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The importance of confidence in teaching

Better teaching: Building self-confidence

The importance of confidence in teaching is paramount.  But why does building self-confidence come so high in the list of ‘things a new teacher needs to do’?  

Answer:  Starting to teach is, to put it mildly, a bit of a strain.  For a hundred reasons, most of which you already know about.  This means that, however well you have studied and prepared, things will not go according to plan.  Things never do, especially when you are starting.  In fact one could almost define a plan as ‘a bright idea which can confidently be relied upon not to work’.  Well, not properly.

This can make you worry that you’ve got it wrong.  If the situation gets worse, you might worry that you will go on getting it wrong.  Whatever confidence in teaching you started with is in danger of evaporating, maybe for ever.   In effect, the awful doubt begins . . . you haven’t got what it takes.

You probably are making mistakes.  Of course you are; you’re human.  But what makes the situation bad is not the mistakes; it’s the worry.  Worry is a killer. The good news is that you can do something about that.  You will never stop making mistakes.  You can reduce them with experience, but you will never cut them out altogether.  But you can do something about the worry too.  Again, you will never cut it out altogether, but you can cut it right back, and if you are worrying less, you will make fewer mistakes.  If you make fewer mistakes, you probably won’t worry so much.  It’s an un-vicious circle.

Luckily, ways to increase self-esteem are not difficult to follow. There are not complex new skills you have to learn. There is just a little set of things you already know; all you have to do is remember them. The importance of confidence for teachers is self-evident but the trick is to not to dwell on it – instead, focus on the positives.

1. Remember that things will indeed go wrong

Bound to, sooner or later.  It’s no big deal to get it right when things are going like clockwork.  What will make you a good teacher is putting things right when they have gone wrong.   Which they so often do.  And it never rains but it pours.  This is all normal.

But the obvious importance of confidence in teaching can trigger feelings of inadequacy. Don’t clutch your temples.  Don’t fret about it.   Just set about it.  You are not the first teacher faced with things like this.  Every single one of them before you has had to deal with them.  Well, if they could do it, so can you.

2. Remember, you are not perfect

Nobody is; everybody has weaknesses.  But everybody has strengths too.  Find yours; play to them.   However odd they may be, they are yours. You are picking out your best bits.  I repeat, you are not selling perfection; you are selling yourself.

You’re happier with your strong points..  Comfortable.  This way, you’re more likely to get something right.   More likely to chalk up a success.  And registering a success is a splendid way to increase self-esteem.  

3. Remember what they expect a teacher to do

What the name says – teach.  There may be plenty of pupils who get in the way of your teaching, who don’t like your teaching, who would rather be anywhere else than  listening to your teaching; but the most restless, naughty, awkward, bolshy pupil knows that teaching is what teachers do – or should do.  Curiously, they will often show a little back-handed respect if you try to do that.  Not preaching, bleating, moaning, nagging, bossing about, ‘imposing your will’, and all the rest.  Just getting on with it; doing what you are there for.  When medieval kings were deposed, it was usually not for ruling too much, but for not ruling enough. 

I’m sorry to labour this point – and such an obvious point – but it is the simple things that are so important.  Build the basics, and you will know that you are getting something right, and confidence in your teaching will grow.

4. Remember that education goes two ways

You are in it together.  You are stuck with each other – usually for a whole year.  You have to get on.  It is a sort of partnership, in which you are the senior partner.   That puts the greater burden on you.   You are the one who has to take the broad view.

If you do, that puts you in a position of advantage, and that will help you to build self-confidence.

Education, as the title of this section points out, is a mutual business.  Your teaching, you hope, will build their knowledge and their self-esteem, and as you work on ways to build their self-esteem, curiously, with every success you win, you will be building your own.

Incidentally, you are learning from them too.  They will often, albeit unconsciously, convey things about yourself that you were not fully aware of, or were not hitherto prepared to recognise.  You may be teaching them, but they are also teaching you.  They teach you hard, but they teach you good.

Self-knowledge is a splendid method for building self-confidenceJust be open to it.

5. Remember you have power

From so many sources – your age, probably your size, your qualifications, your knowledge – you have the power to influence them.  It goes on:  from your manner, your character, your behaviour, your wits, (if you’re lucky, your sense of humour too), and no doubt many other things, you influence them.

All right, there are limitations on that power (fortunately) – again, your own faults and weaknesses, the size of the class, the timetable, a host of things.  But the creative teacher is the one who recognises these limitations and gets it across within those limitations.

He or she knows about this power, and is not afraid to exercise it.  But alongside this awareness of power, is a wariness of it.   The two words are so similar that they might be two sides of the same coin.

Power is the greatest intoxicant of all.  As a little intellectual exercise, try examining your motives for teaching. . .   Influencing people (especially young people) is devilish attractive.

6. Remember – you are not alone

You are not the only person on the premises who wants to get on with the business of teaching.  The whole place is dedicated to work, and it is on your side.  If difficult pupils make work impossible, there is a network of authority to back you up.  It is no weakness to use it.  Nobody expects a mere lieutenant to run the army.  If he could, there would be no need for generals.  Help is there, from people who have been where you are now, people who understand, people who want you to succeed.

They want to build your confidence in teaching as much as you do; the more teacher confidence there is around, the better the whole school will be, and the easier will be everyone else’s job too.

7. Remember – you are not helpless

You have experience, knowledge, education, built-in authority, and, presumably, a few brains and wits.  Well, use ’em.  Think of something.

Take a look at my short YouTube lectures on How to be a Better Teacher
8. Remember, and watch out for, two enemies

You know them all too well.  One we have already mentioned – worry.

The other is fatigue.   Anyone who thinks that teaching is simply a matter of ‘get your books out and turn to page 54’ (oh – and the ‘lovely long holidays’) should try it.  Day in day out, week in week out, five, six, seven, eight periods a day, with lunch-time duty, a staff meeting, lesson preparation, seventy-five exercise books to mark, holiday courses and school trips thrown in. It can be unrelenting, with a merciless future and a gaggle of awkward pupils looming as well.

Fatigue – the one monster in your path that needs more watching than any other.

Alert all your resources to spot it, and evolve tactics, practices, tricks and techniques to deal with it. The more tired you are, the bigger your other troubles become.

There is no magic formula.  You have to produce a set of defences which suit you,  which are do-able, practical, and (from your own experience) effective.  There is no  ‘right way’; the range can  be wide:   a good night’s sleep, even two or three early nights in a row; a rule about not marking more than a dozen books at one sitting; not working after eight or nine o’clock at night; a favourite meal (and drink); watching a trash TV western; not taking marking home; having one day a week in which school does not exist; spotting your own symptoms – grumpiness, quick impatience; worry (again), self-doubt, having too much to do, and all the rest.  You don’t need a session on the psychologist’s couch to realise what they are.  Just watch for the early signs. 

Or again, to ease the pressure, can you make a few sacrifices of regular things you do in the day which it would be no loss if you didn’t do them?   Rubbish reading, quiz shows and soaps, the precious net, the beloved social media?  Give yourself a chance to come up for air, to do nothing, and to think of nothing.  Polish a few doorknobs.  Weeding.

There are plenty more ways.

9. One last thing to remember

Quite simply, what you’re doing – teaching.  Of course it’s worthwhile (nobody ever says it isn’t), and you wanted to do it so much that you were prepared to study, give up years of your life, and make sacrifices. The importance of confidence in teaching is not in dispute, but it’s not the end in itself. It’s the product of focussing on the job in hand. Do that, and the confidence will emerge naturally.

So the balance sheet is in your favour.  You’re all right.


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Berwick Coates