The Importance of Confidence in Teaching

I’ve written before that I believe four things define a teacher:

  1. subject knowledge
  2. pedagogical skill
  3. motivation
  4. confidence

I think too often schools over-focus on one of those areas to the detriment of the others. It may be that a school works on team building to develop the motivation of its staff, but neglects to look at the pedagogical skills that are needed to teach good lessons. I’m sure you can think of your own examples where schools work too hard on one of those qualities while the other three are going down the pan.

As individuals we all have our different strengths and for me my subject knowledge has been strong whereas my pedagogical skills have been developed thanks to the grace, patience and expertise of a whole host of teachers I have worked with over the years. I’ve never really considered that a lack of motivation or indeed confidence would affect me, although I have seen how it has affected others over the years.

But as I reflect on the reasons for my necessary ending at my previous job, I realise that I had lost some confidence. As I began to receive both public and private criticism of my practice I found that I worked harder to fix the problems which had been identified. But the criticisms didn’t go away, my confidence did instead.

One example is a lesson observation that I knew was coming up on a Monday morning. I’ve been observed many times, but never under such criticism and I found that I worried about the lesson all weekend: planning and re-planning what I would do, unable to focus on the things we were doing as a family and losing sleep.

When the two observers came into the room on Monday, I found that any confidence in my ability to do a good lesson just drained away. Some elements of the lesson went well, some didn’t and the external criticism increased. As my confidence decreased I found that in turn it affected my motivation. I was not looking forward to the school day and I was not enjoying the interactions with the children or my colleagues as much as I once had. Seeing the people who were observing me just in passing around school made me feel physically sick, so I did my best to avoid any interactions with them.

In short, whether or not the original criticisms were deserved, by this point my confidence was so low that I was actually under-performing. Something had to change – another realisation that led to my Necessary Ending that I have written about so much recently.

Over the summer break I learned some things about regaining confidence. Now at a new job with my confidence firmly back in place and feeling motivated to get up and teach every day it’s time to write about some ways I’ve found handy to increase confidence. But they’ll have to wait for another day.

Lessons learned #5: You don’t achieve consistency through consistency.

One of the criticisms that Ofsted had for us last June was that we had a lack of consistency.

So we revamped the marking policy and the presentation policy. We did a book scrutiny and a series of learning walks. We wrote up what we found and fed it back to staff as whole school feedback. Nothing changed.

Here’s something I’ve learned: whole school feedback does absolutely nothing. All it does is make the best teachers feel more guilty and therefore more stressed than they already are, and the teachers who need the most development don’t realise just how much development they need. So as a leader it may feel like you are giving the staff a consistent message, which surely must help increase consistency, but actually it’s doing just the opposite.

That wasn’t entirely a revelation for me, as it was the kind of thing I knew in principle, but living and breathing the reality of needing to make rapid changes in a few months really made me learn it.

Since then I have started an ongoing document for each staff teacher which encapsulates areas for development and actions to take around the teaching of mathematics. This has been great, because each teacher has their own needs – their own starting points – but each teacher also has two aims in terms of their quality of work: compliance and development.

Every school, every organisation, has their own set of non-negotiables to which their staff must comply. That is the first step to achieving consistency. Some people find this harder than others – my Achilles heel is my handwriting, which I can do well when I concentrate, but at the end of marking 90 books, if I’m not careful it does tend to drift towards the illegible. Achieving consistency is about giving the individual feedback to help each staff member become compliant with the non-negotiables. At my school, it’s not good telling all the staff to improve their handwriting in their marking,as that’s only a message that the select few need to hear.

Development is even more important than compliance. We all want to be the very best teacher we can be. Three things make us good teachers: subject knowledge, pedagogy and motivation, but we’re all strong in different areas. It’s the job of our senior leaders to identify the areas that we need to get better at and give us just the right guidance to become even better in each of those areas. And again, if you were to only work on subject knowledge for all staff, when behaviour management (part of pedagogy) was the issue, you would not be achieving consistency.

It’s been my job to raise standards in maths teaching across the school. I’ve done this by working inconsistently on compliance and development with different teachers, giving them individual written guidance to do so. We’re not there yet, but by feeding back inconsistently, I hope that I have increased consistency.