Proficiency and Perfectionism

After our painful conversation last week, the Monday Evening Book Group was much more at peace with our book and our process last night.  It helped that almost all of us were able to be there; it helped that we knew that T wouldn’t be able to attend; and perhaps most of all, it helped to be back in our regular location.  We’d moved, at the urging of one of our members, because some minor renovations are scheduled for That Room at some point … but the renovations haven’t started yet, and the timeline hasn’t been announced, and none of the other locations we tried felt like home.  It probably also helped that the reading itself seemed more accessible, or that we were more easily able to relate the themes Mark Nepo raises to our own lives and experiences.

All of us, whether we’re professional teachers or not, loved the three aspects of teaching (and learning) that Nepo describes: deep listening, deep speaking, and deep questioning.  And as we talked, and as I thought about the week just past, the weeks ahead, and an important question someone had recently asked, I realized something: Deep listening, deep speaking, and deep questioning are steps on the road toward proficiency, not perfection.

Those are very different destinations!  And when you’re not clear on the destination, it’s easy to feel lost and frustrated on the journey.

We’d been aiming for perfection in our Book Group discussion last week, and that’s why we all felt so frustrated.  We wanted to “understand his argument” or “follow his logic,” as several people said during the hour.  But that wasn’t the purpose of Nepo’s writing!  It’s not about an argument or logic; it’s about “becoming awake,” as he puts it, and understanding things more deeply.

There’s always a deeper level, so you won’t ever be perfect.  But you can become more proficient, more able to ask the questions and lean into the paradoxes.

It’s a Proficiency Check day for the Latin Family at both District Q and District Y.  As we work on a fairly large thing, re-reading some familiar stories and creating an analytical diagram (for the intermediate and advanced groups) and creating some noun forms and a story (for the beginners), I’ll visit each pair or group with the Proficiency Check document and ask them to do three things.  They’ll read aloud in Latin for a Pronunciation Check score, tell me what they understood for an Interpretive Reading score, and find some familiar noun and verb forms for a Language Control score, just as they will on the Major Assessment when its time comes in a few more weeks.  We’ll talk about the rubrics before we start, just as we did with the District Q group this morning, and everyone will notice something important from the outset: even the full-credit, 100% response doesn’t call for perfection.  It calls for an appropriate level of proficiency, one slightly beyond where most of us are at the moment … but it doesn’t call for perfection because perfection isn’t a reasonable goal for language learning.

Sometimes I need to remember that perfection isn’t a reasonable goal for most aspects of life, either.

I was thinking about proficiency and perfection as I read an anguished plea for help from a young Latin teacher on the Latin-BestPractices email list.  He wants his students only to hear “correctly modulated” Latin, so he wants to do all the speaking (and, I gather, almost all of the oral reading) in his classes, but his local Powers That Be are pressuring him for “more engagement” from the students.  It’s early in the conversation, but I’m hoping I can persuade him that perfection (the “correctly modulated” Latin) isn’t necessary for progress or acquisition.  Does anyone, even a native speaker of a language, always “correctly modulate” every sentence?  I certainly don’t.  Like everyone else, I sometimes pause, sometimes stammer, sometimes start over in a different direction.

I hadn’t realized how much that happens until I watched some video lectures where the closed-captioning was turned on by default.  The speakers were educated professionals; they’d clearly prepared for the task; and they were talking about areas of interest and passion.  But they still stammered, paused, restarted, and even misspoke from time to time.  Perfect?  Hardly.  Proficient?  Definitely.  Able to communicate?  Of course.

I hope my young, idealistic friend will embrace the excellence of proficiency and step away from the false idol of perfection.  But I understand how enticing perfection can be … and how powerful perfectionism can be as a driving force.  I remember sleepless nights in pursuit of perfection when I was a young teacher … and I remember my anger, too, when my perfection sometimes collided with students’ indifference.

In a joyful learning community, the quest for perfection quickly seems ridiculous.  If you pursue it too zealously, somebody will say something … and before too long, you’ll find yourself back on the right path, seeking proficiency or excellence instead.  That’s important to remember today as I tabulate and record proficiency scores, but it’s also important for the daily work and operation of any community.

I wonder what other insights and discoveries await us all today!

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Published in: on October 21, 2014 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] perhaps a question rooted in those issues of proficiency or perfection that inspired my post yesterday, or maybe a question related to strengths or […]


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