If you were to ask me how I’ve changed as a teacher over the last five years, I could list off a whole range of answers. I’ve turned classroom management from a weakness to one of my biggest strengths. I’ve been exposed to a wide range of population types, from Yupik Alaskan to urban Boston, and from upper-class Seattle to small-town Illinois. I’ve written curriculum maps for brand new classes, fought battles for students, and mentored peers older than me (that was weird). But really, when I walk into a new classroom, the biggest change from my newbie-teaching year five years ago is my confidence level.
I can walk into a classroom and own it.
I’ve honed my classroom presence down to an art. Maybe it’s because moving so much has given me lots of practice at first impressions. Maybe my theater background gave me the dynamic presence and the I-don’t-care-if-I-look-like-an-idiot attitude that engages student attention. Maybe life has taught me what works for me, no matter what part of the country or what kind of student body I’m teaching. Whatever it is, I’ve reached a point in my career where after one day in a classroom, I can say to an employer in full confidence, “No, really. You want me to work for you.”
At least, that’s what I say in my head. It would be obnoxious and unprofessional to say it out loud. But I finally understand those powerful characters on TV that live with that level of confidence, that can look at a situation and own it. Those detectives that know they need to be the one on the case and no one else, because they’re that good. Those executives that bend others to their will with a mere look, because they know they’re right. Those artists and musicians that know they’ll draw the spotlight simply by walking onstage, as the world waits breathless for what they’ll do next. My skills and talents will never draw a TV camera or a spotlight, but that’s OK. I’m good at what I do.
When I really break it down, though, I know I didn’t develop my confidence level by myself. I have been blessed with supportive administrators that placed their confidence in me, students that told me how much they appreciate me, and affirmation given for a job well done. Because others have told me that I’m good, I believe I’m good. That translates into the confidence I show in the classroom. So let’s take a moment to consider confidence-building to be a group effort.
Teachers, find the little things to praise and instill confidence in your students to help them grow. We spend so much time focusing on the students that need extra help and struggle that it’s easy to ignore the strong students that don’t seem to need our help as much. But let’s see what happens when we invest in them, too. Let’s encourage their strengths, place our confidence in them, and challenge them. Instead of telling them that they are “good enough” already, let’s see how amazing they can be.
Teens, build each other up instead of tearing each other down. You never know the power your words to each other may have, for good or for bad. Make sure they’re good. You have the ability to either build up or destroy the confidence of those around you. Don’t make disparaging remarks about each other, even lighthearted ones, because even when they laugh, your classmates may be hurting on the inside. I know — some of them come to me later in tears, even when they laughed with you. And no, it’s not their fault if they “can’t take a joke.” It’s your responsibility to be respectful and encouraging, not their responsibility to ignore your hurtful words.
Administrators, make sure your teachers know how much you value them. Do not simply correct things that need to be fixed; praise what you see done well. If you expect us to encourage and build up our students, we also need you to encourage us and build us up. Trust me, it’s for the good of your whole school. No teacher can be at their best if they’re constantly worried about your scrutiny. A teacher that feels valued and appreciated instead of undermined or judged will bring more confidence to the classroom and be a better teacher for your students.
I know that in the grand scheme of the teaching world, I’m still very young. I know I still have more to learn and areas of growth. I have plenty of answers stored up for the “areas needing improvement” interview question, too. Consistency, for one. I wonder if my nomadic life has made me a flash-in-a-pan without staying power. I know schools have been sad to see me go, but I won’t really know my longevity until I actually return to a job for a second year – something I’ve never done, but hope to be approaching soon. I’ve also been fighting a life-long battle with my lack of organizational talents, so I’m always trying to pick up new tricks from every classroom I visit. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent more time mentoring others than I’ve been mentored myself, and I wonder what it would be like to work with one of those master teachers that has been in the classroom for 20 years and is still relevant, still excellent. I had that chance my first year teaching, but I was still figuring out basic unit plans and seating charts back then. I think I could learn so much more from them now that I have some experience under my belt.
So I have enough checks and balances to keep me from crossing the line of confidence into the the field of cockiness. I’m good, but I still have room to grow. I think that’s a pretty darn cool place to be. If you’ve never experienced it, I hope you get there soon. And I hope you help others get there, too. None of us can do it alone.