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‘The best teachers are self-confident because they have developed their competence’

Inner resilience and self-belief are as important for your teaching toolbox as subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise, says Alex Quigley – here's how to develop them...

  • ‘The best teachers are self-confident because they have developed their competence’

Picture the scene – your hands are clammy and your heart is pounding hard in your chest. You are just about to stand up to speak, but your mouth is dry as dust and you are wilting under the heat of an imagined spotlight. Gollum-like, a little voice in your head is telling you that you will fail and to give up.

What school scenario does this fear-filled response conjure for you? Are you envisioning teaching your truculent year 11 class? Perhaps you’re leading an assembly in a hall crammed full of students, or speaking in front of your colleagues in a training session.

Being a teacher means it is highly likely that your day will be regularly punctuated with such challenges. In response to these draining trials, we need the sustenance of self-confidence to help us persevere when we fail. and to keep us standing stand tall during those times when we struggle.

Fewer teachers doing more

Let’s take the scenario of speaking in front of a room full of your colleagues. Some of the most battle-hardened of teachers flinch at the very thought of leading a CPD session, and might even quail at the prospect of delivering a short notice to fellow staff members. No matter how at ease we are in our typical terrain of the classroom, given this new and different challenge we can be quickly starved of our usual self-confidence.

The good news is that with the wisdom of experience, no little practice and some meaningful, trusted feedback, we can all begin to develop confidence in our capacity to succeed in this task just like any other - but make no mistake about it, this will be hard earnt and learnt.

There is an important point to make here. Confidence isn’t some vaguely warm and fuzzy feeling – authentic confidence is a series of concrete behaviours that we can practise with effort and an increasing degree of skill. The best teachers are self-confident because they have developed their competence.

Why does confidence matter so much, anyway? Well, let’s consider what defines the life of a busy teacher in the profession today. Piles of marking; new assessments; performance management; targets; revision classes; lesson planning; learning the new specifications – oh, and the teaching. Lots of teaching.

As school budgets are squeezed, we are left with fewer teachers doing increasingly more. And with mounting challenges ahead of us, we need to teach more confidently than ever and manage our time more with skill, facing our daily stresses with resilience and self-awareness.

Four sources of confidence

Every teacher, from the green NQT to the veteran, experiences vicissitudes in their professional confidence. It can take just one difficult class, an absence from work, or the struggle to grasp a new and unfamiliar curriculum, to quickly drain away our precious reserves of this essential resource. Having practical tools to buffer you in challenging circumstances can prove crucial.

Albert Bandura, a famous psychology professor from Stanford University in the US, offers us an important guide to better manage our challenges and to develop our confidence. Bandura defines a specific aspect of confidence – something he labels‘self-efficacy’. Put simply, self-efficacy is your confidence in yourself to complete a specific task.

Mastering a new curriculum or tackling the unruly behaviour of a tricky Year 9 class are matters that require a very specific confidence that is personal, psychological and sometimes even physical in nature. Helpfully, Bandura defines four sources that we can draw upon for attaining and retaining that all-important confidence in our ability to teach:

Expert experiences
Rather unsurprisingly, we gain confidence through experiencing success. It could be planning a great lesson that triggers a momentary smile from even your most reluctant of students, a brilliant set of essays from our students or a sensational dance performance. Each fragment of success grows our professional confidence and helps sustain us mentally when our plans go awry.

Observation of others
We work in an observation culture than can too often prove toxic. The word ‘observation’ conjures thoughts of Ofsted and teachers having to perform artificially. In contrast, watching our colleagues teach and succeed with that challenging class with whom we are struggling can give us a fistful of ideas, but also a crucial degree of confidence as we see that someone just like us can tame the group – and flourish.

The collective confidence such informal collaboration can bring is too often ignored.

Social persuasion
The kind word of a mentor, or the fuel of praise from your headteacher or other senior/middle leader, can be so important. It is the stuff that we retain and remember far longer than we care to admit. When we trust a colleague, constructive feedback can prove deeply nourishing. This professional feedback and encouragement is vital for us to meet the challenges we face each day with resilience.

Physical features
Let us return to the scenario at the opening of this article: the fast beating heart and the parched mouth. These natural stresses can diminish us – causing us to give into our Year 11s, or shy away from speaking to our colleagues or in assemblies, which is a deeply unhelpful outcome.

It’s not realistic to think we can necessarily mask those stress signifiers, but if we actively reinterpret those physical signs and understand them for what they are – our body readying itself to perform – we can reconsider our fear as excitement. Ultimately, we can think our way to greater confidence.

Hard work

Now, if we were to have all of these sources of confidence flowing freely for us, all the time, proving a success in our teaching career would most likely be something that could be achieved with ease. Of course, life, and particularly working in a school, is a lot more complicated than that.

The evidence shows that most teachers plateau after only a few years of teaching, if they haven’t scarpered from the profession altogether. Maintaining our confidence and getting better at teaching is hard work, and too often we have the odds stacked against us taller than our steeple-high marking pile.

Even so, there are many teachers who don’t merely survive their daily stresses – they manage to thrive in the middle of them. Such educators think differently, confidently, reframing fear as excitement. They listen to trusted voices and tune out the negative noise. They seek out an observation culture of their own. They reflect deeply on their expert experiences, whilst recognising and learning from their failures.

In short, they seek out those all-important sources of self-confidence. And ultimately, at a time of significant upheaval, doing likewise could prove crucial for the success of everyone in the profession.

Alex Quigley is an English teacher and director of learning and research and Huntington School. His latest book, The Confident Teacher, is available now, published by Routledge.

For more information, visit www.theconfidentteacher.com or follow @HuntingEnglish

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