Teaching Perfectionists

I recall a lesson when I was fresh out of University, when I was  substitute teaching in school in Newcastle.  I was to give out colouring-in sheets to a Grade 1 class.  The teacher had supplied me with only 2 or 3 spare sheets for those that made an error.  Colouring-in sheets, whilst not of any obvious educational value, is a great babysitting device.  Most kids love them because they do not involve any thinking or grading and most teachers appreciate the fact that students can do them both quietly and independently.

On this occasion one of the girls came up to me and asked me for a replacement sheet.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Can I have another sheet?  I messed up this one.”

She presented the sheet to me and I was immediately struck by how beautiful it looked.  Her worked showed striking attention to detail and great care for staying within the lines.

“But what’s wrong with this picture? It looks fabulous to me.”

“It’s terrible.  I made a big mistake.  Look, I went out on the lines.”

Even with her pointing to the spot where she trespassed the line I had to squint to see the infringement.

“You don’t need another sheet.  This is fine.  I wouldn’t even call that a mistake.”

“But I never go out of the lines.  Mum told me never to colour out of the lines.”

I don’t know what got into me, but I instinctively gave her a new sheet and asked her to go out of the lines multiple times – this time on purpose.

You should have seen the horror in her eyes.

Then I turned to the class and announced that the class do the same thing.  I said I was looking for work that featured colouring out of the lines. The class just stared out in confusion.

“C’mon it’ll be fun.  Let’s colour out of the lines!

And all of a sudden they started doing as I suggested.  And they loved it!  They laughed, coloured with energy and abandon and enjoyed comparing their imperfect work with others.

The girl in question saw her classmates having so much fun making mistakes, she too went back to her desk and revelled in this weird but cathartic exercise.  We even sang a colouring out of the lines song.

I don’t know whether I did something constructive or destructive, but I can report that the class looked so much more relaxed and happier when mistakes were acceptable and perfection was bypassed.

Teachers tend to allow the perfectionist to continue their habits.  This is because perfectionists are a pleasure to have in the classroom.  They take their studies seriously, try their best at all times and listen attentively to instructions.

But the problem is perfectionism is extremely unhealthy.  Parents often laugh it off and say, “She get’s that from me.  I’m a bit like that too.”  But is it really a joke?  Perfectionists are on a hiding to nothing because the goal they aim for is impossible to reach.  The inevitable consequences of perfectionism is that they never get the satisfaction of their efforts or accept people’s praise because all they can see is what they didn’t get right.

I am all for studious, hardworking students, but not at the expense of their right to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and the joy of basking in their achievements.

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2 Responses to “Teaching Perfectionists”

  1. Margaret Reyes Dempsey Says:

    I’d say you did something very constructive. Great instincts, you have.

  2. Carl D'Agostino Says:

    Unfortunately we have perfectionists in Washington DC. They are perfect idiots. Love that cartoon. I try to capture anomalies like that in mine.

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