Education Opinion

How to Coach the Perfectionist Teacher: Strategies that Work (Part 2)

By Elena Aguilar — February 28, 2019 8 min read
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Coaching a perfectionist teacher requires an expansive set of tools—they are a complicated type to coach. What follows are 11 strategies that I’ve found are useful with most perfectionists, but perfectionism can also intersect with other coaching challenges. So the perfectionist-new teacher or the perfectionist-resistant teacher require some unique and additional approaches. Let’s dive in, however, to 11 strategies that work well with most perfectionist-type teachers. (And if you haven’t yet read Part 1 of this series, start there!)

Use Facilitative Coaching. This is the most important and key tip: Use facilitative coaching. A perfectionist lives in a state of disempowerment—disempowerment that comes from within. This means that you need to help them discover their internal power. If you try to do this through directive coaching (which can be tempting), you may be shoring up their perfectionism. You cannot fix a perfectionist teacher. They have to take care of themselves. You can guide, support, and facilitate a process, and so be mindful of your tendency to lean on directive approaches.

Coach Toward Emotional Awareness: We can all benefit from coaching that helps us become more aware of the emotions that we’re experiencing, but perfectionists can really benefit from this kind of coaching. Coaches aren’t therapists, but we can help our clients recognize when they are experiencing emotions (often those manifest in our bodies), learn to describe and put words to those emotions (this is a useful tool for that), and then practice exploring those emotions.

Guide Your Client to Identify Indicators of Success: Your perfectionist teacher most likely has a lengthy list of what would make a class, unit, project, or school year successful. It’s that long and unattainable list of success markers that contributes to a constant sense of never-enoughness. Help your coachee identify a few indicators of success that are attainable, and meaningful, and help them reach for those few rather than the exhaustive list. For example: This unit will be successful if Carlos finishes the final project and gets a grade of at least a B, or this lesson will be successful if we complete the guided practice and 95 percent of kids are engaged throughout. Attainable, realistic goals help a perfectionist feel successful.

Offer Praise With Caution: Perfectionists want endless amounts of reassuring and praise, but no matter how much you offer it, it won’t truly sink in—because at the root of perfectionism is a fragile sense of self-worth. Be very cautious about offering a lot of praise. A perfectionist won’t actually feel any better from it and may feel unsatisfied with your coaching, or feel that your praise wasn’t enough, or wasn’t authentic, or wasn’t the right kind of praise. Ultimately, there’s nothing you can say or do that will be enough to fill the void of self-worth.

However, a perfectionist teacher will also want some praise from you—or else, they may not feel like they can trust you or that you care about them. Offer genuine praise in bite-size pieces and make sure it’s praise about things that truly matter in education. It can sound like any of these:

  • It was great to see you redirecting Janice so calmly today. I know that you’ve gotten triggered by her, and she was so responsive to you and just settled down right away. Congratulations!
  • I was reviewing the interim assessment data and I saw that your kids have made a 40 percent increase in their reading scores in just a few months. That’s fantastic!
  • I am so glad to hear that you took the whole weekend off and rested. I know you’ve been working really hard, and self-care is so critical.
  • I observed your interaction with our principal earlier and thought that you responded to his questions really clearly. I know that sometimes you’ve felt anxious around him, but you seemed confident.

Guide Your Client to Identify Strengths: The perfectionist needs to hone their ability to see their own skills and to praise themselves. Here’s what this can sound like:

Coach: Let’s debrief the lesson, and I want to ask you first to name three things you did well in this lesson. We’ll look at the challenges later, but first we’ll focus on what went well. OK?

Teacher: OK, but it really didn’t go well. I mean did you see...

Coach: (Cutting the teacher off) Hold up. Before you go there, we’re going to talk about what you did well. You need to do this step, OK?

Teacher: OK. I guess I had all my materials prepared.

Coach: Great! What does that say about you? What does that mean about you?

Teacher: I am on top of things. I was organized.

Coach: (Nodding). Yes, and what else did you do well?

Teacher: I don’t know. I mean things got so chaotic when they went into labs...

Coach: Hold up. We’re focusing on what went well.

Teacher: I guess the kids were really engaged in the lesson.

Coach: Tell me how you came to that conclusion, and also, what was your part in making that happen ...

As I’ve attempted to show here, you may need to wrangle your perfectionist teacher to stay away from their struggles and flaws and to see what they did well. That’s the place to be authoritative—in your holding of the conversation. And then let them do the work of finding their bright spots.

Normalize Struggle and Imperfection: This can be hard to do using facilitative strategies, because you might just want to scream at your client and say, “It’s NORMAL to mess up sometimes!!!” (At least I have that desire.) But you can use a light tone, and a sense of humor at times, and remind your teacher that they are human, and humans make mistakes, and it’s a learning opportunity. It can sound like this:

Teacher: The kids were engaged in the lab, but then the group at the back got too excited, and they spilled the experiment, and then JR got angry and smashed a vile, and so I had to send him to the office and I knew I should have spent more time going over directions and rules and I should have moved JR to a different group, and then the whole lesson wouldn’t have been ruined.

Coach: It seems like JR has been doing better recently and hasn’t been to the office in weeks.

Teacher: He has, and so I thought he’d be OK with that group but I wasn’t paying close enough attention and I shouldn’t have tried such an ambitious lab.

Coach: Of the 32 kids in your class, how many do you think learned something in that lab?

Teacher: I don’t know. That lesson was a disaster.

Coach: You collected an exit ticket, right? What did that data say?

Teacher: Well, almost everyone answered the question on the exit ticket correctly.

Coach: So they learned something?

Teacher: I guess so. Except for JR, and I’m committed to every single kid learning.

Coach: I know. And that’s a powerful commitment. How do you know he didn’t learn anything?

Teacher: He didn’t do the exit ticket because he was in the office.

Coach: How do you know he didn’t learn?

Teacher: I see where you’re going with this. I don’t know. Maybe he learned. But ugh. That whole day just left me with an awful feeling, and I am seriously questioning whether I should be a teacher.

Coach: Next time you do a lab, what might you do differently?

Teacher: So much. I don’t even know where to start.

Coach: Just pick one thing. Each time you deliver a lesson—even those that go well—it can be helpful to identify just one little change you’d make next time.

Teacher: I guess I’d model the directions and procedures and ensure that they understood those.

Coach: That’s great! Definitely important.

Teacher: But I’d also probably do the whole unit differently ...

Coach: Wait a second, let’s just unpack that first thing a bit more ...

Keep your teacher focused on a few bite-size actions that they can refine and improve and direct them away from global statements and major declarations. Just steer them away and don’t let their fears hijack the conversation.

Coach Around Spheres of Control: Perfectionists blame themselves and others for things that aren’t under their control or the control of others. The Spheres of Influence and Control (which I wrote about here) is an invaluable framework to use with a client to help them home in on where they can have the greatest impact. I often carry copies of this graphic, Spheres.pdf, which I’ll pull out and reference in coaching conversations to remind a client of what is and isn’t within their sphere of control

Coach to Awareness of Shades of Gray: Perfectionists see things in black and white terms. Things are often either a “total failure” or “amazing.” Help your client see the nuances, gray zones, and complexity in every situation. Guide them to unpack “total failure” so that they can see the 1 percent of the lesson that was neutral, or even strong. Help them break down that mental model that things are black and white.

Cultivate Self-Compassion: When I’m coaching someone who is superhard on themselves, I sometimes challenge them by saying something like: Would you talk to your best friend/little sister/child/student the way you talk to yourself? Yes, perfectionists are hard on other people around them, but often when they think about the people they love the most in the world, they soften a little. They recognize that those people aren’t and can’t be perfect, and they can extend grace and love to them. I ask, “What would it take for you to treat yourself the way you treat those you love the most in the world?” And that’s an entry point to talking about self-compassion.

Teach Relaxation Strategies: Perfectionists are anxious and live with a lot of fear. Direct your client to resources that can help them learn to relax and become more aware of their emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness is an invaluable tool in this area.

Suggest a Mantra: Recovering perfectionists need to rewire their brain. They’ve spent decades, most likely, telling themselves they aren’t doing a good enough job. As they become aware that their self-talk is unhelpful, they need to reach for new language. Repeating a phrase like, I am enough, I do enough, or This is good enough, and good enough is great, can help to rewire neural pathways.

Part 3 of this series is out tomorrow!

Image by StartupStockPhotos on Pixabay, free for commercial use.

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