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Progress, not perfection

In a recent conversation with a number of colleagues, a curriculum leader in a district in our region shared, “I’m working hard to help my team recognize that now, more than ever, it has to be about progress, and not perfection.”

That quote stuck with me throughout the day. And the evening. And the weeks since that conversation.

It is such an important idea, and one that we are liable to forget, or stop paying attention to, if we allow ourselves. The constant striving for perfection (or as close as we can come) is a challenge in the best of times, and a real obstacle in our current circumstances. And, I might add, is less of an aspirational goal than an impossible one. 

And it is nowhere near as important as progress.

Over the last few months, all of us have attempted to make progress for and with others. In some cases, we have been successful, in others not. Yet the progress we have made has been where the learning lives, and we can probably attest to the fact that we have learned much more over these last seven months than we have in the same period in the past. 

So it isn’t the perfection that we really need to strive for, but the pathways and processes that move our learning forward.

With that in mind, I’m sharing four methods (and modes where they might come into play) to help move towards progress (and help others do the same). No platitudes here, these are real ways to monitor, and move, our progress forward.

As a learner: Master one tool before moving on to another. This advice came from the same conversation as the quote that started this piece. The idea is a simple one. Focus on using one tool until you are balanced between novice and mastery. So, if you are experimenting with Nearpod, continue to do so until you feel comfortable enough to use it with little stress. Then move on to Padlet, or Screencastify, or whatever it may be. And remember that the timeline for this looks different for everyone.

As a listener: Write “Stop talking so much” on whatever you have in front of you. Even if, in reality, you aren’t talking that much, consider making this move to progress along the listening continuum. An amazing supervisor and mentor taught me this one, and I use it regularly. I’ll often write these four words on a notepad as I’m engaged in a Zoom call or on a phone conference call. This forces me to put myself in listener mode and is also a funny self-check (I have had people ask, “Who wrote that on your paper?” To which I reply, “Me” ☺).

As a leader: Be the test case for COVID response, not the worst case. When we are leading groups, it is always best to model good behavior, rather than engage in behavior that is bad. For instance, to help with cleaning protocols, my agency created a campus opening/closing timeline. Based on that I have worked hard to make sure I don’t arrive before 8:00 AM and that I am packed and out the door by 5:00 PM. This can be really hard on some days, and the importance of modeling this rule is significant. After all, if I don’t follow the rules, how can I ask others to do the same?

As a lover: De-digitize for even a small part of the day. The “lover” in this case is about loving ourselves. I have worked hard to find at least thirty minutes where I can step away from the computer on any given workday and go for a walk, engage in a “traditional” phone call, or simply stand up, look out a window, and think. With so many of our meetings and gatherings taking place via web conferencing, the need for that separation is even more necessary. I have gotten in the habit of scheduling that time on my calendar, to make sure I actually make it happen. I’m also working towards a tech-free Saturday or Sunday, but haven’t gotten up the courage to actually try it. Yet.

These real practices are steps along the path to progress. There is nothing perfect about any of these moves, and there isn’t meant to be. That said, by engaging in them, I can move myself, in each of these four frames, further along the path to “better” than I started before I put them into practice. 

After all, it is progress, not perfection, that helps us help others, and ourselves, to continuously improve.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, Professional Development That Sticks, and Forces of Influence, are available from ASCD. Connect with Fred on his website or on Twitter.

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