This an edited version of an article I wrote two years ago for the student newspaper at one of my former schools. At the time, I was writing to say goodbye before moving onto pastures new, and wanted to offer my A-Level and GCSE students some final words of advice. The years since have only reaffirmed my position that perfectionism – and ideas related to students feeling as though they ‘aren’t good enough’ – are among the most serious problems young people face in education, particularly at this time of year.
I now realise more and more that the message of this article is as relevant as ever, and matters as much as any lesson I ever taught or essay I ever marked. With another Results Day around the corner, our students shouldn’t be reminded of how far they still must go; instead, they deserve to be reminded of how far they have come, of how impressive that is, and how proud of them their teachers are.
Perhaps I’m just becoming more sentimental now that my time in the teaching profession has come to a close, but lately I’ve spent far too long reflecting on the triumphs and tribulations of the last seven years. It’s only natural: results day provides an irresistible opportunity to look back on the past in order to prepare for the future – a future that gets closer and closer every day as September rolls inexorably around once again. In that sense, a little reflection can be a useful thing.
If you’re anything like me, though, reflection can be a double-edged sword, and all too often takes the form of figurative self-flagellation. It’s all well and good to look back on our successes, but why would you ever want to do that when there are so many delicious failures to dwell on and spend sleepless nights worrying about? What Went Well is such a cliché… Isn’t it more of a thrill to fret about the Even Better Ifs? The coulda woulda shouldas? The mistakes?
Ah yes, the mistakes. Who still thinks about those? The bad essay you wrote that one time, the grade that you dropped, this bungled assessment, that miscalculation. Who could forget those?
The fact is that we all have regrets – yes, even when you’re are dangerously witty as me – and we’re all smart enough to know that you shouldn’t dwell on them. Fixation on mistakes in our learning is unhealthy, and as joyless as it is self-destructive. In a high-pressure academic environment, though, it can be a common trap to fall into. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a real problem.
It’s a problem because – and I want to make this 100% clear – I am, quite frankly, in awe of your work ethic, and have been since the day I became a teacher. Every one of you reading this works so very hard, harder than many people might appreciate. For seven years I’ve marvelled at your determination to prove yourselves, and you need to know that when you rise to the challenges placed in front of you, your teachers never take it for granted. We know that the successes you enjoy are the result of tremendous effort, and you should be proud of yourselves.
Despite all of this, though, you never seem to give yourselves enough credit. Generally-speaking, at least. In fact, I could go further and say that nobody seems to put as much pressure on you as you yourselves. And I get it. I really do. You worked hard to get where you are today, and you’re determined to succeed. You want to be the best you can be.
But it’s hard when you have teacher reports every term, and then end-of-year examinations to prepare for, and then course options to consider, and then more exams to pass, and then universities to think about and then… well, the list goes on. When you take all of this into account (not even considering the hundred other extracurricular activities you all seem to manage) it can feel like every lesson counts.
And when you’re in this frame of mind, in this bizarre educational environment, it can become very easy to convince yourself that every mistake you make in your learning counts as well, and – what is more – counts against you. How do you respond, then, when you get something wrong? How do you react when you fall short of perfection?
The answer is simple, but it’s one I wish that I had been told when I was at school:
Embrace your mistakes.
Whoever you are and whatever year group you’re in and whatever examination results you’re waiting for, you’re going to make mistakes. Big ones, small ones, and ones of every size and colour in between. You’ll make mistakes and carry on doing so for the rest of your life because you’re human. You are gloriously, wonderfully human. And humans are notoriously good at cocking up, even when they have the best of intentions.
But know this: your mistakes do not define you. Your worth is greater than the sum of letters and numbers on a daft sheet of paper at the end of the year. Your importance cannot be calculated by balancing the things you got right against the things you got wrong. You are worth more than your achievements in examinations, and you can be so much more than your mistakes.
You are more than your mistakes.
Remember that every mistake is its own opportunity – a fresh chance to grow and learn and improve. It would be a very dull existence if we got everything right first time. The world would be a sadder place if we spent our lives afraid of making mistakes, of not being good enough. Even – or perhaps, especially – when the pressure is on, it is all the more important that you remember that there is no shame whatsoever in getting something wrong so long as you learn from it. Whatever your examination results, use the experience as a springboard to a better tomorrow. Be brave. Be proud.
Just don’t try to be perfect. Perfection is overrated.