by Letty Rising
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Confidence is considered an essential trait that we hope for all children to develop. When we think of a confident child, we can imagine a child who throws up a hand and takes a risk to answer a question they may not have the answer to, or who, without hesitation, jumps in to solve a puzzle or use a material.
We can imagine a slightly older version of that same confident child, walking tall and proud, navigating through a sea of faces in a school hallway with an air of self-assurance and certainty, combined with humility regarding who they are, where they are, what they want, and where they are going.
Confidence is something we seek to cultivate in our youth. This is opposed to the unconfident child, who might be afraid to raise their hand to answer a question, who sits quietly in hopes of not drawing attention to themselves, and who might be socially shy or unsure of how to enter or exit group dynamics.
When a child is confident, they are sure of themselves and their abilities. They accept themselves for who they are, and they trust that they can and will succeed in most realistic endeavors. The unconfident child raises concern because their lack of belief in their own ability to complete a task or achieve a goal can be a major obstacle in their development.
With the support of adults who can help children identify goals and experience success, children become increasingly more confident. Confidence often grows from being in uncomfortable situations persisting through challenges and experiencing success.
The Unconfident Teacher
While a lot of attention is paid to lack of confidence in children, we often don’t think about (or at least talk about!) the adult who feels unconfident. Perhaps this is because there is an assumption that once we arrive at the adulting years, most of us should have it all figured out. Certainly, those of us who have chosen teaching as a profession will have at least mastered enough basic skills to have the courage to step into unknown territory and believe we will experience success.
However, this is often not the case.
There are many possible situations where a teacher might not feel confident in themselves. The most obvious one is that the teacher is new. Whether they are new to teaching, new to Montessori teaching, or at a new school, many people who find themselves in unfamiliar situations feel unconfident, at least at the beginning while they are orienting themselves to their new experience. This is often because, to feel confident, a person has to gain some life experience in the areas that they eventually grow to become confident in.
It is through experimentation that we grow more confident. We try something, it works, and we do more of it. We may refine it and package it differently, but we move down the path that indicates success. Sometimes we try something, and it doesn’t work. We may try it a few times, just to prove to ourselves that it doesn’t work, then we move on to something new. The incremental successes that we experience through persistent forward movement become the building blocks for success.
Another reason for lack of confidence would have to do with not feeling well versed with a material or a lesson. Perhaps you are a teacher who taught lower elementary for a long time and now find yourself teaching upper elementary. Perhaps you didn’t have upper elementary training, and even if you did, maybe it was so long ago that you have forgotten the material. Or maybe you are fresh out of training but feel like you didn’t quite fully grasp a concept. These are all situations that can shake our confidence.
Signs you are Feeling this way
There are signs you can look out for to indicate that you are not feeling confident. Here are some examples:
Avoidance. When you find yourself avoiding a topic, whether it be by neglecting to give lessons in a particular area, or redirecting student questions about a topic to your assistant teacher or co-teacher, you might not be feeling confident. Many teachers often proclaim “We haven’t done much math this year because the children love to write, and I’m following their interests!” While this may be true, if you find yourself in this situation, you may want to check your attitudes and beliefs about what has been avoided, to see if there is an underlying reason that certain topics have not been addressed other than the fact that the students have been interested in other things.
Anxiety. You might be aware of feeling anxious in the pit of your stomach as you walk up the stairs to your classroom before the school day begins. Or exceptionally nervous on Sunday night before the school week begins (also known as the Sunday Scaries!). Nervous flutters are not uncommon, but if you often find yourself experiencing a lump in your throat, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat, your fears might be a physical manifestation of your internal state.
Overcompensation. If you find yourself focusing on the subject or subjects you understand well to the exclusion of others, you are likely feeling unconfident in certain areas. This can look a little bit like avoidance, but it also often includes a conscious knowing that there might be gaps of knowledge or understanding in other areas, and instead of digging in to further understand, the tendency, in this case, would be to dive more deeply into the topics that are more easily understood and showcasing these areas.
Unconfidence as Expressed in Three Categories
The thing about confidence is that we can often believe in ourselves in one area, and feel wildly incompetent in another. A Montessori classroom is an interconnected ecosystem comprised of many components, which include the social and emotional aspects of classroom life, the instructional aspect of classroom life, and the operational aspect of classroom life. These various components work in sync to create a dynamic learning environment.
You will want to identify whether you are feeling unconfident in regards to the social and emotional landscape of the classroom, the instructional landscape, or the operational landscape.
Unconfident in the Social and Emotional Realm
If you are feeling unconfident in terms of the social and emotional landscape, that can stem from feeling afraid of the children. It is not uncommon for new teachers in particular to feel intimidated by elementary-aged children. They will point out things about you, such as the spontaneous skin rash that recently developed on your neck, the fact that you wear the same shoes every day, or that the lesson that you carefully planned for and lovingly prepared is boring. They will ask you if you believe in Santa, who you voted for in the election, and if your parents are divorced.
These questions and comments can throw you back into your own childhood experiences when you heard these kinds of things from your same-aged peers, and if you aren’t conscious of it, you will find yourself emotionally responding from your younger self.
Unconfident in the Instructional Realm
If you are feeling unconfident in the academic landscape, it might be because you don’t feel comfortable with the content you are teaching, or you have a hard time articulating what you want to say or how to say it. You may not feel confident in how to present a lesson so that it is clear, engaging, and inspirational. Maybe you are afraid of a certain child who complains every time you invite him to a lesson, so you leave him alone, and eventually, a pattern emerges where you have delivered little to no direct instruction to keep your anxiety, and his complaints, at bay.
Unconfident in the Operational Realm
If you are feeling unconfident about the operational landscape, this means that you might feel like your paperwork systems, whether it be your paperwork and recordkeeping, or the students’ paperwork, is out of control. You aren’t sure how to keep records, or haven’t settled on a system, or perhaps you’ve visited your colleague next door who has everything color-coded and you don’t. Maybe you aren’t feeling strong in the area of making or following through with plans.
It is often the case that a person can be an amazing teacher, but they didn’t go into the profession with the idea that they would be managing paperwork. However, paperwork has gradually become a larger part of the teacher’s job, and so it is not uncommon for a teacher to be confident in the social, emotional, and instructional realms, but not confident in the operational realm.
All of the above can indicate a lack of confidence, and all are experiences that many teachers have had at one time or another.
What to do?
Since confidence stems from a feeling, it’s hard to offer a step-by-step guide on how to change your feeling state, but it is a worthy endeavor! The first and most important thing you can do comes from a tried and true saying from Alcoholics Anonymous, which is “Fake it till you make it.”
Now, what does that mean, exactly? It means that when you walk into a teaching situation and are not feeling confident, what you will want to do is to dive deep within, tap into the reserves of confidence you have in other areas of your life, and exude an air of confidence, even if you’re not feeling it. It means refraining from speaking using words and tone that sounds apologetic, tentative, and uncertain.
When you speak with hesitation in your voice, the children hear that. If you speak as if what you said might be taken back at the first sign of protest, children will become attuned to your patterns and respond accordingly.
Yes, it is hard to shift our feeling states. But if you take a micro-step every day towards the goal of improving your confidence, then you’ll be on your way.
What does a micro-step look like? It looks like choosing to focus on one small thing each day that can grow your confidence. This might look like the following:
- Before walking into the classroom, visualize that the students love, care, and respect you (they do! You just aren’t recognizing it, or aren’t bringing it out in them).
- Take stock of your strengths. Every day, think about the things you do well, and how those things are creating a positive experience for your students.
- Look for evidence that you are doing well! Teachers receive cards, notes, and emails of appreciation…it’s great to keep these and take them out to look at every once in a while, to remind you of the positive impact you’ve had on your students.
- Think about a boundary that has not been adhered to, and commit to holding firm on that boundary. An example would be students talking over you when giving a lesson. Maybe this has been an ongoing issue along with other issues, but for one week you’re going to pick that to focus on. When your students respond to limits, it will increase your belief that your words and actions have an impact, and your feelings of confidence will improve.
- Teach, teach, and teach some more! The more lessons you give, the more you will grow in your confidence. Don’t wait until you have every word of a presentation memorized…if you feel 80% ready, then go for it. Being 80% ready is better than delivering no lesson at all, and if you wait until you are at 100%, a lot of learning opportunities will be missed.
What you have to say is important!
One thing that is important for every single teacher to know, is that you have to believe that what you have to say is worth listening to! Your words are important, your message is important, and your guidance is exactly what they both want and need. If you don’t believe that is true, then the children will sense that, and they will act accordingly, by tuning you out, or by talking over you.
True confidence will come after a series of small wins where you experience success. Whether it be a boundary that is adhered to, a lesson that a group of children raved about, or a system that finally felt in alignment with your work style. But first, you might have to pretend for a little while. Act confident, by standing tall, walking at an even pace, and speaking in an unwavering tone. When the children see an adult slouching about, walking tentatively with starts and stops, or speaking in a wavering tone that ends with a lilt that implies you are asking them for permission to take up space, they will feel uncomfortable and negative behaviors are likely to ensue.
We all want to feel like the designated leaders in our lives are in command of themselves and are feeling good about the decisions they make and the actions they take, and children are no different.
Next time you are feeling unsure of yourself, up the ante by believing that you can experience success in your work. It will go a long way toward building a classroom culture with a teacher modeling confidence to their students.
Letty Rising has been involved in Montessori education for over 15 years. She holds a B.A. in Sociology, a California State Teaching Credential, and an AMI elementary diploma for ages 6-12 and an M.Ed from Loyola University in Maryland. She has held positions as a Homeschool Education Specialist, Montessori Elementary Teacher, School Director, Principal, Montessori Coordinator, and Consultant in several public and private Montessori school communities throughout the years. Letty currently supports schools around the world through professional development offerings, consulting, and mentoring.