‘If I could give you just one gift every day for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence.
It would be the gift of confidence.
Either that or a scented candle.’
(One day, by David Nicholls)
I read this book 5 years ago and I fell in love with this quote. The character who says it is an arrogant twit, but I was able to overlook that at the time, instead wishing that it were really that simple. If only we could just box up confidence and present it to certain people as a gift.
Confidence is an aspect I’ve always struggled with, which surprises many as I teach classes of up to 30 students every day and I perform in musical theatre. But there, I’m hiding behind the material, the subject, the character. Ask me to lead a project or take on a new responsibility or share my thoughts and ideas, and I always feel as though I am not good enough.
The environment in which I was educated did not have a negative impact on my confidence – if anything, it should have been quite the opposite. My state school (which was then selective), not only offered the same extra curricular opportunities as many independent schools, but also provided rigorous classroom instruction which included a compulsory public speaking competition for all of year 7 and 8 and a Shakespeare festival in year 9. The support provided for university applicants meant that I was able to secure a place at the University of Leeds.
However, right up until my post-graduate education, my confidence was affected by other people. People who wouldn’t come to my 13th birthday party because their parents thought I lived in a ‘rough’ area; people who didn’t invite me to their 21st birthday party because I wasn’t ‘posh’ enough. I had always been motivated, studious, kind, caring – but the negatives always took the reins.
Perhaps it was this that subconsciously guided me towards researching student motivation in English literature for my MA dissertation; unaware that what I would find to be the greatest barrier for students is self-belief – confidence. Even when students in my year 10 class had A and A* targets, they were happy to ‘settle’ for a C, because they didn’t believe they could reach an A and didn’t want to work hard and then look like a failure. This leads back to the topic of growth mindset, which seems to be a dirty phrase at the moment, but I feel is so important. I had 10 students in my study with a fixed mindset of ‘I can’t do it’ and I found this utterly heartbreaking – had I totally failed at creating a classroom culture of high aspirations? Or is it a wider problem, with many state school pupils thinking that higher education, the ‘best’ jobs and the leadership roles are out of their reach?
As I finished writing my dissertation, ‘School Swap – The Class Divide’ was being shown on ITV1. The programme highlighted for me that, beyond the wealth of opportunities offered, a lot of the success that independent school pupils achieve comes down to the fact that they believe they deserve to be successful. Which they do. And so does every pupil in every state school.
So what’s the answer? I agree with Alex Quigley that over-confidence can be damaging and trying to teach confidence to teens, wrought with hormones and life choices and the endless pressures of social media, is a task that seems impossible to tackle. Yet I completely understand Ben Fogle’s points, as when I think back to the pupils who took part in my dissertation study, a little more confidence could have brought about a little more studying for their controlled assessment, resulting in a higher grade for their GCSE. If I could have taught that confidence to them, I would have. But, again back to Alex’s point, I feel that confidence classes would have many negative factors, not only providing the ‘ego-boost’ that Alex mentioned, but also serving as another measure of success or failure for young people – ‘she’s more confident than me, so she’ll be more likely to get a better job’ or ‘I’m shy, so I’ll never be successful’.
As much as confidence can’t be a gift given to someone, I also think it can’t be explicitly taught. Thinking back to what made my school experience very positive, I was told every day that I was being given an education that would set me up for a great future; it is my understanding that this same message permeates independent schools across the country. But why shouldn’t this be the way every student feels? Children in Britain have more opportunities than so many children across the world, with free education at the helm. Perhaps I am naive and idealistic, but I believe that every student has the right to aim high and dream big!
There needs to be a way to drip feed this message, perhaps even beyond assemblies and PSHE. Within state schools, trips and clubs aside, I think it’s important to ensure we include confidence building activities as part of our curriculum. Having year 10s take part in the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge, and having some year 9s interview a refugee who has written a book about his experiences, has provided enrichment to these students which I think will have a positive impact on their confidence.
As a teacher, I will try to instill confidence in my pupils by giving them my best teaching every day, ensuring that I’m always developing my subject knowledge and learning more about pedagogy in order to do so. As whole school literacy co-ordinator, I will try my best to ensure pupils in my school are secure in their literacy, doing everything I can to intervene if a pupil is not confident in this area. Finally, I will try to create a culture of confidence by always being encouraging of every pupil, whatever their dreams or their backgrounds.
As for me? I’ll keep working on the confidence. It’s the greatest gift I could give to myself. Alex Quigley’s book will probably be a good place to start…