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As the Associate Dean of the Graduate School of the Graduate School of Education, one of my duties is to review course evaluations to identify and resolve any issues expressed by students. As most university professors have proved, this is a particularly difficult year. Suddenly, the only form of face-to-face courses that most of us knew stopped, and we were unexpectedly asked to teach using tools such as Blackboard, Panopto, Voicethread, and Zoom. This is a format that many people in our organization don’t understand at best and actively resist at worst. It turns out that we will continue to teach fully online in the coming summer and fall semesters.

I fully expect that my review of our course evaluation will reflect the confusion, fear, and frustration that most students and faculty members experience as we all transition to this new way of teaching. Although some teachers struggled, I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of our course assessments were not only very beneficial, but actually improved compared to the situation where we were almost completely face-to-face last year.

There are many reasons for this successful transition, including a lot of hard work by faculty and staff. We are also fortunate to have several national experts in online learning and a group of outstanding technical support personnel among our faculty and staff, who have provided us with extensive training and support. These people, like many others around the world, have allowed learning to continue during the pandemic and deserve recognition.

However, perhaps most importantly, I had the opportunity to talk to many of our faculty and staff about their experiences during the transition period. I find that faculty and staff who thrive and succeed in this new environment have a similar attitude, and those struggling seem to lack this attitude.

The faculty and staff who seem to be doing the best claim that they are not only highly committed to making the online format effective, but that they balance this commitment with understanding, patience, and friendliness of students and themselves. They realized that they could not accomplish everything they might want at the beginning of the semester, so they made realistic adjustments to their expectations. This includes modifying their lesson plans; reducing lectures, and in some cases, replacing them with independent learning activities; reducing or restricting student work; and providing additional support for students in need.

They also provide students with a space to share their experiences and frustrations in transitioning to online learning, and establish a collaborative environment that allows them to make adjustments with students when problems and worries arise. Throughout the process, they knew that they and their students would do their best under extremely difficult circumstances. This attitude of accepting and doing their best does not mean that they give up the grading standard; in fact, their student evaluation shows that the students think the standard is still high and they have learned a lot from the course. However, faculty and staff maintain these standards through patience, acceptance, continuous adaptation, and continuous support.

My conversations with faculty and staff who have encountered difficulties in the transition to online learning show that they have very different perspectives. Like those teachers who thrive, they describe themselves as harder or harder to adapt to new forms than ever before. But they also talked about feeling over-stressed and needing to do everything well and cover the same content in the same way as the normal semester. Given that it is impossible to maintain the same academic speed, their exhaustive attempts to achieve this goal caused them to feel overwhelmed and discouraged. It is frustrating to try to learn quickly how to use new technological tools to do the same things they have done themselves. They also expressed annoyance for students who did not participate in classroom activities due to the pandemic or had difficulty completing assignments on time. In essence, the pressure to do everything perfectly has become overwhelming, causing these faculty members to feel defeated, and in some cases to become uncommitted.

These very different views on how teachers adjust their expectations of themselves and their students are reminiscent of Donald Winnicott’s observations of effective and ineffective parenting in the 1950s. Winnicott, a well-known pediatrician and psychoanalyst, has observed that parents of well-adjusted children seem to have common parenting methods. Although they are very focused when the baby is born, by predicting and satisfying all the needs of the baby, they gradually let the child experience and endure a greater degree of frustration. They also provide space for children to express frustration, including “negative” emotions such as anger, sadness, and jealousy. Winnicott called these parents “good enough mothers” (the main caregiver in the 1950s was usually the mother) because they maintained reasonable expectations of their children. Perhaps most importantly, they also maintain reasonable expectations of themselves and provide an atmosphere of continuous acceptance of imperfections.

Winnicott contrasted the “good enough” parenting style with what he called the “perfect mother”. In contrast, some parents strive to make everything perfect for their children and never see them angry or hurt in any way. However, since it is impossible to foresee and eliminate all forms of discomfort in children, this effort leads to exhaustion and frustration for parents, who rarely feel that they are doing well in raising children. Winnicott also said that this kind of parenting has made children unable to endure challenges or experience and express negative emotions in a healthy way. Essentially, the perfect parent works harder, enjoys less fun in raising children, and raises children less adaptable to real-world challenges than “good enough” parents.

The need for patience and reflection on practice

I admit that on the surface, encouraging professors to be “good enough” seems akin to allowing them to accept mediocrity. However, Winnicott’s observations actually show that we sometimes contrast the attitudes and behaviors of pursuing perfection with those consistent with excellent teaching. In some cases, these expectations of perfection can overwhelm faculty, staff and students, so that they become so frustrated that they cannot participate.

This is why the concept of choosing “good enough” rather than perfect has become popular in areas such as business, medicine, and technology. Especially in the field of information technology, the principle of “good enough” is adopted when developing and releasing new software. Although developers always try to release software that works well, they also realize that it is impossible to create software that works perfectly in all situations, because many looming challenges are unknown at the time of release. They did not wait to create the perfect product, but realized that it would undoubtedly encounter errors in some unimagined situations while releasing the new software, and they prepared in advance to adapt the software to these changing dynamics.

In 1997, James Back of the IT Lab described the principle of developing “good enough” software. He wrote:

“Remember that the true essence of good enough lies in the practitioner’s thoughts, not any practice. A paradigm is a paradigm of learning at work, learning from failure, coping with complexity and coping with humanity. It is always accompanied by establishing benefits. Encourage healthy skepticism by thinking about problems. Our task is not to blindly eliminate all problems, but to fully understand the problems and benefits of the situation in order to eliminate (or prevent) the right problems and provide the right solutions.”

University teachers obviously need to carefully plan their courses by choosing appropriate reading materials, carefully designing meaningful assignments, and developing innovative lesson plans for each class—just to name a few skills necessary for successful teaching. But an important lesson from the pandemic is that not only is it impossible to plan perfectly in the classroom, it may not even be a suitable goal.

On the contrary, Winnicott’s observations of attitudes and behaviors consistent with “good enough” parents help us understand the value of setting reasonable expectations for ourselves and our students. We should also listen carefully to students’ views on the learning experience and provide them with a space to express frustration and other uncomfortable emotions. We should work with students in some way so that we can continuously evaluate our expectations of ourselves and our students and make real-time adjustments so that our classrooms can adapt to the changing dynamics.

The qualities associated with “good enough” teaching are certainly not new to the education field. But Winnicott’s work provides a useful reminder of the need for patience and reflective practice—and the inherent dangers to ourselves and our students when we try to be “perfect professors,” when in fact, Perfection is even impossible.

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