I struggle with perfectionism every day, and sometimes, it prevents me from authentically showing up for family, students and myself. I am a social sciences and Spanish teacher and a mother of three children, and with that comes the social and self-imposed pressure to show that all the pieces of my life fit together like a shiny mosaic.
I would like to believe this is a personal battle, but this drive toward perfectionism also impacts our students. I became a teacher because I wanted to be a student forever, so I know what it’s like to be mired in the muck of learning. At our all-girls high school, students want to impress their teachers to gain approval and self-worth. They confound perfectionism with excellence, which can sometimes have a negative impact on their classroom performance.
Working as a World Languages teacher, my job is to erase the pressures of perfectionism that impede our students’ progress toward language fluency and proficiency. I want to create a learning environment that embraces and affirms the humanity of each student and prioritizes our relationships with one another. Learning a new language is often challenging, and being vulnerable enough to make pronunciation, verb conjugation or listening comprehension mistakes can be embarrassing, especially for a student being evaluated based on their ability to learn it. Yet, if learning a new language is going to stick, being bold enough to take risks is essential.
As educators and students, we must openly acknowledge that imperfection is expected on the road to excellence. So, how do we prove to our students that showing up as authentically and humanly as possible is a necessary exercise in courage and the path to progress?
Building Community to Overcome Perfection
Brene Brown once said, “Those who have a strong sense of love and belonging have the courage to be imperfect.” After 20 years in education, I’ve learned to embody this mantra in my curriculum and classroom, which requires a foundation that centers on love and belonging.
Last year, on the first day of school, I decided that instead of calling each group of students “class,” they would be “nuestra familia”, meaning our family. I asked students to sit in small pods of three to four, which I only referred to as “tu familia”, your family. This was my small attempt at building a safe, intimate and courageous space where trust was centralized and each of us, including myself, could be vulnerable, learn how to support each other and push past any feelings of shame or embarrassment. I wanted us to be in a community that felt like family, cheering each other on while becoming stronger communicators.
One activity that challenges students’ language acquisition is listening to audio recordings of native Spanish speakers, such as public service announcements or advertisements. After listening to the recordings a few times, I asked students: What did you hear? What is the central message? Often, we sit in awkward silence for several minutes before a brave hand shoots up to offer an answer. Then, a couple more bring their understanding out into the open. It only takes one student to have the courage to make a mistake before other students step in to support or feel bold enough to fail out loud; that is the beauty of nuestra familia – you are never alone.
The American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages advises World Languages teachers to use the target language at least 90 percent of the time in class. Since my students are learning a non-native language for the first time, they typically don’t know every word or grammar structure used in communication; thus, mistakes will inevitably occur. Speaking, thinking and using Spanish for one hour is enough to make students crawl under a rock and melt away from embarrassment. Sometimes, it’s correct, and sometimes, it’s half-correct. When this happens, we pause, regroup and remind ourselves that pushing past doubt and imperfection is the most effective – and brave – way to learn.
Students must see that taking risks with a new language is a strength and a valuable means of enhancing and gaining confidence in Spanish fluency. Creating community and a sense of belonging allows students to engage in the imperfection of language learning. We make mistakes, but we trust the process of learning for ourselves and nuestra familia.
Trusting Our Imperfections
Admittedly, I often need clarification on whether my intentions match my outcomes, especially when creating a family environment for my students to learn and grow. At the end of each school year, our upper school director solicits feedback from students that she then prints out and gives to all teachers as an appreciation gift. This past year, a student reflected on my teaching and said, “Señora genuinely cares about each student and makes sure we understand the material and succeed intellectually but also feel seen in her classroom.”
These words are genuinely humbling as they are reassuring that I am holding up my side of the agreement and my promise to be authentic to myself while giving my students room to embrace their imperfections each year. They reflect the classroom and world I want to live in as a teacher and mother, where we trust ourselves and our abilities as people and learners in a dynamic world.
I may be a teacher, but I am also a lifelong learner; like my students, I am constantly trying to navigate and understand the world better. I’ve had great mentors and colleagues, and it took many years of working with them to realize that perfection and excellence are not mutually exclusive.
Communicating perfectly in a second language is an artificial and unrealistic expectation. I want my students to know that the art of failing, making mistakes and improving is more productive when we remove the mask of perfection and embrace our authentic selves. At the end of the day, those times when we stumble and learn to do differently and better the next time will transform us into the courageous and loving students and people we need to be for ourselves and each other.