We were nearing the end of the maths lesson. “Now,” I said, pointing at the problem on the board. “Who thinks they might have a solution?”
A few hands shot in the air but not many. I wasn’t surprised. The problem was a tricky one.
“What about you, Mia?” I asked, after several children had failed to come up with the solution. “I saw you working hard on it. Did you find an answer?”
She is happy to speak out but only when she is 100 per cent sure her answer is correct
She shook her head, sliding her hand protectively over her book. When the lesson resumed, I went over to have a look. She had the correct answer, her method clearly laid out.
“That’s great, Mia,” I told her. “Why didn’t you share it with the class?” She gave me a small smile and dropped her gaze. It wasn’t simply shyness. Mia is a natural introvert but not shy. She is happy to speak out but only when she is 100 per cent sure her answer is the correct one. The alternative, for her, is unthinkable.
Fear of failure
Over the years, I’ve taught lots of children like Mia. Children who fear failure and live in dread of getting told off. They have all been girls.
I once reprimanded a child for running in the corridor and promptly forgot all about it until, two months later, she gave me a Christmas card with a P.S. that read, “Sorry for running in the corridor. I promise I won’t do it again.”
Gradually the expectations build and they find themselves on a pedestal
They don’t start off this way. In key stage 1, I remember Mia waving her hand in the air, jumping up to share her work and happily making mistakes all over the shop. Then come subtle changes. The award certificates accumulate; the appearances in good-work assemblies mount up; they are publicly singled out as examples for the rest of the class. The word “perfect” appears in their end-of-year reports. Gradually the expectations build and they find themselves on a pedestal that they are scared to rock in case it crashes down.
Limits of perfection
I was thinking about this during half-term when I took my daughter to see the musical Matilda. She is just discovering Roald Dahl. My daughter’s at an impressionable age, but if I was looking for role models, I don’t think she could do much better than Matilda. In a world of doe-eyed Disney princesses, a child who loves books and uses her intelligence to defeat tyranny is fantastic.
That she manages to do this without becoming a tomboy is a bonus and justifies the small remortgage required for all London theatre trips.
For some girls, chasing perfection can limit them. School is, on the whole, a lovely microcosm of fairness and equality where, if you work hard and obey the rules, your path forward is pretty much guaranteed. But for some pupils we need to explicitly encourage failure and imperfection – to take risks and stop being so hard on themselves. We should pass on Matilda’s message that sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands