Confidence – The Rosetta Stone of Teaching
Nearly a decade ago I began teaching English (not very well if I remember!). I was a startled rabbit of the most baffled kind. Each morning I would quietly take ‘Rescue Remedy’ in the gents toilets to help conquer my raging nerves, before embarking upon the war of attrition that was every school day as an NQT! University success was a distant memory. I made the usual mistakes, experienced the typical emotional roller coasters, and eventually made my way through it to the other side. Now that I have a leadership role myself, I see that confidence is not just the Rosetta Stone for students to unlock their potential, it is just as important for teachers. Not just new teachers either, confidence waxes and wanes – sometimes when we think we are on the other side we are dragged back in the swim – battered by self doubt!
As a Subject Leader, I have the privilege of experience and the greater self-confidence it typically brings, yet the old ‘imposter syndrome’ never goes away – but, perhaps that is a good thing. I have seen brilliant teachers and trainees wracked by self-doubt, whilst the worst of teachers can be full of conviction in their own superior ability! As a friend, colleague and leader, I suppose it is my job to help guide through that tricky course between two different types of self doubt: one with the attendant drive to keep getting better, and the other self doubt that becomes crippling and destructive for a teacher.
I hesitated in writing any blog posts about confidence, as I didn’t want to betray any professional secrets of colleagues past or present. I discussed this with my brilliant colleague Helen, a young teacher, still fresh from completing her NQT year, who agreed to guest post her personal thoughts. They mirror many of my experiences as a new teacher and it is a refreshingly honest account of why confidence is crucial in teaching:
A few weeks ago my Subject Leader introduced the new personalised coaching ideas which would form the basis of our faculty training time this year. The idea was to focus in on one or two key things that would improve our teaching and work on them in discussion with other members of the faculty– in his words making ‘marginal gains’ to move from good to outstanding. Excellent in theory: I was an NQT last year, I’ve got this reflecting thing down and I have a whole multitude of things to fix! In reality, it was Monday afternoon, Year 10 had been in an entertaining mood and, as such, my reflection on my own practice extended about as far as: ‘What on earth am I doing – it was supposed to be easier this year!’ I survived the session, went home, cried, then composed (although didn’t send) a long and dramatic email to my Subject Leader complaining about the whole situation. So far: so mature. The main thrust of my ramblings concerned the central issue that teaching is wholly personal. And with that it can be potently emotional and even psychological. So a discussion of our areas for development can begin to delve into a whole heap of insecurities which we would often rather keep hidden.
Luckily, I have a very supportive department who spent the next morning soothing my concerns, and a Subject Leader who can generally pick up on my mood within about five seconds of entering my classroom! So, with my Subject Leader, we spent break discussing the roots of my email (which when I showed to him he found hilarious). We came back to the same place we ended up throughout my NQT year. Confidence. Or a lack thereof.
Confidence can sometimes be overlooked in discussions about teaching, but it seems to be absolutely central to everything we do as teachers. Not in a ‘standing up in front of 30 teenagers requires confidence’ way, but in the ‘I need to have a fundamental faith in the decisions we make every day‘ fashion. In my NQT year, the thing I found hardest was not dealing with tricky students (however fun Friday 5 with Year 9 can be!); it wasn’t the piles of marking which seemed to take over my life; but it was the sudden sense of responsibility for my students. There can be debate over how responsible we are for the students in our classes, but as I started my job I seemed to shift from a twenty three year old whose greatest challenge was driving a car and remembering to pay the bills, to having groups of teenagers whose progress in English was pretty much at my door. The Year 11s who needed a C to get into college, and the Year 13s who wanted to get into university, were now mine for a few hours per week and I had to try to get them there. This is an exaggerated way of looking at things and I had an incredible NQT mentor who counselled me down from these hyperbolic heights, but the main thing I had to develop, and will continue to develop, is the confidence that I am making the right decisions and doing the best by my students.
So on an afternoon in October, a discussion of marginal gains collided with a mindset of ‘there are so many things to fix – where do I even start’. I’ve been a perfectionist for much longer than I’ve been a teacher so it’s a tough habit to break. Therefore, it was only once I had admitted this to my Subject Leader – and more importantly to myself – that I could actually get on with the job of coaching and improving. If we fail to recognise this central point then any coaching will be as productive as my initial session – I was there, I was talking, I was listening but I wasn’t making any (to use a buzzword) progress.
It was only following an emotional email, a break time discussion, and a few good lessons, that I could get my head around what I needed to do in terms of my own coaching targets. I can only speak as new (ish) teacher, but it’s an easy cycle to get stuck in: lessons go wrong, emotion kicks in, confidence is bashed and the ability to be positive about how to improve can start to slip out the window. Yet, it is this emotional focus which actually makes it one of the trickiest things to combat. My Subject Leader can give me a range of strategies to improve my questioning but, much as it frustrates him, he cannot wave a magic wand and teach me to have faith in the job that I am doing. It is the ultimate part of the job that requires marginal gains – saving those comments from students and colleagues, taking pleasure from the fact that all my Year 13s did get into university and slowly building up self-belief. Building confidence. It is also something that fluctuates continually depending on the class, the day, the topic, or even the weather!
There are endless discussions over how to improve our teaching, but I know that at the centre of my own practice is a more personal battle: the need to be able to step back and reflect, without losing faith in my instincts. It is easy to put on the confident-teacher mask, but to really move forward that confidence needs to run much deeper. The first step to becoming the type of teacher I want to be, is developing the confidence to believe that I can actually be that teacher.
I am very lucky to share my working day with bright stars like Helen, who care so much about what they do, the students they teach, and the colleagues they work with each day. Perhaps the ultimate paradox about confidence is that teachers who lack it are driven to reflect deeply and become much better for it, whereas the teachers who are too full of it end up becoming gorged on their own self-importance and never become truly great teachers. What Helen’s words remind me is that we teachers must keenly remember that we are human – all too human – that we should tend to one another as we aim to do for our students. We should remember that we all want to be better teachers, but that the process is fraught with fears and other attendant doubts. Finally, and most important of all, that we should be kind to one another. Yes, that is the main thing I have learned working as a teacher. Not just with our students, but with our colleagues too – we must be kind.
So let us celebrate then the humble teacher, struggling to get better each day – building their own wall of confidence, so that their students may do the same. And let us be kind to one another.