The Threads of Perfection: Tips for Taming the Talent

Blue QuiltRecently I enjoyed the honor of helping several professionals carefully photograph an extensive collection of high-quality quilts, each the culmination of hundreds or even thousands of hours of work by a dedicated artist. During my volunteer time, I helped prepare the quilts for photography—de-linting and steaming as needed, and then pinning to the wall for Pantone-perfect photographic documentation for future generations.

I stood awestruck in the face of the beauty of the quilts–their colors carefully chosen, their threads expertly hidden inside the batting layer, their meanings and visions calculated to differ depending on whether viewed closely or from a distance. None of these works of art resembled the simplistic quilts I have sewn over the years from fabric scraps, as in the photo above.

The “F” Quilt

Imagine my surprise when I found hundreds of threads hanging raggedly from one quilt in the collection. What was the artist thinking? I couldn’t delint that quilt for fear of taking off the hanging threads that the artist, for some unknown reason, decided to leave all sloppy and unruly. The quilt, close up, did not impress me.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 12.24.01 PM After I helped pin the quilt to the wall for photographing, I stood back to let the photographers do their magic. From a distance, the cream and brown colors of quilt’s fabric emerged into an elegantly scrolled capital letter, F, similar to the F in the photo illustration here. Suddenly I understood. The quilter’s decision to leave those threads hanging all raggedy was an “F message” about perfection.

Perfection as a Talent

During my years as a teacher, I met many teachers and parents who considered perfectionism as bad. These teachers and parents worried about children who spent too much time completing assignments, who considered mistakes as significant personal shortcomings, and who failed to understand that learning from mistakes is a large part of education.

Although I, too, worry about children who suffer from perfectionism, I no longer consider perfectionism as a problem to be cured. Instead, I consider perfectionism as a talent to be tamed.

When a child is able to make good decisions about when to strive for perfection and when to strive for merely “good enough,” and when the child is able to turn off and on the perfectionism talent in accordance with those decisions, the child has tamed the talent.

Tips for Taming the Talent

How do we teach children to tame their perfectionism talent? Here are some tips.

1. Teach children that some tasks require perfection, and some are better completed without great care. When we sprinkle water on a flower bed, do we really want to spend the time necessary to give each plant exactly the same amount of water? Of course not. Assuming no drought exists in our area, we sprinkle water in a carefree fashion, roughly estimating rather than perfecting the amount of water required by each flowering plant.

2. Teach children to ask, in advance, what level of perfection a given task requires. As a teacher, I was sometimes surprised to learn that a child spent hours on an assignment, even after I told the entire class to complete the assignment in rough form. Yes, the child might have enjoyed the extra time spent on the assignment, but often the extra time spent seeking perfection cheated the child of sleep and other essentials of childhood.

3. Teach children to ask how much time a given task should require. As a teacher, I often told my students in advance how much time to spend on a given assignment. Also, I discussed with my students how reading and writing speeds differ from child to child, how children can increase their reading and writing speeds, and how children can improve their focus when completing assignments. When children know and follow the time parameters of an assignment, children not only learn to tame their perfectionism talents; children also learn to manage their time effectively.

4. Help children create charts for assessing how well they are proceeding in efforts to tame their perfectionism. Rather than having children assess a completed task based on its level of perfection, have children assess the completed task on how closely its level of perfection matches the target level of perfection for that task. Also, have children assess how closely the time spent completing the task matched the time parameters for that task.

5. Encourage children suffering from untamed perfectionism talent to take advantage of available counseling resources. Sometimes perfectionist tendencies can hide other issues affecting a child, such as anxiety and low self-esteem. Make sure children who need help have opportunities to voice their concerns with people qualified to hear those concerns.

6. When appropriate, use humor. My husband has told many a perfectionistic child, “If you keep doing this, you’re going to put an angel out of work, and there’s nothing worse than an unemployed angel.”

7. Lastly, show children quilts. Here I’m not talking about the “F quilt” I encountered recently and symbolized in the photo illustration, above. Rather, I’m talking about any quilt of beauty. For instance, look closely at the red quilt below—see the imperfections? The quilt would not be the same without the wonky angles and uneven sizes of its fabrics.

Bug Quilt from China

Although quilts often include seemingly perfect elements, subtle imperfections often add to a quilt’s beauty, as well as provide proof of the learning curve and humanity of the quilter.

Conclusion

I leave you with this gem of wisdom from my quilting friend Julie of Pink Doxies:

“There are many quilters in the Mennonite/Amish community who purposefully leave one thing noticably imperfect. Their testimony that only God is perfect, and they are not. I am mystified that I can look and look for correctness, sew it together, and see the mistake later when I am ‘not so close’ to the quilt. That is what makes it mine.”

I agree. We are imperfect beings. Learning to love our imperfections and to tame our perfectionist tendencies is part of being human.

Epilogue

Shortly after I published this blog article, another friend named Julie sent me a brilliant comment, and granted my request for permission to share her wisdom here:

Love this piece, Wenda. My mother is a quilter, so I have heard that “humility square” reference time and time again. Even with that knowledge, my initial attempts at quilting were frustrating to say the least. I must have “reverse sewed” or seam ripped more blocks than I care to remember, due to my eye perceiving some horrendous mismatched seams or mis-measured seam allowances. I made quilting a tedious and slow process. I removed the joy and creativity out of it by viewing every stitch with a critical eye. Needless to say, I really had very few finished quilts to show for all my effort. Only in these later years (2 adult children raised and a young one still in the nest) can I truly appreciate the creativity and sense of pride and accomplishment in finishing a quilting project with as many humility squares as I deem acceptable. When I stopped focusing on what those crooked seams said about me and my ability, and started focusing on giving life to the visions in my head/heart, I feel I was finally able to focus my perfectionism in the right place. That is to be the best version of me as possible. Flaws and all. 😉

About the graphics: The photo at the top is a close-up of a baby quilt I made mostly from fabric scraps left over from making pajamas for my children when they were young. I created the F photo illustration from a photograph I took of a crumbling shale rock near my home. The bottom photo is of a quilt I purchased while living in China.

I thank my friends at Gifted Homeschoolers Forum for their inspiration and support, both online and in person. Although my children are all grown, I’ve written this article as part of the May 2015 Gifted Homeschoolers Forum Blog Hop. Clicking on the graphic below will lead you to the titles, blog names, and links of other Blog Hop participants. Thank you for supporting my fellow blog hoppers by visiting their blogs.
11130134_10154075068123475_8668294941544479540_n (1)


Teacher Certification: A Short-Cut for Determining Teacher Quality

Forest Road
The Ohio legislature is considering S.B.3, which includes provisions to exempt certain high-performing school districts from teacher certification requirements. Do we want that flavor of local control to be given to some districts, but not others? In other words, do we want some school districts to be able to hire teachers who are not certified? What education policy road do you prefer to travel?

I agree that government entities, including school districts, need a method of insuring that teachers are prepared to teach. Certification is that method of choice in nearly all parts of the United States, and in many other countries of the world. Certification provides a clear yes/no test to determine who is qualified to teach. The cost of certification, and hence the cost of determining who is qualified to teach, typically falls on the teaching candidate, not on the school district or other government entity.

If school districts and governments had more money, they might be able to cover the costs of finding good teachers in more expensive, more nuanced ways. Wealthy school districts might do what wealthy private schools already do: conduct interviews and background checks on a number of candidates after reviewing dozens of resumes, fly a few teaching candidates to the school for a day or two of more interviews, watch the teaching candidates teach a sample lesson or two, and have a committee conduct all those interviews, host all those visiting teacher candidates, watch them teach their sample lessons, and then decide which teachers to hire.

Most public school districts and governments are unable to afford the time and money that wealthy private schools pay to determine the quality of teaching candidates. Instead, most public schools and governments use certification as a proxy for teaching quality. Certification tells the qualification status of an individual teacher on the day certification was acquired, and tells whether the teacher has complied with any legally-required post-certification requirements, such as continuing education.

I have never been certified, but have a long history of teaching over four decades—public, private, independent, boarding, kindergarten, elementary, middle, high school, college, graduate school, rural, suburban, urban, international, single-sex, religious, English, ESL, algebra, business law, health care law, television production, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Connecticut, China, England. Sometimes I feel like the Forest Gump of the teaching world, as I’ve found myself in an almost fictional array of teaching situations. I have appreciated my students, my colleagues, and my administrators in every teaching position I have held.

During the past decade, I spent six years teaching in wealthy private schools in the New York and London metro areas. I enjoyed high salaries at those schools—salaries far larger than those offered by most public schools in the United States. Before hiring me, those schools screened me extensively at their expense. I am grateful for those teaching experiences.

ThistleI have also taught in two public school districts, but only when the districts could find no other teachers to fill the positions. Both positions were with children from low income families, and in both cases, school officials recruited me for the job. I found those teaching experiences rewarding and I found the students inspiring—I had my own kindergarten class one spring while in law school at night, and I briefly taught algebra at a school for at-risk high schoolers one spring while awaiting entry into my Ph.D. program the next fall. I am grateful for those teaching experiences, too.

I find it ironic that wealthy schools with children of rich and famous parents chose me to teach the children, but I am not allowed to teach in public schools except when no other teachers are available and willing to take the job. I accept the irony as the price of public education, where certification stands as the best available proxy for teacher effectiveness. I wish the world were more perfect; I wish schools had unlimited money to make better determinations of who is best qualified to teach the children in a particular school.

Absent unlimited money, current teacher certification laws provide a reasonable, defensible, and relatively inexpensive method for screening teachers. Let’s be aware, however, of the hidden costs of the teacher certification screening method: when wealthy parents prefer their children to be taught by teachers screened by other, more expensive and more nuanced methods, the wealthy parents place their children in private schools. Each time a child leaves the public school system, the public school system becomes a little less public.

My question remains: Do we want some school districts to be able to hire teachers who are not certified?

I welcome your comments, corrections, and suggestions. Thank you.

Floor of Orange Line MontrealNote: I wrote my 2004 dissertation on alternative teacher certification policies. The title of the dissertation: Teachers Union Influence on Alternative Teacher Certification Policies: An Event History Diffusion Analysis.