Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Perfectionist, the Cop, and the Energizer Bunny: Teacher Archetypes in Real Life

Here's the final installment in my three-part series on “Teacher Archetypes.” As promised, I’ll focus on my own least-successful teaching moments.

This was an uncomfortable post to write, but I offer it in the hope that reading about some of my mistakes will help you avoid some of your own. 

My Life as a “Perfectionist”
patrisyu for 

I once had a professor who took off a full letter grade for every typo, grammatical mistake, or imprecise phrasing. I don’t think anyone ever got a Z, but grades of N were fairly common.

I tried to come up with good content and write about it in a creative and interesting way, but all he could see was that I’d used ‘who’ rather than ‘whom.’

Every day, I left the class feeling like someone had just slashed all my tires. And I was so afraid of making mistakes that the quality of my writing actually got worse. 

After I became a teacher myself, I made a student feel exactly the same way.

This was in the pre-smartphone era, and one of my students couldn’t stop talking about his new “Bomb Buylot.” (Arabic speakers often substitute ‘b’ for ‘p’ sounds.) Fortunately, this was also pre-September 11, but I still didn’t let him leave the room until he got it right!

No, that’s not the student I deflated. I explained his mistake and why it was important to correct, and he appreciated my concern. I mention this example to show that I’m not opposed to precision where it counts. (Who wants a dentist to drill somewhere in the vicinity of the correct tooth?)

But precision can go too far. 

One of ‘Balm Bilot’s’ classmates was scheduled to give a conference presentation, and he asked me to listen to a recording of it and leave him a voicemail with any corrections.

A student needing extra help? But of course! I threw myself into the task: dutifully noting every single individual word that he’d mispronounced; recording a message with all of his mistakes; then recording a second message; then a third; there may have even been a fourth.

As a newly-minted, eager-to-please young teacher, I couldn’t understand why he never came back to my class. After all, I’d been so “helpful.”

Now I cringe every time I think about him, and hope he wasn’t too intimidated to give his presentation. After all, his content was good, and he spoke about it in a creative and interesting way... 

A couple of years later, I realized that I'd gone to the opposite extreme: my student evaluations said I was so gentle in my feedback that they didn't always know if they'd made a mistake.

What I Learned: I need to think very carefully about how I critique students, so I can provide the right balance of correction and encouragement.

My Life as a “Cop”
imagerymajestic for

Day after day after day in my least favorite class of all time.

Every couple of minutes I had to interrupt the lesson:

Please pay attention.

Please turn off your phone.

Don't chat during other students’ presentations.

Don't “share” quiz answers with your friend and neighbors.

No, you may not distribute snacks and beverages during the midterm.

Then, every day after class, I’d go back to my desk and turn from a beat cop into the plagiarism police: Time to tackle the homework they’d “written” the night before.


I hate being a Cop. I’m much more comfortable in a Buddy or Wizard role.

I want to focus my energy on the content and on building a positive relationship with students. I don’t want to waste my time enforcing rules, especially rules that are there for the students’ benefit. (I’m not sure if I ever convinced them “You don’t do homework for me. You do it for you.”)

Looking back, I made it harder than it needed to be through getting caught in “shenpa.”  I kept feeling like they should behave better because they should like me and want a good relationship with me. So I kept pushing myself to be kinder and friendlier at the same time I was pushing myself to be stricter and more forceful.

But in retrospect, I realize their behavior had very little to do with me.  They behaved that way with all their teachers. Most of the students were fresh out of high school and away from home for the first time.  Basically, they were in a new country with new freedoms and didn’t know how to handle it.

What I Learned: I shouldn’t take student behavior personally. As elementary school principal Katie Yezzi reminds her kindergarten teachers: “They’re five years old. It’s not a conspiracy.”

My Life as an “Energizer Bunny”

StuartMiles for 
Originally, I had a photo of a very pumped-up teacher to illustrate this type. But one theme that keeps coming up over and over again in the interviews is the importance of taking care of ourselves. And that’s made me rethink what used to be my “ideal” teacher archetype.

Yes, it’s important to do all we can to help our students and our communities. But several teachers I know, including myself, have driven ourselves to the point of illness or burnout.

Several years ago, I was sent overseas to start a new English program: it turned out that I had to be a full-time teacher plus a full-time administrator, with no department secretary.

I’d work a 14-hour day, then struggle to learn as much as I could of the local language so I could have any idea what people were saying when I answered the phone.

Fortunately, my husband was there to feed me, do my laundry, and basically try to keep me sane when I got home at ten o’clock at night with a pile of correcting left to do.

And fortunately things calmed down a lot the second semester, so I was able to spend a little time every week exploring the city and spending time with new friends. I was a lot happier, and my teaching was more effective because I was more relaxed and focused.

But that first semester is still the closest I ever want to come to a nervous breakdown.

There was a lot about that job I couldn't control, but in retrospect I can see ways I made it even harder for myself. I was so busy that I felt like I had no time to think, just moved from task to task to task as quickly as possible. 

If I’d taken just a few minutes every morning to prioritize, it would have helped me to see where I was spending more time than strictly necessary. (Did I really need to use three different colors of highlighters when marking student essays?) I also would have realized that I’d be more effective at work if I’d gotten to bed earlier and taken a real break for dinner rather than grabbing things out of the vending machine.

What I Learned: There really is such a thing as working too hard. The busier I am, the more important it is to take time to recharge and prioritize.

I started this series on Teacher Archetypes just for fun, but it’s proven to be a useful way for me to reflect on my teaching career.

When I think about my experience with these three archetypes, and the mistakes that I’ve made, I can see an overall theme: trying too hard.  I certainly don’t want to lower my standards, but I also don’t want to waste my time and energy pushing myself so much that I’m actually less effective. 

In your own exploration of these roles, you may come to different conclusions. But I'm sure you’ll find it helpful to think about the archetypes you’re the most and least comfortable with and how they impact your students as well as yourself.


related posts:

What (Arche)Type of Teacher Are You?

Wizards, Buddies, and Laid-Back Dudes: Teacher Archetypes in Real Life

Self-Care for Mindful (but Busy!) Teachers

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