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On Work Schedules, Perfectionism, and Hidden Autonomy

By Dave Stuart Jr.

This post will be short because Tuesday is almost over and homeboy be sleep deprived. A few things:

1. When work schedules meet recovery schedules

Since the last post, Crystal’s path to recovery has become clearer and longer. It looks like she will be on bed rest for at least a few weeks, and this means that my work schedule needs significant modifications; it may also mean further postponement of the release of Never Finished.

Here’s why: while I’m overly blessed to have family and friends willing to 1) watch the kids during the school day while Crystal rests, and 2) bring amazing meals so that my daughters don’t have to develop a frozen pizza allergy from eating it so much (I’m not a science teacher; that may not make biology sense) — these people make life possible right now — for The Duration it looks like I’ll be coming home from school right after my final class, taking care of the girls until bed time, doing what work I can before I go to bed, and then taking care of any toddler or infant needs during the night.

What writing I can do, I will do, yet times like these truly prove one’s priorities. I can say that my priorities are in this order:

  1. Crystal
  2. Mini-Stuarts
  3. My students
  4. Writing

But now I will show that with my life. We always show our priorities with our lives, but in times like this I think the veneer gets rubbed off much more quickly.

2. Against perfectionism

“What writing I can do, I will” must not become an excuse for not doing the work. If we wait for perfect conditions to begin doing something we feel we need to be doing — teaching a certain way, trying a new technique, writing, exercising, reading that PD book on your shelf — then this is true: we will find that we rarely do the things we were born for. As Jim Burke told me while I wrote my first book: Dave, you’re never ready. (That’s a paraphrase.) These words live with me now.

So you know what? Some blog posts in the weeks to come might be less developed than I would like.

But my hunch is that there is great power in doing the work, even when it’s not perfect. My hunch is that my colleague and work-sister Erica Beaton is right — “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

There is a Grand Canyon-esque chasm between doing the work consistently and letting our perfectionism live in peace within us. I’m not writing this until late Tuesday night because last night, when I sat down at this exact same hour and felt this exact same fatigue and self-doubt, I didn’t do the work because I didn’t feel it would be good enough. I was proud of this past Saturday’s post on gratitude. That one felt good to get out; those comments you left felt amazing — gosh, amazing.

Yet we cannot allow our devilish perfectionism, our propensity for a soul-sucking obsession with success, to keep us from doing our work!

From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft [i.e., just doing the work with a mind to keep improving it]. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

3. Within constraints we discover autonomy

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink says there are three ingredients for highly motivating working conditions: autonomy (we have some say in what we do), mastery (we’re in pursuit of excellence), and purpose (we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves). We teachers often feel that our autonomy is being ripped from us — and, in far too many schools, this looks to be true; teacher autonomy is or has been largely diminished.

Yet here is what is and what will always be true, regardless of how things look: there are some things of which control cannot be wrested from us, no matter the standards or the tests or the evaluation rubrics or class sizes.

Even with my wife sick, my schedule shot, and much of my life feeling out of control, only one person on the planet controls how I will treat my teenage students tomorrow; one person controls how I’ll love my own children when I rush home from work after school; one person controls whether I’ll opt for anxiousness or contentment, workaholism or sanity; one person controls whether I’ll hit publish on a post that doesn’t meet my standards because it’s Tuesday, after all, and there’s value in doing the work, especially when it’s not perfect. That person is me.

Tomorrow morning I can greet kids with a smile and love; I can look for the student who needs the hard truth, or the gentle word of encouragement; I can be an encouraging colleague. Those are all things I can do, even now.

I so appreciate you, Teaching the Core family. Thank you for your kind comments on the last post, and thank you for thinking of and praying for my wife.

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21 Responses to On Work Schedules, Perfectionism, and Hidden Autonomy

  1. Twins Happen January 14, 2015 at 12:34 am #

    Thanks, Dave! Lots of prayers for you, your wife, and your family. This speaks to me a lot: perfect being the enemy of good. You’re so right in that there is power in the DOING. I’ve got to figure this out for myself now.

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      TH, thank you! Do the work. That’s what I keep saying. While at work, do the work. Stop procrastinating; there is now no time! Rest when resting; write when writing; be a teacher when teaching.

  2. polen4 January 14, 2015 at 5:01 am #

    Thank you for your wisdom, Dave. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve let go of the perfectionism ideal and have simply done my best instead. Sending positive thoughts and prayers to you and your wife. That’s tough when mom is sick-hope she’s better soon. Take care and thanks for all you do!

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

      Charmayne, thank you. You’re a faithful online friend, and one whom I respect. I will keep on!

  3. Kathy Nolan January 14, 2015 at 10:33 am #

    Prayers to you and yours Dave. Hope recovery is right around the corner! Your wisdom far surpasses your age!

  4. Erin January 14, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    Thank you, as always, for sharing yourself–your struggles & discoveries–with all of us! As a recovering perfectionist & people-pleaser, this was just what I needed to hear today. In addition to “perfect is the enemy of good,” I also often have to remind myself that “Good is the enemy of Great,” and overloading my schedule by saying “Yes” to too many Good things does not leave me open to give my full commitment to the Great things in life. Teaching, like life, is a continual process of prioritizing & improving!

    Praying for you, your wife, & kids. If I could figure out a way to deliver coffee in industrial quantities to your house without coming across as a stalker, I’d send that along too!

    Erin from MA

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 1:53 pm #

      Ah — the Power of No, Erin; I so am with you! Thank you for your prayers! And for the industrial coffee thoughts. I should get a PO Box so people can send industrial coffee 😉

  5. Rozee Schultz January 14, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    Your honesty and vulnerability are as valuable to our teaching community as your professional advice about teaching. Thank you.

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 2:00 pm #

      Rozee, this feedback helps me know what to do when I write. Thank you.

  6. Denise Ahlquist January 14, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    See, you were right! It _was_ worth doing it to the best of your ability at this given moment. Lots of us let “perfect be the enemy of the good.” We get it! Thanks for all your good ideas and works. Best wishes for a full recovery to your wife.

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 2:01 pm #

      Denise, thank you! What encouragement for me to see what felt like a slipshod post be of some help to folks. You are right 🙂

  7. Megan January 14, 2015 at 12:43 pm #

    Press on, Dave! Those priorities are right on.

    Megan from WA

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

      Representing for the West Coast, Megan! I love your state and your kindness. Thank you!

  8. Stephanie Brondani January 14, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

    I have been neglectful in not writing before now to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. You are a sane voice in what feels like the sometimes insane world of teaching, and you remind me regularly of the joy that is to be found in this profession. Your previous post on gratitude spoke to me so loudly that I read it with my students this week, and we wrote the first of what will become weekly writings about what we are grateful for. I haven’t stopped thinking about you, your wife, and your family. My students and I are sending out healing vibes to Crystal, and continued strength to you.
    Best wishes, Stephanie from MN

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 3:40 pm #

      Oh geez, Stephanie — talk about making my day! How wonderful that that post could be of use to you in your classroom. Nothing makes me happier than knowing that I can remind you of what you already know — so often I think that’s the core of the work that writers undertake.

  9. Bethany January 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm #

    I needed to read this today. I need permission to not be perfect, silly as it sounds. Thank you for sharing so candidly and genuinely about the struggles of balancing life as an educator. Your writing ministers to all of us in the trenches.

    • davestuartjr January 14, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

      Bethany, I needed to read your comment today! I am so happy to serve such a hard serving group of educators.

  10. Kristina January 18, 2015 at 10:34 pm #

    Dave,
    Tonight I just discover your posts, and I had to (quickly, maybe even less than 60 minutes) read almost all of them! What a blessing you are. My prayers go out to your wife, and I can’t wait to read what ever you have next. I’ve discovered a treasure that I can’t wait to share- with my other 5th grade colleagues.
    Kristina in CT

    • davestuartjr January 18, 2015 at 11:03 pm #

      Dang Kristina — that’s some speed readin’! 🙂 It’s so good to have you here, and THANK YOU for your prayers. Her recovery is slow but steady. I look forward to having you as part of this fine family known as Teaching the Core. Thank you, again, for your kind words, and cheers to the great state of CT.

  11. Camille January 19, 2015 at 9:29 pm #

    Downloaded e-book and saving it for my trip to Barcelona in three weeks! I cannot wait for the Spanish wine and tapas and your wise words to reinvigorate me. Long, long year, and it’s only half done. I almost quit this job I love. Almost. Your book is a beacon that will guide me back — I can feel it. Thanks.

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