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Why Won’t Our Students Speak Up?

It seems that our students are more anxious than ever, and can we blame them? The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped our world upside-down, and while we may have grown used to masking and social distancing in the classroom, and we may have become comfortable with the technology that allows us to shift to a virtual format at a moment’s notice, nothing about our current educational landscape feels normal. And yet our students are still facing the same, if not increased, pressures: the pressure to fit in, to support their families, to excel in extracurricular activities, to get into college, to earn scholarships, to succeed. It’s no wonder so many of them enter our classes afraid to open their mouths.

Image showing nervous students for post on boosting student confidence.

And it’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? To look out at that student who is so afraid of speaking up, whether they fear being wrong or are simply afraid of drawing any attention at all, and to know just how capable they are, and to feel a bit helpless. If only we could wave a magic wand and let them see themselves through our eyes, just for a moment, perhaps we could lessen their anxiety.

I don’t have any magic wands, unfortunately. (Though my son is pretty sure he has one — his current favorite activity is to cast Petrificus totalus on me. Don’t worry, it doesn’t get old, being stuck in place until he decides to unfreeze me, nope, not at all…) I do, however, have several techniques that work wonders for boosting student confidence. This post will be the first of a series on the topic, and by the end of the series, you’ll have twenty different ideas you can try to help your students feel more confident!

But before we begin, it’s important to take a moment to examine our own attitudes and beliefs. So, let’s dig in, shall we?

What Do We Really Believe About Our Students?

This, in my opinion, is the single most important element in the equation. Do we truly have confidence in them? What attitudes and beliefs are we carrying into the classroom? If we are confident in their ability to succeed, they’ll know, and our faith will inspire them. If we don’t, they’ll sense that too, and nothing else we do or say will be convincing.

What if, upon deep and honest reflection, you realize that you have some doubts? How can you address your own attitude? Here are a few ideas:

#1. Purge the Negativity

Take note of when, where, and how you talk about your students. Do you vent about them on social media? Commiserate with colleagues in the teachers’ lounge? If so, stop! Complaining and negativity nearly always breeds more complaining and negativity. If it’s hard to break the habit, try committing to just one week where you don’t publicly say a single bad thing about your students. Even better, see if you can share one positive story about them every day, whether on social media or face-to-face with your fellow teachers.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t acknowledge that teaching, like any job, can be rough. Really rough. Experiencing a range of emotions and admitting to that range of emotions is normal and healthy. And we all face situations in the classroom that challenge us. Sometimes we do need to share those experiences, whether simply to help ourselves process our own emotions or to reach out to someone else for help and support. That’s not the kind of discussion I’m referring to. Rather, I’m suggesting we try to break the habit of complaining for complaining’s sake, of venting rather than sincerely looking for help working through a difficult issue with a class or with a particular student.

#2. Seek out strengths

You’ve probably heard some variation of the saying “If you look for the good, you will find it.” Our goal is to find the good in our students, so a great place to start is simply by seeking it out. For each of your students, especially those who challenge you, try making a list of all of their positive characteristics. Maybe that disruptive student has a great sense of humor. Maybe the quiet student you barely hear from is exceptionally kind to their classmates. Whatever positive qualities you’ve noticed in them, however small they seem, write them down.

If you’re struggling, think of how you can reframe negative traits as positive qualities. Instead of seeing stubbornness, for example, see determination, grit, and tenacity. Making this list is a great way to train yourself to look for and find the good in your students, and the more you do it, the more you’ll feel your own attitude start to shift! You can even keep that list in your desk and read back through it if and when you start to feel those doubts creep back in.

Attitude in check? Awesome! We’re ready to take the next step and begin thinking about the techniques we can use to take our belief in our students and use it to inspire their own faith in themselves!

Four Areas to Address to Build Student Confidence

As I mentioned before, over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing a series of four posts with 20+ specific tips for boosting student confidence. I’ve divided these confidence-boosting techniques into four main categories, and in each of the upcoming posts in this series, I’ll break one those categories down into a list of specific ideas and techniques that you can implement. Today, I’ll simply give you a bird’s eye view of where we’ll be headed together over the next several posts.

Header image for Category #1: Cultivate a Welcoming Classroom Environment

1. Cultivate a Welcoming Classroom Environment

Confidence and comfort go hand-in-hand. In order for students to feel confident, they first have to know that the classroom is a safe place. Stress, confidence, and self-esteem are interrelated, so anything we can do to lower stress levels in the classroom will create the best possible conditions for boosting student confidence.

Header image for Category #2: Develop relationships

2. Develop Relationships

Remember that magic wand I joked about earlier? The one that would let students see themselves through our eyes? I was only half-right when I said that such a wand doesn’t exist. There is a way for students to catch a glimpse of how we see them: we can tell them! By building relationships with our students, not only do we gain the opportunity to talk to them explicitly about the strengths we see in them, but we are also implicitly communicating that we believe they are worth getting to know, and you never know how much that might mean to a student. 

Header Image for Category #3: Create Opportunities for Success

3. Create Opportunities for Success

Nothing breeds confidence like success. How better to prove that you are capable of doing something than by doing it? If we build opportunities for success into our classes, we will counteract those little voices inside our students’ heads that whisper “I can’t” with concrete proof that they can! 

Header image for Category #4: Create Opportunities for Success

4. Set Clear Expectations

Before students can begin to feel confident that they are capable of meeting our expectations, they have to be clear about just what those expectations are. Imagine visiting an archery range while blindfolded. How confident would you feel that you could hit the target if you couldn’t see it? Probably not very. The same is true for our students. If they can’t see the target they are aiming at—in other words, our expectations for them—how can we expect them to have confidence in their ability to hit the mark?

So, that’s an overview about where we’re headed and why. I can’t wait to dig deeper into student confidence with you!

In the meantime, take a moment to picture your most insecure student, the one who’s currently breaking your heart. Now visualize seeing that student with genuine pride on their face. There’s your why.

Don't miss the rest of this series!

If you want to hear all of the specific techniques I love using to increase student confidence, make sure to subscribe to my blog so you’ll get notified when each post comes out!

If you’re ready to jump right in, here is the second part of the series: 

6 Strategies for Creating a Comfortable Classroom Environment

Featured image for blog post on boosting student confidence