“I’m not crossing that out.” The perfectionist looked at me in defiance, her pen hovering over the immaculately written spelling mistake on her page. Her eyes were bright with indignation and her pigtails twitched nervously.
This student may seem like the least of a teacher’s worries, but the problem of perfectionism is not going away in Britain’s schools. Teachers, particularly those in girls’ schools, face growing numbers of perfectionists in their classes as anxiety levels among young people rise. Such students are torn apart by the impossibly high expectations that they place on themselves – there’s nothing funny about that.
A 2015 survey by the Children’s Society showed the UK’s children to be among the unhappiest in the world. The survey placed low self-esteem at the heart of the problem, and the perfectionists in our classrooms are part of that picture.
Perfectionism can be destructive to effective learning and difficult to manage. Teachers need clear strategies to help foster more constructive attitudes – it’s time that these pupils gave themselves a break.
‘I won’t write it down unless I know it’s right’
This problem rears its head in subjects such as English where there are no clear answers, and students are asked to venture interpretations.
Some students find the risk that what they commit to paper will not be right, or “good enough”, to be unbearable.
This leads to a lack of engagement in the activity and forces students into total dependency on the teacher – an attitude of, “I’ll write that down when they go through it on the board.”
Treating workbooks as just that – working documents where ideas are very much “exercised”, may help.
You wouldn’t expect to exercise to get fit without getting sweaty, and you shouldn’t expect to refine your ideas without crossing things out. Sometimes analogies like this can be helpful to students.
‘I’m obsessed with my handwriting’
Some students, particularly girls in Year 7, are overly preoccupied with the beauty of their handwriting when legibility, rather than fine calligraphy, is really all that secondary teachers care about.
Students need to be able to write clearly, but this is functional, not aesthetic. One student that I taught would spend 10 minutes selecting the perfect pen for a task, meaning she was always behind, despite being incredibly able.
An obsessive attitude to handwriting often leads children to write extremely slowly: they may struggle to provide well-developed answers under timed conditions.
Showing students the handwriting of pupils who have managed to write a more thorough piece may help. Perfectionists need proof that their focus on handwriting is unnecessary by seeing successful pieces that are less pedantic in their presentation.
This can help them see that the aim is detail, not presentation. If they can mentally readjust their own success criteria, they will be more empowered to change their outlook.
‘My homework takes three times longer than it should’
Some students will go significantly beyond their allocated homework time in a bid to give in “perfect” work.
Asking students to write down at the bottom of their homework how long it took them to do can give teachers an insight into the reality of the time spent. Setting timed essays in class may seem stressful for some students but for perfectionists this can be a relief – the time restriction is decided by the teacher, and so they are emotionally “safe” knowing that the whole class is working within the same limitations.
One-shot approaches to writing tasks may also be useful: one secondary school teacher said the culture of endless redrafting at her school was actually feeding the problem of perfectionism, giving anxious students a never-ending invitation to set their bar higher and higher.
‘My shortcomings are not my own fault’
One of the uglier faces of perfectionism appears when a student receives targets as personal criticisms, or cannot accept the struggle to progress.
This can lead anxious students to blame their teachers: so traumatising is the idea that the student has failed to meet the mark that their anger is turned outwards.
The sometimes accusatory worries of parents can be dissipated by a conversation about what targets in marking mean and how, specifically, students can do better.
Model work is handy here in giving a tangible example, although be careful to make it anonymous, avoiding a sense of competition.
Typed examples will make it look less like you are making a direct comparison between their child and another member of the class.
Spending a few minutes one-on-one with students themselves can likewise help: they need to know that instances where they’ve missed the mark do not cause their teachers to completely re-evaluate their capabilities. We have to show that we have more faith in perfectionists than they have in themselves.
‘I don’t want to cross out my work’
The evil twin of the perfectionist’s obsession with handwriting is the refusal to cross out ‘mistakes’ – and it is an equally blameworthy enemy of learning. Some students will obsessively Tippex their mistakes away, wasting precious classroom time waiting for it to dry.
I thought I had solved this problem by banning Tippex, but this only sent sales of ink-eradicator pens through the roof. Alarmingly, when I banned these, too, I caught some girls cutting up strips of white paper to stick over their mistakes.
Other students refuse to correct mistakes, preferring an unblemished page to an accurate piece of work. This level of perfectionism is difficult: you are torn between an awareness of the student’s anxiety and the disciplinary issue that it presents. It may require a firm response, and I have insisted on watching them cross out their mistake.
Help students to see mistakes as a positive part of learning – a mistake means that you have ventured a way forward, evaluated it and adjusted it. Sharing examples of mistakes in your own notes can be a good way of softening the stand-off.
‘Finding work difficult is not acceptable to me’
The other common trait of the perfectionist is that they are probably an all-round high achiever; they are used to working hard but not to struggling.
Perfectionism usually produces satisfactory results and they are not familiar with failure. This can lead to distressed eruptions of emotion, when the experience of finding something difficult is seen as a certain precursor to failure.
Many schools, particularly girls’ schools, are using targeted resilience strategies to combat this problem. “Impossible” activities, challenges and “failure” games are used to help students understand that finding things hard does not mean that you are not good enough. Limits can be challenged positively, without judgement from others or themselves.
Jennifer Taylor teaches at a selective girls school in West London