JTE Author Interview: How Perfectionism Affects Teachers’ Persistence
Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the latest author interview below.
This interview features insights from Northwestern University’s Brady K. Jones, author of the JTE article, “Enduring in an ‘Impossible’ Occupation: Perfectionism and Commitment to Teaching.” You can find this article in the November/December of JTE through this link.
Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?
A: I was a classroom teacher myself and found it really difficult and draining – a positive experience overall, but also a very stressful one. At the same time, I watched my younger sister thrive as a teacher. I left the occupation after two years; she plans to stay in the classroom for her entire career. School characteristics couldn’t really explain our different experiences in the profession, either. In fact, her schools were arguably much harder places to teach than mine! This made me think that some part of our personalities must be driving our career decisions in pretty important ways.
Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?
A: I have two young sons and think a lot about what their school experiences will be. It seems to me, due to current trends in education, that it will be pretty different from mine. In particular, it seems like it will be considerably less stable. I went to an elementary school down the road from my house, then on to middle school with all of my elementary school friends, then on to the one high school in my hometown. I knew ahead of time, at each step, which teachers people loved, what coaches I might want to work with, and who the administrators were. Today, students travel miles each day to take advantage of specialized programs, children in the same family attend two different schools, kids switch schools year to year for reasons both in and out of their parents’ control, etc. There are a lot of advantages to the new way of doing things, but I do think all that movement can make students feel less centered and safe. Really excellent, long-term teachers can be one force that brings back that lost sense of stability.
Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?
A: In general, this research was really fun to do. Learning more about the ins and outs of the personalities of these exceptional individuals was a joy. There were lots of difficulties, of course. The biggest one that comes to mind is how hard it is to write about personality without implying a value judgment. I think people high in perfectionism and low in perfectionism both have wonderful qualities that can influence students in different but important ways. Sometimes, though, readers might think of one type of personality as better than others. I tried very hard to discourage that way of thinking in this article, and I hope I succeeded.
Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?
A: I have shifted my focus for the time being to student personality. Right now I am conducting randomized control trials of short, simple psychosocial interventions that ask students to tweak how they narrate important successes and failures in their lives. I am studying the effects of these interventions on character strengths (or mindsets or “noncognitive skills” or social/emotional strengths – different researchers call them different things). It’s a bit of a shift from work on teacher personality, but it all serves my ultimate goal of helping to make schools happier and healthier places to work and learn.
Q: What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?
A: I think teacher education programs need to focus not only on creating instructionally effective teachers, but also teachers who know how to take care of themselves – how to manage their emotions and stress – in a very demanding occupation. I think most programs send graduates off without equipping them with these tools. If you think about it, the greatest teacher in the world doesn’t do much good if she leaves the classroom after two years!