It’s common for new teachers to doubt themselves, to feel like their best isn’t good enough, and to wonder if they’re cut out for the profession. And confidence matters. In fact, research indicates that teacher self-confidence can have a greater impact on student achievement than student-teacher relationships, home environment, or parental involvement. So much of why teachers lack confidence, however, is the result of what they say to themselves.
Three subtle shifts in mindset can add up to a huge impact in how new teachers approach their classrooms and become models for their students as learners.
What You Can Do
1. Think of yourself as a learner (who is therefore not perfect). This allows you to release unrealistic expectations of yourself and in turn become a model for your students as they take risks in their learning. I hate to state the glaringly obvious, but the reason you don’t feel like you know everything as a new teacher is because you don’t. You’re a new teacher. That means you’re a beginner—just like your students.
And here’s the other obvious thing that you may forget when you’re placing unrealistic expectations on yourself: Everyone else knows you’re a new teacher, too. You may spend a lot of time worrying that administrators will think you don’t know what you’re doing, but they didn’t just step into the education game yesterday. They know it’s your first year, and they’ve been where you are. They don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to do your best, however, and to continue to learn. That’s why they hired you—they saw great potential in you.
So, rather than expecting yourself to improve in all areas at once, do for yourself what you are so good at doing for your students: Choose one skill area to work on at a time, and give yourself the grace and space and permission to fail forward as you improve—just as you ask students to do.
2. Become more aware of your thinking. Lack of self-confidence is often directly tied to what we say to ourselves when things don’t go as we want them to. To apply the basic premise of The Life Coach School to teaching, our thoughts about the events in our classrooms (especially when they don’t go well) contribute to our feelings about teaching. This, then, impacts how we react, which determines our results.
Here’s how this looks in action: Imagine you have an observation lesson and one of your students acts out. The thought you might have is “I’m so embarrassed. My classroom management is horrible. When will I ever figure this out? I should just give up.” How are you going to feel as a result of those thoughts? Hopeless? Lost? Depressed? As a result, you may put in less and less effort and maybe even start considering that bartending job instead of teaching.
But what if you instead say to yourself, “Hmm… he’s sure having a tough day. I wonder what’s going on.” When you choose to think about what’s going on for the student (instead of what you might be doing right or wrong), your subsequent feeling about the situation will be one of compassion and curiosity. You might take the student aside after the lesson and ask some questions to find out how you can help. The result? Your student feels seen and cared for, and you get to experience that incredible feeling that comes from knowing you’re supporting your students.
The one thing that changed in that cascade of experiences was the thinking. It’s powerful. It matters. I encourage you to start paying careful attention to what you say to yourself when things don’t go well in your classroom and work on consistently shifting those thoughts to more compassionate, positive responses.
3. Accept constructive criticism for what it is. Don’t make it mean something negative about yourself. It takes time to become an expert at anything (Malcolm Gladwell suggested 10,000 hours), and you can’t become an expert without constructive criticism. Confidence is a by-product of learning how to do something well, from overcoming obstacles to learning to trust that you have what it takes to get to the next level. As Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Following up on our example of critical feedback from an observation lesson, what crushes us is not the criticism, but what we tell ourselves that it means about us. The growth in our teaching happens when we start to accept criticism as a gift—as the next clue in our treasure hunt toward becoming the teacher we’ve always dreamed of being. So the next time you get what feels like negative observation feedback (or an angry email from a parent), follow the trail, my friend, and ask yourself what you can learn from this—not what it means about you.
Here’s what’s most powerful about applying these three strategies: It isn’t easy, but nothing outside of you has to change in order for you to experience the dramatic results that you’re looking for—and to feel much more confident in your teaching.