I’ll never forget my first formal observation during my first year in the classroom. I was two months into this profession, green as you can be, and desperately trying to stay above water. Of course, there were already glimmers of hope for how much I would love this job, but so much of it was difficult and brand new to me at this point. Teaching college and even student teaching couldn’t fully prepare me for the work of managing my own classroom. I felt like I was on an island, one in which only my students visited, and my only points of contact with other professionals was a smile in the hallway or the rare lunch break I did not need to grade during or monitor the cafeteria. Dealing with the isolation was one thing, but as a brand new teacher, the hardest part was not knowing if I was doing things right.

Was I actually a good teacher?

Learning my principal was finally going to visit my classroom, watch me teach, and then give feedback was finally my chance to find out.

As the day for the formal observation approached, my stress was palpable and my anxiety was high. It wasn’t that my principal was a threatening figure who I thought would condemn everything I did wrong with my students. She was a caring and nurturing person who made it clear from day one that her main purpose is to help teachers feel supported.

Proving I was a good teacher

Instead, I was stressed because I felt like this was my first opportunity to confirm I was cut out for this job. I’d spent so many years working to finally become a teacher, and always kept this vision in mind of what kind of teacher I would be, and I felt like this observation would be the defining moment where this would be confirmed or not. I hoped everything was going well so far in my first year, but now I’d have an experienced expert tell me if it was or not.

This would be my first chance to get scored “highly effective,” and prove to my principal she made the right decision in hiring me. I felt like I need to impress her and even blow her mind a little. I had this idea in my head that my observation needed to be perfect.

I felt like I needed to perform

So I didn’t sleep much the night before the observation. And I put on my best shirt and tie for school that day. When I walked in to my classroom, my principal was already there with a notepad in her hands. I felt a tightness in my gut like I was about to perform on stage. She greeted me, and then I went about nervously setting up for class.

When the bell rang, I launched into my lesson loud and with bravado. I told jokes to get kids to laugh and bounced around the room like I’d just pounded three Red Bulls. I spoke too fast and totally didn’t realize a kid in the back of the room had his hand up for five minutes to ask a question. After accidentally talking for thirty minutes, I finally released kids to get started on an assignment.

At this point I was sweating and out of breath and needed to loosen my tie. My principal waved me over to her, and so I walked to the back of the room where she was sitting and sat down. She said, “Trevor, I love your energy, and it looks like your students do too. But if you go like this every day, you’re going to burn out.” She smiled while saying this. “Is this how you usually do class or is it because I’m here?”

I blushed a little because she hit the nail right on the head.

“It’s because you’re here. I guess I am a little nervous,” I said.

She said, “Well there’s no need to be nervous. I know what kind of teacher you are. I hear it from kids in the office, parents who call, and I see it when I peak into your classroom every week. So just focus on getting better every day and don’t try to be perfect.”

You don’t need to be perfect

And just like that, my principal gave me permission to relax. I thought she wanted to see perfection from me; wanted to witness the kind of lessons Robin Williams did in the Dead Poets Society. But what she really wanted to observe is me teaching how I always do so she could encourage what I do well and help me grow where I needed to.

This is a lesson I’ve taken with me the rest of my career. Teaching is not about perfection. It’s not about putting on the best show or even blowing minds. However, it’s easy to slip into the mindset that it is. When I think back to the great teachers from my childhood, what I remember is the relationships that were formed and the passion the teachers had for their work. I don’t remember individual lessons near as much as I remember the way a teacher made me feel about myself and the content they taught.

From administrative, parental, student, and personal pressure, it makes sense why teachers feel like their work must be flawless. But the truth, it just doesn’t.

Does this mean we shouldn’t strive to be the best we can be as teachers?

Of course not. We should always work on improving our craft. But a label like ‘highly effective’ mostly serves to add stress and anxiety to a job that already has enough of it. So instead of setting the goal to become a perfect teacher, which is a goal that can never be attained, aspire to be a great teacher for every student who walks into your classroom. It makes this job a whole lot more fun, and as a result, makes you a much better teacher.