Sean Logan MYP Individuals and Societies and Model UN Teacher, Stockholm International School

Sean Logan analyses the effect that perfectionism can have on the mental health of students and the impact that this attitude can have on their later life. 

Perfect grades, perfect results, the perfect student at a perfect school, happens to be the perfect public speaker after having these particular skills perfected, a perfect prefect too, mind you. Being a friend, being a partner in a relationship, getting the balance right of work hard, play hard - all perfect I’m assuming…it’s the key to success…isn’t it? Has this particular perfect student built resilience in achieving all of this? I’m very sure. But do we want to actually hear about it or rather swim and stand up on that surfboard on these perpetual waves of his or her success? We need that, that idol. 

Whose excellence is this anyway that is being chased here

Striving for excellence, in the classroom, on the sports field, or on the stage singing, playing a musical instrument, hell, throw in a blank canvas there too - it’ll have a breath-taking image splashed on it in no time. Whose excellence is this anyway that is being chased here with plenty of collateral damage along the way? Is it the teachers' excellence? Possibly the students’ parents, society, alumni….the school maybe? Almost all things cannot be ‘completely free from faults or defects’ (Mona Lisa?) as the faithful Google dictionary defines and elevates the term, perfect which is a form of excellence. I wonder if perfectionism and the need for it is somehow ingrained in our children as they are delivered from the womb? I am nowhere near qualified enough or anywhere close to being that well-read to comment on this, so I am guessing that this desire for a flawless life, flawless relationship, an impeccable exam result, and close to perfect round of golf, starts at school…but certainly does not finish there. A good or bad thing - ask Aristotle, the father of rhetoric. 

Schools and higher education facilities often look at, discuss, analyse and scrutinize different case studies that encourage students to grow and develop. However, the usual anecdotes are pitched about the person who invented the light bulb, how hard and long Cristiano Ronaldo trained as a youth footballer to ‘make it’, and the things that Harper Lee or JK Rowling sacrificed along the way, defied all patriarchal odds to produce the next-generation classics of Harry Potter and the timeless, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, respectively. Why are these case studies, or narratives not selected with ‘real life’ heroes, tangible ones about the softly spoken, uncertain, janitor who works 2 to 3 jobs, cleaning schools, washing dishes at a restaurant, sorting and selling fresh fruit and vegetables at the market every Saturday? He puts himself through university, pays for his grandmother's wheelchair and her many physical therapy lessons, and goes on to now be the rector of the very school where he once mopped the floors. His story is full of holes and flaws and yet is he not inspirational? Do we not want our image of resilience to be tainted with this ugly side? 

Perfectionism can and does cause depression, it creates addicts, it conjures up anxiety

Is it because most of our lives are ‘sadly’ a little closer to or more aligned with the janitor's story than to Thomas Edison’s? Could it be that where we are now currently in life, is looking a lot closer to perfect than years gone, completely glossing over one's failures? Therefore our past, our struggles, and humiliating moments have been covered up, sealed - look now what the close to perfect me has accomplished. Hang on a minute, far too many people have said this - parents, teachers, coaches, siblings, and if they did, is it actually so bad? Should your Under-15 cricket coach who believed in you, who pushed you, who pushed your buttons about your lacklustre performance at practice, have not been striving for excellence and therefore takes it personally that one of his players was merely treading water? To this day, this 40-year-old is still playing cricket, very much at a B team level - but who cares what level it is, I am still playing! 

Your grade 10 history teacher, waxing lyrical about how many waves of boats or ships were scheduled to land on D-Day and drumming on about the preciseness of it and you roll your eyes thinking, ‘gosh….get a life’. You find yourself in Northern France, years later, tears rolling down your cheeks, walking the beaches of Normandy, working out where that Omaha stretch is exactly. All you can hear is your history teacher’s deadpan voice, ‘26…20 damn 6 waves of attack were charted….Logan, do you have any idea of how difficult it is to coordinate?’ You smile to yourself, look where I am now, a helluva lot closer to Thomas Edison than ‘that’ janitor, bet he’s never been to the beaches of Normandy. Keep telling yourself that if that’s what you need. That’s what I did. 

Teachers need to be perfect human beings that make mistakes

To answer the question, perfectionism can and does cause depression, it creates addicts, it conjures up anxiety, destroying relationships, reputations, people's futures. If perfectionism can be viewed as a separate element from achievement, divorced from accomplishment, but rather celebrated as the mindset of that janitor, the resilient mindset of quietly going about his business, failing, but getting up again, juggling X amount of jobs, dealing with humiliation, keeping his eye on the prize, that perfect attitude of his will become contagious, it will inspire the next generation of textbook writers to have him on that flipping front cover. Lightbulbs are seriously for yesterday’s heroes.

Yes, a modified understanding and application of the term perfectionism should be in every teacher's arsenal - don’t hold back on this, fellow colleagues - push those resilience teachings and situations, they are hella necessary for life! Teachers, if anything, need to be perfect human beings that make mistakes, arrive late on occasion, possibly their socks aren’t matching one day a week. These teachers, they come back the next day, they inspire, share their stories of the many unsung heroes they’ve crossed paths with.

We hold on to fleeting moments and memories and cut the cake and share these stories when that one teacher or one coach believed in them and made them serve and serve and serve from the baseline on the court until this particular aspect of your tennis game was close to perfect. Bet you that serve is still functioning today and more importantly, being used!

Mr Umpire, can you hold my cap please… I’ll be coming left arm, over the wicket, cheers.