be, and as much as others tell us that we have to be, it sends children the wrong message to strive to be perfect.  Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, “If you never make mistakes, then you are not on the frontier of discovery, for that is where mistakes are made all the time.”  As professionals striving to help children create strong foundations for learning, our frontier is life itself, and one of the greatest lessons we could ever teach our students is that knowing our shortcomings is the key to discovering our true potential.  Failure might sting, but it is ultimately how we grow.

In short, don’t hide your flaws around students. Instead, celebrate them. Wear them like a badge of honor. When you don’t know something, tell them.  When you trip or fall down or break things, own it.  In moments of vulnerability, explain the way you feel to your students.  Be cognizant of what you can’t do, and if you want to improve, practice with the students and demonstrate the value of perseverance.  Even if you don’t want to improve, show them your inadequacies anyway and demonstrate the importance of self-confidence and a little lightheartedness.  In other words, open up to them.  Be bad at more things where they can all see you with a smile on your face.

Keep going, and remember that in the end, perfection is a myth and life is a journey.

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