Last week, I was working with a student individually as she was having trouble making headway on the current project. In a previous class session she was incredibly distressed with the proposed assignment; to say the least, she seemed bored out of her mind. She did not see the purpose behind the assignment and to be honest, neither did I. It was not my classroom, so the projects are out of my hands. What do you do at this point? I figured if I couldn't control the assignment, I might as well see why she wasn't making any headway and try to push forward.
As I sat down and started working with her, I noticed she became easily frustrated with the folding process (The assignment was "building" paper airplanes). Each student was given a packet of instructions on multiple plane designs, photocopied from a book. The book had apparently come with paper that had printed and labeled guidelines for the folds--clearly their recycled printer paper had none. So here, we faced the first problem: resources and proper demonstrations of the project. I have noticed a lot of my kids struggle simply because they do not understand how to complete the assignment, ugh! The instructions were so complex I could hardly understand them. As we worked through it together, she gained confidence in her choices even challenging my interpretation. I noticed she indeed came up with her own approaches to folding a multiplicity of designs--in ways that worked and were applicable for her final designs. Here is problem #2: what the student was really struggling with was a lack of confidence and encouragement. With every 'not perfect' fold she instantly gave up--throwing her hands in the air in frustration. I told her, "This is just practice, not your final design! Don't get frustrated, right now we can make mistakes and figure it out together". Right after I said this, not even kidding, she swiftly folded an entire design, without looking at the instructions. I said to her, "That looks great! Why don't you move onto your 'final building paper'?" only to hear in timid response, "Well... I think I need to practice it a couple more times before my final one". I knew that she knew how to do it so I said, "I think you are ready. You folded that without even looking at your guide!" Just me telling her that I believed in her ability to successfully fold her final plane was all it took. My kids come from a variety of households, but many are at risk. They may not get this encouragement at home--or they might have a diagnosis from previous trauma that requires extra attention. I retrieved the paper and she instantly kicked into gear and made the best "slice" airplane I'd seen in the class. Just sitting down with her and doing these things was about all it took.
I saw myself in this student, becoming very hyper aware of her mistakes. "One fold wrong, the world is over. I will never make this plane again!" Learning can be so frustrating; and even MORE frustrating when you are a perfectionist. The teacher was urging her to finish up quickly--she couldn't work at her own pace and the assignment wasn't differentiated for her at all. Problem #3: understanding, empathy, scaffolding. So how do we deal with this situation, when we are teaching or performing? The content area doesn't even matter. You can be playing football, making art, or rolling up a burrito. As a teacher, for this student it was very vital that he gave a clear demonstration of the expectations and guidelines for the assignment, encouraged his kids by checking in with them and giving them attention when needed, and the BIGGEST issue was that he needed to differentiate the assignment for the multiplicity of students with IEPs. These include but are not limited to:
As a teacher, it is being hyper aware of these things and really knowing your students and what they need. The world is an imperfect place, so how do we learn to cope with perfectionism? When working with perfectionists (however that may look) what advice might we as teachers give?
1. KNOW WHEN TO STOP & TAKE A BREAK
This is a tough one. Sometimes when you are working on a new skill or even practicing something you have done before it can feel like, "I need to work at this until I have reached my goal for today". You may have intended on perfecting your a-minor scale on the clarinet that day, but you practiced for so long that you are out of breath and making more mistakes than when you started. Art (or anything) can be the same way--sometimes you need to take a break, walk away, and come back with fresh eyes. Allowing yourself to rejuvenate and try again later is important in not becoming frustrated.
2. FOCUS ON WHAT IS IMPORTANT
In school, teachers instruct in many ways. Some will always give you meaningful assignments that will push you to learn and grow. Other teachers might just assign "busy work" that has no obvious purpose. As a perfectionist, I faced so much busy work in high school. I was adamant about doing everything THE BEST. But because of having a mixture of good and bad teachers, I found myself wasting time on things that didn't matter to me and losing time on things that did. This is some real life talk--some teachers might disagree with me on this. But I believe, as long as you give the effort required and get it done...you are allowed to choose where you put your energy. A teacher can't expect you to complete an assignment like it is *the most important thing in the world*, if THEY don't assign it with a purpose to help you grow. Find a balance where you are not slacking off, but you are saying "yes" to the things that have the most purpose in your life.
3. YOU ARE YOUR BIGGEST CRITIC, GET A SECOND OPINION
Feedback is so important. I plan on integrating critique processes into my future classroom for every project. Talking and providing feedback is an important life skill beyond the classroom. I always want my art to have meaning to me and be perfect--and when I don't see that I can become frustrated. The beautiful thing about art is that nobody will see it exactly how we do. Everyone has their own narratives and opinions that they bring to the table. I have found that the best art I make, is art that starts a conversation. If you begin to feel down on what you are working on, ask around. See what other people think. Do they think it is successful? (Maybe you've been staring at it too long and need to refer to tip #1) Or do they see something that could be improved? Remember that art is very subjective--so get opinions and don't be too hard on yourself.
4. KEEP YOUR WORK AS A REMINDER OF GROWTH
As I have had to refer to old pieces I've made, and through creating my instagram I noticed how much my art has changed and how I have grown. It is important to reflect on where you started in order to boost your confidence, create new goals, and find optimism and growth in failure. Where there is failure, there is room for success.
For my art piece this week I chose to do a blind contour drawing. In high school, my art teacher stressed how these exercises connect the hands to the mind and eyes--forcing you to draw and feel exactly what you see. They hardly ever turn out perfect, so it was always a very anxious process for me. I wanted mine to look G-O-O-D. But if anyone ended up with a "perfect" blind contour, they looked at their paper...and they cheated. I think this is a really great exercise to shut off the "perfectionist voice" in your head and allow your hands to be the artists they are.
For more details + documentation of my artworks created to accompany these blog posts, visit my instagram!