Kindly Perfectionism

I have heard it said that the happiest person on the Olympic podium is usually the bronze medallist, and the saddest is usually the silver medallist.  The former is delighted with the medal he got, the latter distraught over the medal he missed (apparently the gold medallist is often just relieved!).  So attainment and happiness are not tightly linked.

The same can also be true in a school context.  I saw a student skipping around yesterday, looking absolutely delighted with herself.  She told me that she had just received a 7 (the highest grade in our system) in a test in her favourite subject, in which she has worked so hard.  I congratulated her, really pleased to see her hard-won delight.  Later on in the day I saw her again, and she looked rather miserable; I assumed something else had happened.  When I asked her, she told me that she had been thinking about the test, and was now upset because she realised that it was only a low 7!

I didn’t know what to make of this situation – on the one hand, I was delighted that the student was looking beyond the grade; she was seeking to be the best she could be and I sensed and admired her ambition.  On the other hand, seeking perfection can be a route to constant dissatisfaction and misery.   I fear for the perfectionists, but never want to discourage the right sort of self-drive.

How then do we help students learn to have high standards while still allowing them to enjoy their successes?  How do we ensure that those who make enormous progress are justifiably proud of their achievements, and do not feel overshadowed by those who do a little better?

There’s no simple answer here, and home and school both need to play their part.  We mustn’t always seek to be the best in everything – but nor must we accept low standards.  It’s a difficult balance, and ultimately, one that the students must make for themselves. For our parts, we can consciously and explicitly celebrate effort over achievement (of course the two usually go hand-in-hand), and we can ensure students experience a wide range of diverse areas, so that they all experience success and failure, and learn to deal with both.

So as as we approach reporting time later this term, we need to balance aspiration with realism, and to talk to our students about tempering ambition for themselves with kindness to themselves.  And it’s OK to be pleased, even completely delighted, with a low 7!

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By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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