Modern schools expect teachers to achieve ‘perfection’ consistently in the work we do. 

I have experienced this myself - and it is a regular theme amongst teachers I talk to in my work at NotWaitingForSuperman.

I want to examine 3 ways this search for perfection is experienced by teachers in classrooms today .. and reveal the biggest victim of this broken system.

But what do I mean by ‘perfection’ and how might teachers experience this?

Let’s start with the way we are now expected to perform our biggest responsibility - the way we teach:

1. We are Expected to be Perfect in the Application of Our Craft

reasons for leaving teaching

In modern schools, the base standard which all teachers have to consistently achieve, looks something like this ..

Every lesson has to show measurable progress for every child, be immaculately differentiated - and often be taught with a perfect application of an approved lesson structure (recommended by leadership).

In many schools there has been a marked increase in top down ‘non-negotiables’ expected of staff in each lesson.

This is often accompanied by much lower tolerance for taking risks or teaching creatively (a key reason many teachers join the profession in the first place).

When teachers miss these often impossible standards, we hear about little else. 

A great teacher I speak to regularly, recently failed an observation because she didn’t use mini whiteboards in her lesson. 

It didn’t matter that she could explain exactly why she didn’t think them appropriate - or that she could point to a number of other lessons where she did use them .. the top-down nature of management in her school required their use in every lesson. 

She is now on an ‘informal improvement plan’ which could lead to capability proceedings against her - because of the way she decided to teach a particular lesson.

What comprises the ‘perfect standard' expected of teachers in each school, is defined by those at the top of the organisation - and then often imposed on staff across the board.

Professional experience, knowledge of individual students, or the creativity of the teacher leading the class - is secondary to the opinions of those in leadership positions .. 

(… whose whims change regularly in their search for ‘perfection’)


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2. Perfection is Expected in our use of Data and the Achievement of Targets

All professions should have a method through which they improve what they do. 

why I left the classroom

Teachers have always been keenly aware of this - and are often totally committed to improving outcomes for the students they teach.

However, modern schools take the use of data to improve results to another level in their search for perfection ..

Our children are set targets which we have zero input into (and in many cases bare no relation to what is realistically achievable) .. and our teaching should fill every gap that this data identifies.

In every lesson we are expected to justify our use of data in the teaching of every child.

At any point we should be able to quote data point examples, to explain the strategies we are using in each lesson phase - and for each individual we teach.

Doing this adds a huge administrative burden on top of the job of teaching the class. 

Often data is hidden away and teachers have to spend time finding and understanding it (often with inadequate training to do so) - and then use it to plan and assess.

This increases by many times the time it takes to do even an ‘acceptable’ job .. and sets an expectation which many staff find impossible to achieve.

When discussing a particular student, whose reading and writing levels were extremely low due to non-attendance at primary school .. a teacher I know well, was told that her students' high targets at GCSE simply meant that she had "a larger gap in progress to fill”.

When remarking that teaching a student to read and write - as well as her subject content - was beyond her, the response was akin to the attitude a sergeant major might have to an army deserter ..

A firing squad was unavailable at the time - so instead she had to endure ‘additional focus’ as she wasn't conforming to the standard of perfection expected of her.

Are you Struggling with Work Life Balance in the Classroom?

Constructive discussion about the best way forward is viewed as a sign that the staff member concerned is not toeing the line .. rather than a chance to share strategies which might result in improved outcomes.

As a result, most teachers I know just stay quiet - and hope the focus lands on someone else .. rather than speak up against a system they no longer believe in.

The failure to achieve unrealistic targets, results in many teachers failing yearly appraisals - which costs them financially, regardless of how hard they worked during the year.

Levels of student motivation to pay attention in lessons, revise for exams outside of school - or attend revision classes, are largely out of the control of the classroom teacher .. and yet we are judged by their lack of motivation.

This system is like a policeman being judged by the levels of crime on their patrol route, or a bus driver being judged by their ability to arrive on time regardless of a major traffic incident. 

Find out more about why the current obsession with data is killing education here.

3. Perfection is the Only Standard which Matters to Leadership & Management

Why I left my teaching job

You might imagine that in a profession where we encourage and motivate our students, to help them reach greater levels of performance ..

.. that the management of teachers would mirror this approach.

In reality this could not be further from the truth in many schools.

Professionally there seems little room for ‘a good effort’ - or ‘an interesting approach to solving a problem’.

Quite the opposite in fact - in many schools there is so much focus on the ways we are lacking in our performance - that there is little time (or inclination) to recognise what we do well. 

Our ability to create meaningful relationships with challenging students, or the work we might do supporting extra curricular activities to substitute for an overly academic curriculum - are not valued by the system which measures our effectiveness.

The learning process we manage in our classrooms requires creativity and new ways of thinking .. the students which we work with are highly changeable and unpredictable in their nature. What works one day (or at one time of day) will not work at another. 

And yet we are often observed for absurdly short lengths of time, and then judged by this measure - by people with little knowledge of the class or subject matter we deliver. 

The combination of this ‘stick-lead’ approach to staff management - and the enforced silence teachers now have to show while they work an impossible job .. produces serious mental health issues in many teaching staff.

These 'damaged' teachers are quickly encouraged to leave the profession - to make space for others who have yet to be so affected. 

The system - and the job of a teacher in many schools - is fundamentally broken.

If you're worried about the impact the job is having on your health, use my Teacher Burnout Assessment Tool below:

Who pays the Ultimate Price for this Broken System?

I wonder how the children our modern system produces will cope with the inflexibility of their future employers - or find the adaptability required of them in a fast changing world.

  • By obsessing over measuring as much as we can, have we missed the fact that the most important skills and qualities a child needs in the modern world are not so easily measurable?
  • In the search for improvement to our education system have we created a system which will hamper, rather than aid their progress?
  • And are we creating a generation of students who will be actively disadvantaged by the system which is supposed to help them?

I know many parents and teachers who believe so.

Solutions to the problems in our education system seem further away than ever - and require a fundamental reimagining of what school should be.

Politicians, parents and the media, need to let go of the current narrow range of easily quantifiable performance data - and start to ask what sort of students we want to emerge from the system we are creating.

Too many students leave school believing they can’t learn new things, because of the narrow academic standards which the system teaches them define ‘success’.

As a parent of a 4 year old girl with fierce independence and opinions of her own - I fear the current system will do little else than teach her all the things they believe she lacks. 

Whether Josie succeeds in this system or not, I guarantee that her success in life will not be defined by it.  Instead she will need qualities like confidence in herself, creative problem solving skills and a love of learning which will enable her to learn new things independently in the future. 

Sadly our current system will teach her little of these things.

It is not surprising that a growing number of parents choose not to send their children to school at all.

Will This 'Broken System' Ever Change?

When enough parents vote on the basis of improving the education system, rather than withdrawing their children to protect them from it - real change might be achievable. 

Until that time the system will continue it’s search for ‘perfection’ - making victims of teachers and their students, who can’t achieve the narrow definition of 'success' required by an increasingly rigid and judgmental system.

For educators growing tired of the classroom, or working several jobs to supplement a low teaching wage - I encourage you to investigate different ways to use your teaching skills.

Because with a small change in the way you think, the connected world we live in gives you the opportunity to earn much more than a job in school will pay.

The Passion Project Training Workshop I deliver, will explain what this opportunity is and how to earn a significant additional income using your existing classroom skills.

Reserve your seat on this training by clicking the mage below:

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And for teachers still attempting to change the system from within - or happy with the compromises they make to teach the children they care about - thank you .. 

.. my daughter Josie needs teachers like you.

If this hit the spot - please pass it on ..

27 COMMENTS

    • Well done for realising the reality of teaching wasn’t what you thought it would be. In the UK I listen to adverts which are intended to attract trainee teachers .. knowing that the promise they are being sold – in many schools – simply doesn’t exist.

      Thank you for your blog link too – I will have a read .. i’m interested in the direction you have chosen instead.

  1. We need different tracks for different ability levels by subject.
    Students should get a diploma after middle school and go into an apprenticeship program.
    More qualified students should go to a college prep school to qualify for college.
    No standardized testing, only entrance exams for college prep school.

    • Those are some great suggestions Ulrich. I particularly like the canning of standardized testing – my 4 year old is going to be doing a standardized test in September when she joins her very first year at school. Kids are being taught to compare themselves against targets and other people from the earliest stages in their lives .. and we wonder why so many of them are unhappy and think they can’t learn?!

      It’s not rocket science .. learning needs to be fun. Teachers need to be trusted to produce learning that is appropriate for the students they educate – and children should grow up looking forward to challenging themselves to learn new things. Instead too many of my students hate school – because all they hear from education is what it believes they lack.

  2. Thank you! You are on target. I have been teaching for 30 years, and within the last four years, we have had many teachers leave. I would like to leave and do something else with children, but not possible. It is impossible to be perfect and use the correct terminology that administration would like to hear. We are actors putting on a performance using a scripted lesson to teach rigoursly to the children who enter first grade not knowing the ABC’S, sounds…the system is disheartening.

    • Thank you Susan, I hope you can find an opportunity to work with children which better fits who you are now. When I started teaching it wasn’t like this – the job has changed under our feet, and it’s not just us who finds it no longer reflects the work we joined the profession to do. The system is over punishing to children and teachers alike .. I don’t believe it serves either group well at all. If you are looking for options other than a classroom job, perhaps this post can help: https://notwaitingforsuperman.org/quit-teaching/

  3. This is exactly why I quit teaching after 10 years. My health and family is a lot better since I left. Teaching literally drove me to anxiety, stress and drinking. I only wish the people pushing these ridiculous expectations would see the damage they are doing to passionate teachers.

    • Hi Jen, I am saddened that my experience is so typical – well done for making the brave decision to leave .. teaching isn’t what it used to be. I can relate totally to anxiety, stress and drinking! .. I firmly believe that at present we are living through a period which will be looked back on with shame by those in charge of education policy. The sad thing is the children and teachers they will ruin along the way.

      Thank you for sharing your experience – it helps others that we do.

  4. Everything you outlined is 100% right on! As a science teacher in public school for 5 years I began my career at the beginning of some of this but at the end of my 5th year I had gone from being a model classroom for the county, had interns, and receiving high performance pay and loving getting to spend my days leading my students through exploring deep inquiry and spark curiosity one wonder in them! Sure, there were measures to meet and data to analyze and buzz words to include in lesson plans but by the end of my 5th year I had lost my planning period, had 3 preps, worked at least 80 hours a week, and was constantly failing to meet a new expectation, I literally lost 40 pounds in 6 months and I didn’t want to let my students down by quitting …..it didn’t even cross my mind as an option. But at the end of that year when it came time to sign our contract renewals they decided to require all teachers with my certification to teach an additional 1 period of Social Studies which would be giving me 4 preps and no planning period the following year! Lol! In addition, this was also the year they were going to begin making 30% of teacher salaries based on their students gains and I taught ESE gifted kids who all were already at the top of the test scores and had no gains to make…..I knew I couldn’t send my own children into this doomed educational system because they will never have a quality or seasoned teacher but even worse they won’t ever have a teacher who is passionate about teaching and inspiring! I have sent my son to a private Montessori school but sadly most people can not afford to send they children to private schools and it is sad and scary to envision a future filled with young adults that have been pushed through this system…..

    • I focus a lot on the damage working in the system does to teaching staff .. but – you are absolutely correct that the REAL victims are undoubtedly the children.

      It’s like data mad scientists have taken over what is essentially a creative job – sucking the life out of education for teachers and students alike.

      As a father of a 4 year old, I already recognise that I will have to teach my daughter the things the system doesn’t value as important – and hope that by guiding her through it that she won’t be too damaged by the experience.

      Not all children will have the opportunities our children will – because of our knowledge of the system. It’s desperately sad that this is the case.

  5. As an administrator my number one focus for teachers is to build relationships. Relationships is the foundation for success. I know which teachers are well grounded in their discipline and who needs growth. This allows me to help those who are lacking grow and to further encourage those who are doing well. I look at test scores but I also know that they are just a snapshot of one day. My classroom visits, conversations with students, parents and other faculty tell a much better story. School should be a safe place to fail for students and teachers. Teachers should stretch themselves at times and model this behavior I front of the students. If they fail in that moment they show students how to learn and grow from the experience. If one school doesn’t fit you, try another. If you have passion to be the difference maker in the lives of students, being away from the classroom should be miserable. Kids need great teachers… especially the ones with some fight.

    • I agree with much of what you say – thank you for contributing to the discussion here.

      School administrators and leaders should be focused on more than test scores, they should value and encourage development of ‘the whole child’, and they should be supportive to staff who are committed to their students’ success. I am glad that at your school this is the case, I am sad to say that in many – it is not.

      I have an issue with your assertion that ‘if you have passion to be a difference-maker in young lives then being away from the classroom should make teachers miserable’ too .. I understand that you are driving at the level of commitment and passion required from great teachers – but teachers have lives too, and I don’t accept that a prerequisite for the job ought to be that the job is their only purpose .. many teachers are mothers and fathers themselves first.

      Expecting this level of commitment sets an unrealistic expectation which ends up driving teachers to damage themselves living up to them.

      Success in the classroom is about commitment – from both teachers and students. As a successful teacher of 20 years I appreciate that ‘fight’ is required to succeed – – but I do not believe it is healthy or sustainable for this to come at the expense of a teachers’ sense of self-worth or health.

      Too many schools are far too focused on data and measuring themselves against each other .. and as a result don’t have the time or energy to develop qualities like creativity, independence or empathy in their students. Teachers that join the profession with a commitment to develop ‘the whole child’ often find a focus on arbitrary data and targets dehumanises the job they do – and eats away at the commitment they have for the job.

      Are the young adults our current education system produces any better able to create happy lives for themselves than in previous generations?

      I don’t think so – on the contrary – I believe the current overly academic system, obsessed with testing and measurement, damages many children who are simply taught all the things it believes they lack.

  6. I am grateful you don’t teach my child or any children, especially those who need the most and I am glad you left the profession. Teaching is hard, shocking… welcome to the world of work and a profession that requires a lot of you. Could you imagine a doctor whining, “but my patients demand perfection”. Are you kidding me? You are the reason educators are given a bad name and aren’t seen as professionals, you expected teaching to be easy, expecting to do what you want, without high standards and high expectations. Children in need require academics, even more of it, that is the reality of which we must push them in order to be competitive in this world. Could you imagine a high income parent say, “I don’t care about standardized tests (ie., ACT/SAT) just give more free time?” In fact, they pay a lot to ensure they get extra tutoring, more academics and lots and lots of expensive test prep but is only perceived as negative when it applies to low income and minority children. Go to the private sector and experience reality, perfection is required there too, you will be judged with little observation and your supervisor might not know your expertise. Guess what? They will care about one thing, the outcomes you produce. Not your creativity, not your effort, they won’t care that your work environment changed or that the job criteria wasn’t what you signed up for, they will care about what you produce.
    Yes, we need to engage students, focus on relationship building, social emotional growth, all while making sure we know data analysis and our content area. Yes, it’s hard work but those students, those children you claimed you cared about, deserve that level of perfection and more.

    • In my life I have been a consistently outstanding teacher in schools where students seriously need my help. I have been the first in and last out in each of those schools. I have trained teachers to survive and thrive in hugely difficult working environments – and I have for 20 years in various school jobs, taken my own development incredibly seriously. I have done this because I care passionately about the students I teach.

      (Incidentally, I also worked for a decade in the private sector – winning national awards as a salesperson – but don’t let that ruin the narrative you have spun above)

      In this post I express my concerns about the changes I have seen in education – from a teachers point of view.

      How creativity and fun has been sucked out of the classroom – and replaced by conformity and pressure – and the horrible impact this has on learners of all abilities. I have seen what being told they are never good enough does to students desperate for encouragement and love.

      And I have never before seen so many young people I care about, leave school thinking they can’t learn – because of the system which is supposed to help them develop.

      This post is focused on how working in an overly judgemental system feels as a teacher. But make no mistake, the biggest victims of our ‘modern’ system are the students.

      The biggest reason I left – which is expressed very clearly above – is my inability to stand working in a system which treats children like numbers any more. I got sick of the hypocrisy of supporting a school system which teaches children to compare themselves to others constantly – and damages their confidence and mental health in the process.

      As an adult, I can make a choice to work in a system which bullies staff to achieve unrealistic results – and sets teachers who dedicate their lives to young people up to fail repeatedly – in the pretence that this helps them improve.

      The students can’t. They can’t leave when they realise the damage it is causing them and those they care about.

      The reality I was trying to communicate is this ..

      .. the insane direction of modern education – driven by those who understand little of what really works in the classroom – damages people.

      The really sad thing is that many parents don’t understand how much this is the case, and continue to vote for politicians who use education as a means to achieve ideological goals, rather than enrich their childrens’ future.

      The fact at this moment in history, is that we don’t need a future generation of conformists – whose supervisors think they are the bees knees, and whose life’s work is judged by the outcomes they achieve for a large employer. We need a generation who will stand up to the climate change deniers and businesses who extract everything they can from the communities they operate in – putting profit above everything else. We need young people who understand their higher purpose.

      This is not achieved by pushing students through narrow academic hoops to validate their worth.

      I am happy to say that not every school is like this – but in MANY, our current system condemns over 50% of all learners to ‘failure’ because of the narrow measures it uses to judge success.

      That isn’t right, whatever the ‘income level’ of their parents!

      I admire your want to be an advocate for students – but telling me that I “expected teaching to be easy, expecting to do what I want, without high standards and high expectations” shows you understand little of the commitment many teachers have to our own development .. and that of our students.

    • Oh, honey! It’s obvious you’ve never taught. It isn’t just about being passionate with the students and teaching them day after day. It’s the 40 essays you have to grade in two weeks, on top of the 28 tests, the 25 reflections, the 29 quizzes, and the 40 outside reading journals. It’s the IEP meetings that eat into your prep time. It’s the after-school meetings, the extracurricular activities you are expected to run, the committees you are expected to join, the NEASC teams for recertification, the tracking of every tiny detail of every assignment you give to every child with an IEP or a 504. It’s the mountains of extra paperwork or research for each new initiative that the district decides to incorporate each year. It’s the training, the changes in policies mid-year, the emails and phone calls to parents…the list is endless and there is more and more each year.
      It breaks people. I’ve seen people who have worked their tails off get let go because they didn’t have tenure, and the people in charge needed a scapegoat. I’ve seen a good principal let go after working so hard to get the school renovated. I’ve seen teachers who rallied behind her and gone to the union get fired or pushed out. I’ve seen a good French teacher not be given a full contract because there was a push to save money even when the class numbers were there and be told by the new principal that she was “on his radar”. Truthfully, if you can’t understand what reasons people have for leaving the profession and think they’re just whiners, you haven’t seen anything. It’s all to the good to advocate for students, but if you think teachers are going to stay in an unhealthy profession at the risk of their lives being destroyed, think again. I’m still teaching, but all of those things above are sitting over my head like the sword of Damocles, and it won’t take much for the blade to fall.

      • You are right about the pressures of the job ..

        The ridiculous workload is one thing – teachers have never been afraid of hard work ..

        .. but having plainly unrealistic expectations of teaching staff too, just ends up damaging people who care.

        Stay strong and keep putting your students first. x

    • I think you need to re-read James’ post and some of the other comments by experienced teachers in here. The point is that perfection in any field is impossible and should not be demanded of anyone in any field of work. It would be as ridiculous as someone expecting you to be a perfect mother.

    • I am guessing that you have never set foot in a classroom as teacher. If you had, you would understand what teacher’s are “whining” about. Being creative in the classroom means to teach students new rigorous curriculum in a fun way. Students learn in three different ways to learn “VAK”, visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Many of us are not allowed to teach this way because the curriculum is scripted! We should be able to teach students the way it benefits the students learning. We still use the same terminology and we still need to test, but not to the extreme that we are testing. There is more testing going on than teaching. There are many variables that you do not seem to be aware of to be a student advocate.

    • I’m sorry, Laura, but you’ve completely missed the point. Please read the article again, or do your own research to learn why teachers globally are leaving classrooms in droves. And really, shame on you for judging someone who is trying to help.

    • Thanks Anne, there is a widespread misunderstanding of the job we do – and the pressure we work under.

      Your comment about the ‘ridiculousness of being a perfect mother’ was bang on ..

      Our current system is so obsessed with everything staff and students do wrong. This has a damaging effect on committed teachers – and innocent children alike.

  7. I agree with you absolutely, James. As teachers, we all have very high standards and give everything, mind, body and soul, to support our pupils in achieving these. However, in a system where nothing is ever good enough, where the goalposts are constantly being moved, and where teachers are held ever-more accountable for achieving impossible results for their pupils, while the pupils themselves are not held accountable at all (and mostly couldn’t care less), there comes a point where we have to say enough is enough.
    For me, it was after several consecutive years as a high-achieving Year 6 teacher, with a consistent record of achieving outstanding results with my students at KS2 SATs, most of whom came from socially deprived backgrounds, and around 80% of whom achieved greater depth (much higher than the national average). Following our very successful OFSTEd inspection, instead of being thanked, or receiving any positive feedback at all, we were reminded that we still had greater goals to strive for, that a SIAMs inspection was imminent and that we now had to prepare for an RE award. As the (very reluctant) RE leader, I just wanted to cry.
    The final nail in the coffin came when the entire teaching staff were scolded like naughty children and told we didn’t deserve to be teachers, following an unsubstantiated and anonymous complaint from a parent. I’d absolutely had enough of the relentlessly increasing demands, the silly, pointless paperwork, the ever-changing objectives that existed only to tick OFSTEd boxes and the 75+ hour working weeks that, even then, weren’t enough to get everything done. I resigned a few weeks later, with no job to go to and no source of household income at all. I still don’t know how we will manage financially hereon, although I have some ideas in motion, but I just couldn’t go on any more.
    For those members of the public who think teaching is such a doddle, I’d challenge them to find many other professions where staff are expected to work 75+ hours per week indefinitely, are constantly told they aren’t doing enough, are constantly criticised for the actions and behaviours of others, are held accountable for outcomes beyond their control, and are expected to still be smiling, highly-functioning professionals. I certainly couldn’t do it any more; by the time I left, I’d had severe insomnia for 3 years, was suffering countless panic attacks on a daily basis and was experiencing severe, crippling physical pain as a direct result of long-term, chronic stress, to the point that I thought my health was beyond repair. Nobody should have to suffer that much because of a job – we all have lives outside of teaching and families who deserve more than a husk of us left to care for them at the end of the day. It’s not because we’re incompetent and don’t care for our students that we end up burning out and being forced to leave, for our health and our sanity; rather, it’s because we are, by and large, conscientious perfectionists, striving for too long against a broken system to achieve the impossible. The end is, sadly, inevitable.

    • Thank you for your comment Wendy.

      I’m not sure how teachers take control of the perception of what education is – and how learning is best delivered. I don’t know a single teacher who believes the current system of overtesting students works – and yet we are doing more of it than ever before.

      I think the answer is that it is fashionable to have a scientific approach to everything now. The problem with this in learning is that the process is so much more like an art – and swamping students and teachers with incremental data checkpoints to measure as much as possible, doesn’t result in happy confident young people.

      I have absolute respect for teachers still working in the classroom, but for myself, I got tired of apologising for the system to students and paying lip service to the latest fad in the staff room.

      My immediate thoughts when I arrived home having handed in my resignation letter, are in a short post here: https://notwaitingforsuperman.org/i-resign/

  8. Thank you for this article. Every year I felt like a failure no matter how hard I tried. There were many early mornings, late nights, and short weekends all just to be reminded by data and leaders of how much of a failure I was. How nothing I did was ever enough; meanwhile my own family was deprived in many ways which included a salary that was only a step away from having us in need of government assistance. The real reward was found in my students and their expressions of gratitude for the commitment and day to day learning that was truly taking place. Im gonna give it one more try before deciding to completely walk away. Which will crush my mother and father’s heart btw.

    • I understand the difficulty of managing the reality of a teaching career (data, expectations) with the bit we all love – the kids. Good luck finding a balance between these two competing parts of your job – have you tried a different school? Sometimes managers who interpret the data requirements differently, can be better to work for?

      In terms of the feelings of your parents, I understand you wanting to please them – but try not to let that get in the way of being happy. It is likely they have a rosy picture of what your job is, and that if they knew the reality they would understand your feelings a little better. Either way it is ultimately your life to live – you are the person who will look back at what you have done in the future, and have to live with your decisions .. try and make the moves that are right for you so you don’t look back with regret.

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