Having children means never having to say your house is clean. There’s always something more that could be picked up, wiped down, or dusted off. Children tend to leave a path of entropy in their wake, and as much as I’d like to tidy up every last nook and cranny, there just isn’t enough time in the day.

That’s a perfectly sane approach to life. After all, we live in a great, big, wonderful, world! We only have so many days to discover everything we want to discover. To learn everything we can learn, and to relish as much as possible this incredible experience we call life. Spending endless hours housecleaning seems, to me, like a bit of a waste. Unless I’m having company. Then that great, big, wonderful world can wait.

I want my guests to feel appreciated—to know how much we value them and their visit. I want them to feel comfortable. And, of course, I want to show off. So whatever needs to happen, will happen. If there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’ll make enough hours in the day, until the wallpaper shines and the floorboards glisten. Knowing I have an audience inspires me to attend to the details.

When to Sweat the Small Stuff

It’s exactly the same in our classrooms. Much of the time, we need to look at our students’ work and focus on what’s essential. If we splatter their rough drafts with red ink in a desperate attempt to eradicate every misplaced comma or errant apostrophe, we run the risk of making them believe that their ideas are less important than their grammar. Even worse, we run the risk of cultivating a deep hatred of writing. In math, if we fail to grant partial credit, we misdiagnose student understanding—and we might transform a future math addict into a mathophobe. Perfectionism—especially when we’re endlessly honing conventions and inessential concepts—results in wasted effort, frustrated students, and burned-out teachers.

Tidying Up

By contrast, when we let a misspelling slide or recognize all the good work a student did on a math problem before they made that one little mistake, we both affirm our students and focus our collective energies on the most important things. However, there is a time and a place for perfection, and the most honest way we can drive this home is to share student work with authentic audiences.

When a student knows that she’s going to be standing in front of the school board, holding her speech in sweaty hands and trying to convince them to adopt an idea she cares about deeply… well, I’ve noticed that she magically begins to pay close attention to the subtler points of grammar and rhetoric. When a boy is presenting a senior citizen with her biography—especially if he’s come to know and admire his new friend—he magically begins to pay close attention to the neatness of his handwriting and the shading of his artwork.

They care about those details for a real and powerful reason. It’s not some teacher nitpicking on matters peripheral, just because someday the world will care. Instead, students feel with immediacy the expectations of the broader world. They’ll clean up their work for the same reason I’ll clean up my house if you’re coming over for a visit.

When Students Touch the World

If our class is full of work presented only to people inside the room, it begins to feel like an insular little game. Students realize this, and they lose their sense of urgency. To instill that extra spark of engagement, the most powerful thing we can do is to break out of our classroom walls and share their work with the outside world. This will inspire them to work with greater diligence and care—the care that comes when you feel like your voice is valued and your impact on the world is real.

What about you? How do you inspire authentic learning in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

*Today’s image is brought to you by Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Catch the series streaming now on Netflix.