The Persistence Movement: Are We Teaching Perfection as The Ultimate Goal?

Think of the perfect student. Early to school, always respectful, never an issue, and top scores in every class. If you are fortunate to know students like this, they are diamonds in the rough. Despite appearances, these students are far from perfect. Perhaps they are neurotic before each test, they have little to no social life, or they cry if they lose a point. If perfection is truly unattainable, why do we teach it as the goal?

You may argue this goal is not for all students; however, in my experience, we tell students they get one chance at a perfect score on tests. If these students retake the test and demonstrate true mastery, they typically can only earn half the points back. When students struggle in a standardized test or a course the year prior, we give them additional courses in these areas and emphasize their deficiencies. Shouldn’t we be teaching students to keep working toward mastery until they have comprehension and to celebrate when they reach it? Are we are setting students up for failure by inadvertently setting an expectation of perfection?

The reasoning lies in the fault of perfection. Merriam-Webster defines perfection in multiple ways—“Being entirely without fault or defect” to “Satisfying all requirements.” This means on one hand, I must bowl twelve strikes in a row for a perfect game. On the other hand, by completing a checklist, regardless of how well each task was completed, I can achieve perfection. By focusing on getting every answer correct every single time, do we discourage students more than we encourage them?

The struggle is real. In my own life, I find I’m uncomfortable when I am not striving for perfection. I do the extra research, spend countless hours on nights and weekends preparing for an event that is never as good as I envision. The result is disappointment, anguish, and a questioning of my abilities. The energy I have left is spent reflecting and rebuilding after striving for an unattainable goal.

To stop this impossible quest for perfection, I offer the persistence movement. A principal posed this question to me: Should we be teaching students to shoot for perfection or to be persistent? By teaching others to work through the struggles and set the goal for showing mastery, we provide them with something attainable. The formula I offer is:

Problem Solving + Patience = Persistence

If we teach others by posing a question and giving them the tools they need to achieve theirsolution, they can show a mastery of the essential standards. When they struggle, we ask them to revisit the original problem and use resources outside of those in front of them, and in doing so, they will develop their own tools and have a deeper knowledge. They will create a habit of constantly building a library of resources to be used in a multitude of situations—both inside and outside the classroom—when faced with real-world problems.

As leaders, we need to also teach patience. Students need to learn the easy answer may not be the best one. By accepting a delay as a needed part of the learning process, we continue to focus on the goal. John Quincy Adams said, “Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.” Teaching others how difficult it is to learn something new may propel them forward toward their goal.

We spend countless professional development sessions training teachers how to present new information, how to “flip classrooms”, and the importance of questioning. We rarely take the time to teach patience and persistence in a field where they should be vital to both students and teachers. If we want to master the world as it is today, we must change our practices and grow to meet the needs of our current students. Come with me and join the movement.

How will you foster changing the mindset of your school away from perfection and towards a culture of persistence?

Eric Basilo, EdD, is an assistant principal at Sanford Middle School in Sanford, FL, and was named the 2018 Florida Assistant Principal of the Year. He also received one of six 2018 adjunct awards of excellence from Seminole State College and credits his success to the support of his family and the education he received while earning three degrees at the University of Central Florida. Follow him on Twitter @drbrm54.

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