Finding a new kind of perfect

Perfectionism (see also meticulousness, conscientiousness, rigorousness)

I remember seeing an early Jennifer Saunders sketch where she plays a hostess so determined to lay on the perfect dinner party that in the process of rushing between elaborate cooking in the kitchen and checking the layout of nibbles in the lounge, she can barely disguise a complete stress melt-down in front of her guests. Like a lot of comedy of that ilk, it was actually quite uncomfortable viewing at times, watching the character be so hard on herself, that she completely misses the point, the purpose and the joy of the event she’d laid on for her guests.

How many times have we been to a wedding, or a party, where the host is so intent on making everything perfect, that they inadvertently turn it into the opposite of the celebration of life it is supposed to be?

Somebody once told me that the teaching profession seems to attract a disproportionate amount of people prone to perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism defined as the refusal to accept anything short of perfect and seeing anything less than that as failure.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that our sector is full of hundreds of teachers being as hard on themselves as those two examples, it does make me wonder if there is room for teachers and their leaders to find ways to be less hard on themselves and more forgiving of their own humanity.

In order for those in education to not just survive but to truly thrive as we hurtle through the 21st Century, surely it has to become necessary for whole school culture to shift a little to the habits of compromise and compassion. Many, many schools have taken up the work of Carol Dwek at Stanford University for their pupils, embracing a ‘Growth Mindset’, following the belief that abilities can be developed and are not fixed. However, I wonder how easy it is for schools to genuinely extend this same approach to all their staff? A ‘Fixed Mindset’ is largely defined by the fear of failure, aversion to risk and comparing abilities with others. Not a great approach with a set of teachers prone to self-doubt and self-criticism. 

However, there are brave schools out there where leadership takes very seriously its role in building resilience and encouraging risk-taking as part of whole staff development. It is a privilege for Education Support Partnership to be currently working alongside a forward-thinking MAT with schools in the East of England where it works to build into the job descriptions of its leaders at all levels, a personal responsibility for the wellbeing of their team members. So, alongside the tasks and projects and deadlines distributed by the school leaders, are the underpinning values of ensuring that staff are mentored and coached and supported to get the best out of them without undue cost to their personal wellbeing in the process. It is this combination of leaders holding staff to account whilst clearly holding themselves to account over staff wellbeing that I think can work very effectively for everyone in school, perfectionists included.

I make no apology in repeating one of Sir Richard Branson’s business mantras, "If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple."

We have already seen Ofsted add pupil wellbeing to its agenda in recent months.  What would it take for this to widen to whole-school wellbeing? Many schools are now using Education Support Partnership’s well regarded Positive Workplace Survey to objectively take stock of the wellbeing of their staff and then working with us at the charity to facilitate cultural resilience, stronger relationships, communication and well-being within their organisation. 

With the rapid and unrelenting advance of artificial intelligence (AI) in other sectors with all its benefits and drawbacks, it will be these so-called ‘soft-skills’ of high order communication, empathy and sheer humanity, which many agree will be the most valued skills in education in its next stage of development.

If you agree with me on this point, then it follows that we adults need to be modelling and mentoring these skills for the young people we work with right now.

When it comes to relentless efficiency that comes close to perfection, there is no point in us trying to replicate those tasks that should, and very soon will, become mechanised. There is, instead, a need to find a new kind of perfection in our craft. The perfection of reading a room to know when people have had enough, the perfection of knowing when and how to give praise and acknowledgement and the perfection of recognising, more often than not, our own humanity in our everyday actions and interactions.

I would say it is the educator who knows the true difference between things that are perfect, excellent and ‘good enough’ who can then be a good role model to the next generation for whom these attitudes, skills and dispositions will be key to their success and wellbeing. We’ve seen the music and social-media icons who have rejected the relentless pursuit and projection of ‘perfect’ in return for a more imperfect and fulfilling existence. Surely, one role of education is to allow mistakes and imperfections to be seen as iterations and learning points for our young people.

Pure perfection is probably best left to AI. Pure humanity, on the other hand, is in very safe hands with educators who are comfortable as role models being less than perfect.  

Alex Bell is the National Associate Coordinator at Education Support Partnership, fellow of Royal Society of the Arts, experienced leadership coach, mentor and speaker and a former primary school headteacher. 

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