After all, who sets out to pass with a 'just good enough' mark, or teach with a 'will that do?' attitude. And yet, those who fly too close to the sun in their quest of faultlessness can end up doing serious damage to themselves.

The unfortunate reality is that a student with perfectionist tendencies may gain the required grades to get into the world's top university, but will feel distraught over one dropped mark.

Meanwhile, teachers who seek perfectly controlled classrooms will feel like failures if a student speaks out of turn, even with the understanding that we can't control the behaviour of others.

One of the troubles with the word 'perfect'  is that it has two meanings, and when we commonly use it, we probably actually mean 'outstanding' or 'excellent', rather than the stricter concept of 'flawless'.

But it is the desire for the latter ideal which can lead to perfectionism and in the short-term this can cause stasis, where the individual comes to a complete standstill; anything they do won't be good enough. In the long-term, perfectionism can lead to stress, anxiety and if not tackled in time, a complete mental breakdown.

Studies have shown that since the turn of the millennium, perfectionism is on the rise - especially amongst young people where our social media age applies an extra level of pressure to be perfect. 

The Multidimensional Perfectionist Scale was created a few decades ago to identify perfectionists. It categorised them into three types:

 Self-oriented perfectionists aim high in both their professional and personal life, which can lead to anxiety due to a fear of failure, while other-oriented perfectionists project their exceptionally high standards onto those around them. Their judgemental nature can leave them at the risk of social isolation.

Lastly, there are socially-prescribed perfectionists, who feel immense pressure from others to be perfect, while also seeking their approval. It seems clear that a career in education could throw up problems for each type of perfectionist if their condition isn't managed carefully.

Former primary school teacher Sarah Marshall Maun fell prey to these pressures when she was working at a small prep school in South London. She would be in her classroom at 7am in the morning and "wouldn't leave until absolutely every tiny thing was ready for the next day."

As a perfectionist, she found the open-ended nature of teaching (where there is never a finished, concrete 'product' of your labours) difficult to cope with.

"The unpredictable nature of the job can be very stressful. Perfectionism is the need to maintain control - you can plan the best lesson in the world, but you can't predict how the children will be on a given day or what their individual learning outcomes will be," Marshall Maun says.

"You can aim for particular results, but children will always throw you for a loop! I certainly found that I would plan in greater and greater detail in order to maximise my feelings of control and minimise the possibility of an unknown problem creeping in."

She noted that even during family holidays when she coudn't engage in planning or prep tasks, it would still be on her mind. 

"...I became so utterly exhausted due to this self-imposed schedule that I struggled to have a social life."

Marshall Maun's quest for control didn't stop at creating the perfect lesson; it stretched to her desire to sport the perfect outfit, which instead of being an outlet for her creativity, simply increased her stress levels.

"My husband Mike first realised how out of hand my perfectionism had gotten when I was sobbing on the floor because I'd lost a cardigan.

"However, at the time it seemed of paramount importance that I found it because if I didn't, I'd have to wear a less than perfect outfit."

Marshall-Maun, who was a classroom teacher for six years and now tutors, felt her ability to function shut down as her brain couldn't cope with the impossibly high standards she had set herself.

"Errand paralysis is a very real phenomenon. When your brain is under extreme stress you can't cope with even the simplest of tasks - it's a way of the brain protecting itself," she says.

 She was signed off work shortly afterwards with severe stress, generalised anxiety disorder and depression.

For a new teacher struggling with perfectionist tendencies, Marshall-Maun passes on the advice her father gave her: "There's no such thing as a happy perfectionist".

"Be kind to yourself and remember that good enough is good enough. Not every lesson has to be all bells and whistles."

Of course, not only do teachers have to be wary of perfectionist tendencies within themselves, they also have to watch for it amongst their students where perfectionism can be equally damaging.

One teenager with a reputation for excelling in English was transferred to an institution where I taught. She brought with her a folder full of examples of her best work, which included poems that had been published in an anthology. However, these exemplars were at least three years old; she was a perfectionist and this tendency blocked her from creating anything new.

When she wrote anything at all for me she would simply be re-writing something written in the past, which had already garnered approval from another adult.

Her fear of being unable to create perfect work stopped her from creating anything at all.

Unfortunately, well meaning teachers can exacerbate perfectionist tendencies amongst students. After all, we demand they give us their very best work, but this could be misconstrued as only perfect will do. Teachers must tread carefully to temper a pupil's perfectionist tendencies.

 

5 teaching tips to avoid perfectionism within your students and yourself

1. Talk Therapy

Luckily for students, teachers are the ideal people to talk to about the emotions thrown up by their desire to be perfect. Research found that even a brief feedback intervention could help a perfectionist's self esteem and reduce psychological distress levels.

2. Replace Perfect with Excellent

Instead of encouraging students to chase the impossible chimera of perfection, encourage achievable excellence. Being excellent encourages students to do the best that they can, whilst being perfect means avoiding mistakes to not look bad - ironic when to learn we have to be willing to make mistakes.

3. Get out of the vicious perfectionism/praise cycle

While being praised by colleagues for your organisation and hard work is undeniably lovely, it creates a cycle whereby you become determined to work even harder to garner more praise inevitably leading to burnout.

4. Spoon Theory

This is a disability metaphor to illustrate the limits to a disabled persons energy measured out in spoonfuls. Our physical and mental energies are finite, so carefully spoon out your resources. Set yourself realistic, achievable targets just as you would for pupils.

5. Seek help

Either within the school community through a mentor or trusted colleague, or externally. Treatments such as CBT have a successful track record of helping perfectionists.