Embracing Imperfection

Guest Article by Emily Rivard
University of Massachusetts Amherst
ETA Emily Rivard with Students at SMK Bukit Mentok
Perfection is easy to teach. It’s an easy concept to grasp and a very easy one to reinforce. Kids learn pretty fast that if they get every question correct, do everything right, and win everything they participate in, there is more reward. People notice and congratulate them. They get more opportunities, and are told that they have a brighter future ahead of them. Life is easier when they can be perfect.
But when we over-teach perfection, life is anything but easy for these kids. They are constantly stressed out, constantly comparing themselves to their classmates and constantly worrying that they are not good enough. School becomes a quest for correct answers instead of a learning experience. “Learn from your mistakes?” Forget it. To many students, even one small mistake is far too costly. Perfection is the only acceptable result.
While this is certainly not a problem unique to Malaysian schools, my students seem to be particularly focused on being perfect. I see it everywhere. If I do a creative drawing activity in class, I watch students nearly finish a drawing only to erase the entire thing and start over if one line is out of place. I watch students use rulers to write block letters, complete word searches, and make bingo cards. I watch kids cross-checking their answers with those of their friends, making sure they are correct even when I’ve said a thousand times “THIS IS A FUN ACTIVITY! THERE ARE MANY CORRECT ANSWERS! BE CREATIVE!” I beg and plead with kids to speak English in class, even if they are not sure of all the words, but am constantly met with silence, eye contact avoidance, and the ever-popular “Miss, I no speaking. English very bad.” This rigid focus on perfection makes the kids physically rigid, too. I’ve spent the better part of the last month coaching my school’s speech choir, which involves a fair amount of acting and being dramatic. Trying to get them to loosen up and be silly is like pulling teeth. They are so shy, so afraid of judgement and failure, that they refuse to take risks. They have never been encouraged to make a fool out of themselves, and most of them don’t plan to start anytime soon.
But I have different plans. I’ve officially started a crusade to de-stigmatize imperfection. All my classes this week are listening to “Nobody’s Perfect” by Hannah Montana. We listen to the song, fill in the missing lyrics on a worksheet, and look up unfamiliar vocabulary in a dictionary. Then we talk about what it means: No one can be perfect. It’s okay to make mistakes. We can always try again. We should not give up if we fail. My first attempt at this lesson was in my quietest, most challenging Form 2 class and I could almost see the relief on their faces when they understood what I was trying to tell them. As I left the class, there were kids I’d never heard talk before saying goodbye to me.
And speech choir? I think after weeks of watching me make ridiculous faces and dance around like an idiot trying to get them to loosen up, it’s finally sinking in. After a long and stressful practice this morning, I dragged all the kids outside. I told them that we were going to run the entire show one more time, but this time they needed to just act crazy. Ditch the choreographed movements and carefully-mapped intonation. Move around, be loud, be dramatic, and have fun. Make me laugh. Make EACH OTHER laugh. They were a little hesitant the first time, but I wasn’t about to let them off the hook. Halfway through afternoon practice, I made them do the “crazy version” again and every single one of those kids was jumping around the foyer, laughing their heads off and having more fun than I’ve ever seen them have at school. Before doing the “serious version” one last time, I made them repeat the saying I’ve been shoving down their throats for weeks:
“We are LOUD! We are STRONG! We are PROUD!” We are READY!”
And for the first time, I really truly believed them.
(I’d like to add that they were so loud, the entire school-wide teacher meeting that was happening just above us went silent for a second)
The performance that followed was astonishing. It had more energy, more emotion, and more fun than anything I’ve seen them do.
A few of the boys approached me afterward and said, sadly, “Miss … the boys have lost their pride today. We were too silly.” I told them that the first thing I learned at orientation in KL, when I first came to Malaysia, was that I needed to drop my dignity and drop my pride to be a good ETA. And you know what? That was hard. That IS hard. It’s embarrassing sometimes! But you don’t lose your pride forever – you just put it on hold for a while. You can get it back at the end of your performance. And it’s definitely more fun that way! They seemed somewhat relieved to hear that they could still be dignified 14 year-olds.
I’m not saying I can get rid of the perfection standard – not even close. But maybe by making imperfection and silliness a little more acceptable, I’ll make risks seem a little less scary. And if that doesn’t work, then my kids will at least have a blast watching me act like a crazy person for the next six months.

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