Posted in Conversations from the staffroom, Reflection

Trying to understand students who seek perfection

Let’s talk about ‘perfection’. I’ve never understood it and never really understood people who chase it. Does it exist? 

Sure it does. Mathematics is perfect. Science is, too (flat-earthers look away now). If you burnt all the books written about those topics and started from scratch, testing and experimenting as you normally do when investigating a hypothesis, you would get the same results you had once lost. 

But, can people be perfect? Can the things we want to achieve and ‘do’ in life, like speaking in another language, be perfect? 

I’m not so sure. When it comes to people, we are all flawed in some way. But, we can always grow and strive to do more. We can have standards, yardsticks, benchmarks, whatever you want to call it, and endeavour to go above and beyond those points, and certainly raise the bar, but to seek perfection, the top of the mountain, is always an uphill battle. And what’s to say that we cannot go further once we’ve reached the summit, once we are satisfied with our effort, do we just rest on our laurels? Isn’t this just a case of just wanting to be satisfied? Isn’t that the actual word we want to be using?

You can see how conflicted I am with this word. This is my mentality and background when it comes to perfection. Like all things in life, it all stems from something. Teachers I had in school wanted you to perform at your peak, your parents, community leaders, sports coaches, and friends likewise. There’s always that pressure to perform. Society places that on you at a very early and tender age. For me, I knew my limits, so it didn’t bother me in the slightest when I didn’t excel in certain areas of my life. For the areas I did, for example, swimming, I made damn sure I met my benchmark. Reaching perfection was never the goal. Just realising my potential, having development goals, and achieving then maintaining them was and ‘is’ how I see life. Growth is important, and there is no endgame; that would make life boring, right?

This finally brings me to teaching. These thoughts I have on perfection have been challenged over the years, by some students, teachers and managers particularly when it came to exams. They were more results-oriented, and a bigger focus was placed on numbers, getting top scores than the learning journey or process. I’m not a big fan of the former approach as I feel so much emphasis is put on getting that exam certificate. The certificate can only get you so far. Being able to demonstrate what you’ve learnt is more important to the lecturers and/or employers the students end up working with in the long run.

Perfectionist students can also affect the thing I enjoy most about teaching: giving feedback. I’m so proud of them when they work through their ideas on topics that are not easy, ideas that are well-developed, with good control, and I want them to understand how well they did. I can’t wait to share the evidence I have recorded of their good work and tell them how happy I am. Even with the objective evidence I collect in the class, the positive work they did in the lesson, I’m not sure they truly take on board what I’m telling them: that their English is good and coming along nicely. They seem to revert back to square one, that they are missing something crucial in their tool kit, and that their English is not good enough. It’s really disheartening for me looking at their faces. 

I don’t want to feel like the following but sometimes these students seem like they can’t see the wood for the trees even with the evidence I provide of their stellar output for them. It’s frustrating for me and it’s frustrating for them. If I can’t convince them of their good work, who can?

Having said all this, I’ve made a conscious effort to understand students who wish to take this path. I need to help them, and I want to help them, even if that means I don’t agree with being perfect and the path that they take. It certainly hasn’t been easy, but I don’t want to shut them out, that’s just not in my DNA. I have learnt to bite my tongue when a student says they want to be perfect in the language. I no longer give them the same ol’ spiel that was rooted in my disdain for this word, and just listen to what they have to say. Perfection can be a vague term so I have to question and probe the student to see what’s going on in their head and behind this word. One example a student gave made complete sense. Their thinking is that they link perfection to professionalism; the two go hand-in-hand. When talking to customers, clients, colleagues and other people linked to their job, they want to communicate and be understood, to not let the company down, to maintain standards, and to do this in a perfect way. Perhaps not perfectly, but near perfect. This is something I can understand. I hope with further conversations with students, I can continue to learn more about their approach to learning and figure out ways to convince them that their development is on track.

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