Image courtesy Joshua Coleman on Unsplash
Can perfectionism be useful in education? When? How?
Should we strive for perfection ourselves as educators?
For our pupils?
Or can perfectionism be destructive?
This blog examines these questions…
The other day I was watching my partner work. She is an Architectural Technologist. These (crazy) people must spend
hours, days, weeks on software on the computer perfecting designs for buildings and ensuring the functionality is
correct: the laws, the materials, the physics, the environmental impact, the heritage impact, the sustainability impact
I watched her for about half an hour (whilst reading my book – it would have been too boring for me otherwise!), she
was working on the same tiny detail for the whole time. I asked her:
Are you trying to make this perfect?
Yes of course, that’s what we have to do.
I would be useless at this job – thank goodness there are a host of different people in the world to do all the different
things; it did get me thinking though – is perfectionism needed at all in my job and in education?
We have all totally done it – spent hours (days? – I’m looking at you trainees!) attempting to perfect the lesson plans.
The powerpoint is so smooth, and the images are exactly what you need…guaranteed that, that is the lesson there is a
fight/wet play/free-give-away-sweet-fest beforehand, which means the students just can’t settle. (One memorable time
I did this involved a student having had gravy thrown into her hair during the lunchtime before our lesson…she did not
notice the use of the animation button on my powerpoint – or perhaps even what I was teaching at all).
It’s challenging – with observations, targets, continual focus on data and the mythical ‘How to be an outstanding
teacher’ recurring training, our current (British) Education System does tend to hold the legend of a perfect teacher.
The perfect teacher does not exist.
Imagining that it does is a hindrance and can get us knots.
Our students face the same pressures that we do from the education system to be perfect – targets, exams
progress…this can be dangerous when the goals are generalised.
Yes, we should strive for high expectations – possibly even perfectionism in some areas
(making up your own 2 times tables probably won’t get you very far), but this ‘perfectionism’
needs to be adapted for each child, in each circumstance, in each situation.
I support reading, mainly with teenagers with Emotional Behavioural Difficulties; a lot of these students have already
built up a very negative relationship with reading. It can take me weeks, sometimes months, to get them even to attend
a session with me. When they come in, open a book and read out loud to me for the first time I am not going to stop and
correct them because they misread a word – that level of perfectionism at that stage would be massively unhelpful to
the students’ overall progress. In this instance, the most important thing is to give the student a positive experience with
In mainstream schools there is pressure to achieve a certain percentage of high grades, and as the Timpson Review found, this has led to illegal exclusions and off-rolling. A high level of
perfectionism that results in some students not receiving the education they are entitled to under the Human Rights Act.
Perfect Determination? (Or at least aiming for it imperfectly)
Working with young people is unpredictable, especially ones who have behavioural and/or mental health needs, and
who may have experienced extreme trauma, abuse and neglect. When working with them we have to be constantly
reacting and accommodating their needs.
Sometimes what a pupil needs, is to learn 5 facts about your subject, and you will sit with them and do the drilling until
it’s learnt. Being a perfectionist in this is essential – and to not do this would be a disservice (see my vlog on Tough Love!) We need perfectionism with our determination.
Other times a student can reject you repeatedly – the temptation not to bother, to think – well, I could go and ask them
but they’ll say no anyway so I’ll just finished this report instead – is a difficult temptation – we are humans as well, and
rejection is hard for us too! The self-discipline and perfectionism to keep turning up for that student and keep trying is
vital – and it does work, eventually!
- Accepting imperfection with ourselves as educators is helpful – and helps us with our sanity somewhat!
- Maintaining perfection with students for certain aspects of learning is our duty.
As educators, we need to hone the ability of working out when perfectionism is useful and when it is not. We do this by
allowing ourselves to be fully present with our students and by knowing our students, their particular circumstances, on
that particular day, on a particular blue moon…