In the classroom I often say that my job is not to teach English: it’s to boost students’ confidence so that they can use what they know to their best of their ability, and feel ready to learn more. I have come to believe that this is also a key skill for managers and trainers: supporting teachers to become more confident, or to manage their over-confidence, so that they can maximise their students’ learning. In this article I am particularly focussing on teachers in the early stages of their career, as that is who I mostly work with, but I hope the tips will be useful to managers and teachers across the spectrum.
Why work on confidence?
Conscientious and/or perfectionist teachers who don’t trust their own decisions take much longer to plan, agonising over which decision is the right one to make. They can spend a long time planning one version of a lesson or activity only to scrap it completely and plan something completely new. This leads to high stress levels, tiredness, and anxiety: in short, unhappy teachers, and potentially an unhappy staffroom if there are a few such teachers. If maintained over the long-term, this can have adverse affects on the teacher’s mental and physical health, and may lead to more sick days, meaning more cover for you to organise. It also does the students a disservice, as teachers are not at their best by the time they go into the classroom.
Over-confidence can also be a problem, often manifesting itself as a reliance on rapport and activities that teachers feel particularly comfortable with. The teacher feels sure that the way they have taught a lesson is completely successful, but students haven’t actually taken anything away. These teachers rely on what they already know, and may be unwilling to receive feedback or take it as an attack on their personalities. Again, this can create a negative feeling in the staffroom if not managed effectively. While students seem to enjoy lessons on the surface, there may not be much genuine learning taking place.
What strategies can you use?
Ask, don’t tell
There is a tendency for managers and trainers (myself very much included!) to listen to a problem that a teacher is having and tell them ‘the answer’. This takes agency away from the teachers, and means that you are imposing what you think might work without having a full picture of the situation. I have started to move towards a coaching model, something which I am definitely not an expert in, but have found teachers responding well to. This involves asking questions and helping teachers to find the answers themselves, rather than dictating your thoughts to them. They may not be the answers you would give, but that doesn’t mean they are not valid and worth experimenting with.
Here are some examples to use after observations or when teachers describe events in their classroom:
- Why do you think that happened?
- What happened immediately before/afterwards?
- How did the students react? How do you think they were feeling? Why?
- Did they learn something in your lesson? What?
You could use these questions at planning stages:
- What stages would help the students prepare for this task?
- How can you give them more practice of this?
- What can the students do that you’re doing at the moment?
- Where will the learning happen in this lesson/stage?
For teachers with a low level of confidence, this helps them to realise their teaching decisions are justified. The ‘answers’ they are looking for can come from themselves, and there is never just one solution to a given problem. It also shows them that even if they feel things went wrong in the lesson, the students probably still took something away and it wasn’t the disaster they thought!
For over-confident teachers, these questions break down tasks into smaller steps, encouraging them to consider the students’ point of view and what they need in the lessons.
When we start teaching, we have already spent many hours in the classroom as students (Lortie’s Apprenticeship of Observation). We have a very clear picture in our heads as to what a teacher should be and their role in the classroom.
If they lack confidence, teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to be a ‘perfect’ teacher from lesson one, without giving themselves the time and space to be a beginner. Over-confident teachers may feel that after their pre-service course, they have finished their training and are fully-fledged teachers. Neither group has factored in how long it takes to build up the experience and training necessary to deal with all of the different aspects of a lesson successfully in real time.
In both cases, I remind them that teaching is a skill, in the same way as learning to play a musical instrument, or to drive, or to speak English. I use questions like these to help lower confidence teachers to shift their focus from being perfect to incremental improvements and over-confident teachers to realise that a teacher has never finished learning:
- Since you started teaching, what has changed in your planning/teaching? How has it helped your students?
- Which one area of teaching do you want to work on this week? How will you do it? How will it help your students?
- What is the bare minimum that students should take away from this lesson? How will you feel if they achieve this? What are the bonus extras? How will you feel if they manage this?
Notice what they say and how they say it
Less confident teachers often seek validation, asking questions to double-check their planning or teaching decisions because they don’t trust themselves. If I notice a pattern developing, I now respond with ‘What do you think? Do you really need me to answer that? Trust yourself and see what happens!’ They can also use quite negative self-talk: ‘That lesson was a disaster!’ ‘I’m a rubbish teacher!’
For over-confident teachers, comments like ‘That was a really fun lesson!’ and ‘I’m a great teacher!’ are ones to watch out for. In this case, praise them, but also challenge them to tell you what learning happened and why.
In both cases, ask teachers how they would respond if they heard another teacher say those things. Encourage teachers to talk to themselves as they would like others to talk to them.
It’s very easy to focus on all of the things that went wrong, and neglect the things that went right, particularly for teachers lacking confidence. Give teachers opportunities to share their strengths and reflect on how they developed them. For example, dedicate five minutes of a teachers’ meeting to sharing the best things that happened in class this week with a partner. The teacher should say how they contributed to that success, and not attribute it all to the students.
As a manager, you can also highlight successes to build confidence and help teachers realise you’re not just focussing on problems. When checking reports, I write private messages to teachers thanking them for noticing information about students, like specific areas of grammar they need to focus on in the next year. I also leave notes in electronic registers to thank them for the level of detail they have included. It only takes a minute and teachers really appreciate it.
If you’d like to hear more about the effects of confidence, you may be interested in these two episodes of the BBC Why Factor podcast: Confidence: Why it misleads us and Confidence: How it can help us.
Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland and a freelance teacher trainer and materials writer. She is the author of Richer Speaking (published by the round) and the ELT Playbook series (self-published). She blogs at http://sandymillin.wordpress.com and tweets @sandymillin.
If you have considered studying a TrinityDipTESOL/DELTA level qualification, you might be interested in our Trinity DipTESOL scholarship competition. Let us know your ideas on how we can reduce our environmental footprint in the ELT inudstry and win a scholarship worth €2600!