Teachers: We can’t be perfect, and we shouldn’t try to be


Perfection is a danger. Just ask Benjamin Franklin

As teachers we know all too well the feeling of ending a class, week or year with feelings of inadequacy about not doing enough for our students. It’s like there is this voice in the sky reminding us of the standards we failed to meet, the paperwork left incomplete and the lives we were powerless to impact. We know in theory that avoiding mistakes should always be our goal but then feel that striving for perfection often comes at a significant cost to our well being.

Students suffer the same malady in the form of homework, parental and coach expectations, test scores and college decisions. The pressure to be perfect comes from all angles. They get stressed out and we the teachers often end up being the recipients of their angst and frustrations.

Social studies teacher Chelsea Alsberg drew upon this basic truth of human psychology to construct a lesson featuring somebody who was able to overcome the need for perfection under the toughest of circumstances: Benjamin Franklin.

She begins with the Big Question:

What makes something perfect?

So simple yet so profound, and it meets all three of our criteria.

After gathering students’ responses, she shows the story “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds

Students then reflect:

Was there ever something you stopped doing because you were not doing it perfectly?

Can art be perfect?  Who decides this?

What does it mean that Ramon’s later paintings/art were “-ish”?

Having personalized a definition of perfection and considered their own personal experiences, students are prepped to make the historical connection. They read Benjamin Franklin’s closing speech to the Constitutional Convention  and shape responses to a series of questions including this one:   If Franklin knows that the Constitution is flawed, why does he still push for ratification?

After discussion, the lesson concludes with students articulating the key positions of the anti-federalists and federalists as they debate the pitfalls and possibilities of the new Constitution. Students then must decide whether or not they would ratify it given its imperfections.

What I love about this lesson is not only do students gain a comprehensive understanding of a seminal historical event but, more importantly, they are encouraged to consider on a personal level the virtue of imperfection.  Using Benjamin Franklin and the formation of the Constitution as a model, students and teachers learn that it is okay to turn away from perfection sometimes in the service of smart, responsible decision-making.

This lesson unearths a great benefit of Big Questions: it’s not just that these questions get us to think deeply; it’s that they move us to act in ways that make us better people.

( Chelsea Alsberg: Student summer 2017 Socrates in the Social Studies )

Download Full Lesson


Author: Dan Fouts

Since 1993 I've taught AP government, philosophy and US history in the Chicagoland area. I served as a member of the committee on pre-collegiate instruction in philosophy through the American Philosophical Association from 2012-2016 and am co-founder of the Living Library project, a professional development program through which teachers digitize and share artifacts of their best ideas. Additionally, I instruct an online course- Socrates in the Social Studies - which is designed to help middle/high school teachers integrate Big Questions into their classrooms.

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