The Imperfect Profession

As an early childhood teacher I have spent the past 15 years living, breathing, and lifting up imperfection. I have learned that, when it comes to children whose minds, bodies, and souls are incomplete, imperfection, properly framed becomes art. It is the beauty of the drawing that only suggests a human body, but the student has identified, “That’s my mommy.” It is the accomplishment of a student’s hand drawn shape when, for the first time, has become more a letter than a scribble. This slopping through imperfection has been a way of life, with its beauty and power, making my life as an educator meaningful and always becoming.


In my foundations of education course at VCU the “err” of imperfection has followed me into the college classroom. This past week I had a quintessential experience of teaching as the imperfect profession. It wasn’t only that the computer projector had a bulb that couldn’t be replaced, or that the technician who came to help set up a supplementary laptop and projector eventually became a fixture in our class. It wasn’t even that the copies of the article that I had requested from the copy center were not in my mailbox and I had to scramble to find them. It has to do with seats.

I have mentioned many times since the beginning of the course that I was especially uncomfortable with the seating arrangement of our class. It is the classic high school style chair/desk combo arranged in rows, facing the teacher/projection screen. My students have chuckled and nodded but not attempted to change anything.

This week we used a classic adult learning strategy, the jigsaw. In this strategy the students become experts on one area of knowledge (usually an article), then meet with home groups and share their expertise. Finally, a whole group discussion clarifies the subjects and highlights the important discussions shared in the home group sessions. Two of the groups in the class moved into the hallway, immediately sat in a circle, and began to tackle the article and ideas. When they were ready they started talking, naturally, without raising hands or argument. A third group stayed in their seats in the class, sitting in rows, and tried to become experts. After several attempts on my part to get discussion started I let it go. After visiting the groups deep in discussion in the hallway I realized I needed to do something.  I was concerned that the classroom group would not be able to fully understand and share their area of expertise in the article. I insisted that the students get up and move into the hall to see what was happening with the other groups. They were, at the very least, surprised. When they saw what the other groups were doing they changed their approach, moved into the hallway and came out of the expert discussion ready to share.

I told my students after the activity, “This is the essence of teaching. Have a plan for how to teach these students, this content, at this time. Have circumstances derail your plan. Adjust your plan. Watch your plan work but, only partially. Readjust your plan. Then figure out how you would do it different next time.”

Starting this week we will not sit in rows, at least if I can help it.

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  • ArielSacks

    The essence of teaching

    John, I love this story and how it illustrates the difference between a good plan and the art of teaching.  I also appreciate how you’re showing the value of pedagogy in higher ed.  

  • Windy

    Modeling for students is

    Modeling for students is important in all levels of education. Making that art explicit for students in teacher prep programs is so powerful. 

  • JohnHolland

    The Art

    Thanks for commenting Ariel and Windy. I really do hope that my students will learn the content and become aware of the process to the point of allowing it to help them engage. Now, to figure out how to sit 30 students in this room full of desks without being in rows.


  • Tonya Ward Singer

    Collaborate in the cycle of trial and error

    I love your emphasis on imperfection and reflective practice.  I used to provide model lessons for teachers with the goal of perfection and now I really approach lessons with the goal of imperfection.  I tell observers before a lesson that I will intentionally take a risk and try to push the edge of what my students can do ( while also trying something new myself).  I teach as observers and I pay close attention to what students say and do.  We then discuss the student actions and reflect on the lesson to make shifts to address needs.  Whenever the the lesson doesn’t go as planned, we have the best discussions and insights into how to change our own teaching practice.  Observers then take the lead with a team engaged in inquiry: planning, teaching, reflecting and refining.  We encourage imperfections to continuously step towards new learning, and study this art together.  

  • SusanGraham

    The Beauty of Imperfection

    “This slopping through imperfection has been a way of life, with its beauty and power, making my life as an educator meaningful and always becoming.” 

    Interesting that we value “handmade, one of a kind” in a piece of pottery or a sweater. The market touts “slight imperfections” as a way to verify authenticity of that claim. Isn’t it strange then, that current education policy strives for cookie cutter uniformity in what children should know when they should know it and how they should demonstrate knowing. One would think that if we value those flaws that I personalize a hand thrown pot or a hand knitted sweater, we would place a higher value on producing unique, quirky, if somewhat imperfect and still becoming children. 


  • BriannaCrowley

    Imperfection = Flexibility = Innovation

    I love that you illuminated not only your classroom learning moment, but also the cycle of innovation that is at teaching’s core. What educational reformers often fail to understand is that the art and process of teacher requires constant innovation. Why are teachers not innovating then? Perhaps because the system has asked them not to when it gave them pacing guides, standardized tests, and boxes upon boxes in their physical spaces. A systematic dismantling of the natural innovation that arises from human interaction and the learnig process.

    Anyway, I found your post compelling and think others outside of your classroom will also find it engaging. I cross-posted to CTQ’s profile.

  • Shemeka

    Everything always starts with

    Everything always starts with imperfection. It is all just how you want to be and get the stuff going.

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