For as long as I can remember, I have been an unfortunate mix of ADHD sufferer and perfectionist. I set goals for myself with the best of intentions, but I usually have great difficulty with the follow-through. This sets me off on a path of self-loathing for not accomplishing my goal to my exacting standards. I have ridiculously high standards for myself that I would never impose on anyone else, but I nonetheless seem to think are reasonable.
If you asked me to pinpoint a cause, I’d have to say it would probably be my experiences as an intermediate student from ages 8-11 that really shaped me in this regard. Looking back from a professional viewpoint, I’d say I was a highly distractible kid with poor focus and motor control issues. If I turned in my homework at all, it was usually half-assed (because I would get distracted and leave stuff out) and looked like chicken scratch (except for writing, which tended to keep me engaged, so the worst that could be –and was- said about it was that it was unreadable). This was completely unacceptable to the adults in my life because I was obviously bright enough to succeed. The problem, therefore, must be inherent laziness and indifference to the quality of my work. The painful truth is that they couldn’t have been more wrong about that. Even worse, I believe it innately, though my rational mind knows I’m wrong.
In a weird twist of fate, a few years ago, I ended up as a teacher. What I didn’t know about teaching is that it tends to attract a lot of Type-A individuals who use their control issues to run a tight ship in the classroom. These people are widely regarded as gods in their field. They are the teachers who sleep the least. They are the teachers who spend umpteen hours at work. They don’t have much a life outside of teaching and are darn proud of it. These teachers tend to achieve the impossible. They get results.
They also tend to use their own experience as the benchmark by which others should be judged. The down side to being a high achieving Type-A is that it can sometimes make it difficult to understand how factors like home environment, learning disorders, race, impulse control issues, medical history, family, and socio-economic status can affect a person’s performance in any given area. I’m not saying that all Type-As had it easy. I’m not saying that all Type-As walk around judging everybody. What I’m saying is that I’ve noticed that they tend to believe that if they themselves were able to achieve amazing things, then everybody should be able to (if those people put in enough work and want to do it enough). I know of one particular person who felt that the solution to everything from clinical depression to weight problems was for sufferers to knuckle down and do their work – whatever that work happened to be. To a certain extent, this person wasn’t wrong, but she never really clued in to the complicated set of needs that needed to be met before the work could begin for that individual.
Because of this self-involved system of benchmarks, Type-A teachers have the capacity to be absolutely awful to new teachers. I remember my first teaching job, team teaching with such an individual. She was known throughout the school as a master teacher, and I was thrilled to be working with her. Soon enough it became apparent that she was not thrilled about working with me.
I mentioned one day (during a one hour meeting with her that was now running into its third hour) that we needed to wrap up so that I could meet with some friends. She raised an eyebrow at me and informed me that when she was a new teacher, she didn’t have a social life for the first four years. A simple, fairly ridiculous statement, but the expectation was laid. As you can probably imagine, I spent the rest of the year trying to live up to this ridiculous standard and failing miserably. The next year I had a class of my own in a different school and got the same attitude from another teacher who (lucky me) was the parent of one of my students. Then I got it from a mom who tutored ESL who, to the best of my knowledge, had no professional qualifications whatsoever and who felt I wasn’t doling out enough rote-work and worksheets for her kid.
Did this make me a bad teacher?
For a long time after my teaching career folded, I thought the answer was yes. I thought that my fleeting attention span and need for breaks and occasional socializing meant I was the lazy and indifferent to my work. If I cared more, I’d have done a better job, right?
But my inner Type-A failed to notice the mitigating circumstances – the teacher in the first year was trying to keep me in that meeting longer because she was just as Type-A about being a mom and could only use work to justify being away from her kids. The truth was, as much as she disapproved of my teaching methods, she enjoyed talking to me. The next year, I was thrown into a really tight-knit community that was constantly looking into everybody else’s business. The year I burned out, I didn’t see just how badly I was being screwed over in terms of work assignment. Grades 1-10 is NOT a reasonable workload, no matter what the class size. There was no way I could have won in that situation.
What I didn’t see was all the successes – the kids I helped to read and love writing, the hugely successful outdoor lessons, the downturn in bullying and upswing of community spirit in my class. I discounted all the successes because I was too focused (for once) on the failures.
Yesterday, I got to see the report card for the little girl I’ve been tutoring for the last few months. She’s been working hard, and it’s really paid off. She managed to raise at least two of her grades. She doesn’t have straight As, but I couldn’t be prouder of her.
Do I feel like a failure?