Saturday, February 2, 2013



Imagine you're about to step in front of thirty adolescents you have never met before. You are stepping in as a substitute teacher, and you know nothing about them except that their teacher is out sick today. It's a Friday and the day before a vacation, so even that is up for debate. If you could have one of the following superpowers bestowed on you immediately before walking into the room, which would it be?
a) The ability to answer to any question a child might ask about the content
b) Intuition regarding where every child should be sitting
c) Instant knowledge of the school's discipline system
d) Knowledge of one personal fact about every student in the class
e) A perfect, photographic recall of the teacher's lesson plan
f) The ability to project self-assuredness and confidence

Go ahead and make your choice. Read the title of this post if you need a hint.

Let's play my favorite teaching game: What will go wrong? Let's go through the choices one by one, seeing what might go wrong in each case:

a) The ability to answer to any question a child might ask
Once kids discover this fact, they will use it to try to sidetrack you. I've seen plenty of subs get taken down this rabbit hole, and I've seen kids' eyes light up when they realize they won't have to do any actual work today because this teacher will continue to answer whatever off-topic question they can come up with.

b) Intuition regarding where every child should be sitting
Yes, but what will you do when they're not sitting there?

c) Instant knowledge of the school's discipline system
This one is tempting. Maybe this will lead to some sort of action. But I imagine the interaction going something like this:
You: Look, guys, I know about your referrals, and I'll do it!
Them: No, you won't.

d) Knowledge of one personal fact about every student in the class
Even more tempting! It's a personal connection, right? But in the crucial first three minutes of class, what are you going to do, start spreading everybody's business? Make eye contact and allude to that time they were at the mall and peed their pants? Drop the name of their favorite basketball player? This has a high chance of coming across as inauthentic at best, and creepy at worst. 

e) A perfect, photographic recall of the teacher's lesson plan
1. The teacher probably didn't put as much thought into the plans as you hoped they would.
2. Are kids going to listen to you? Will they follow your directions?

f) The ability to project self-assuredness and confidence
Bingo. Plenty could still go wrong, but you won't be run over. This is a huge win.

But why? Why is confidence such a big deal?

1. Confidence tells kids, especially kids you don't know: I know something you don't. Otherwise, where is this confidence coming from? Are you really good at your job? Kids like teachers who are good at their jobs, because it means they learn more, they get more respect, and they generally have more fun enjoying learning when they're with these teachers.

2. Confidence means you don't take it personally, or doubt yourself, when kids push the limit of what is acceptable. Unflappable calm is a positive side effect (or, in this case, side affect) of confidence.

3. When you are confident, things will still go wrong, but they will not spiral out of control. Consider the opposite: If you publicly doubt your ability to keep the class together, and things start to go wrong (which they will), it will be nearly impossible to bring things back together.

I chose the substitute scenario because this is the most extreme case I can think of: How you present yourself in the moment can make the difference between kids walking out of the class and kids actually (maybe) learning something. But this applies to classroom teachers as well. I'll leave out the other connections to dating, dancing, and other stressful performance scenarios and focus on teaching here.

How to build confidence

This is not Orin.
1. Mindset. Orin G, director of the MATCH Teacher Residency, encourages rookie teachers to adopt the personality of a historical badass, chosen from Ben Thompson's Badass series. When stepping into an unpredictable arena, just feeling that you're in charge is a big deal. Some of you veteran teachers may be reading this and rolling your eyes, but remember what it's like to step into a classroom for the first time: You didn't know what you know now, and, even if you did, you weren't able to project it in the right way.

2. Teacher moves. There are some teacher moves that simply exude confidence, Strong Voice being at the top of the list. From there, Do It Again and clarity about What To Do can go a long way. Think Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer.

"OMG you're treating kids like dogs!?!" - Says somebody who has never told a 4-year-old to get down from the table.

3. Successful practice. You will become more confident the more you practice exactly what you're going to do. See Practice Perfect for more on this; basically, the more you do something right, the more you believe in your ability to do it right.

4. The 20 Mile March. Jim Collins, in his latest book Great by Choice, talks about companies (the "10X" companies) that achieve more than their competitors in volatile business environments, and likens their fanatic discipline to Road Amundsen's strategy for reaching the south pole in 1911: On the best days and the worst days alike, march between 15 and 20 miles. Do not overextend yourself in good conditions, and do not allow yourself to fall behind in poor conditions. For businesses, this means putting both a floor and a ceiling on goals: Do not do more than you are able to sustain over the long haul.

For rookie teachers, this means rolling out exactly one new routine a week, and seeing success with it. It means mastering one small teacher move every time you meet with your coach. It means setting student achievement goals that are not too ambitious, that don't require you to sprint full speed ahead when you have the time, because soon you won't have the time and you won't know how to compensate.

From Collins:
Accomplishing a 20 Mile March, consistently, in good times and bad, builds confidence. Tangible achievement in the face of adversity reinforces the 10X perspective: we are ultimately responsible for improving performance. We never blame circumstance; we never blame the environment.

Confidence is not arrogance

Sure, confidence includes a measure of acknowledging when things have gone wrong, and the ability to tell kids that your first direction was not as clear as it had been. But most importantly, confidence comes from a systematic process of preparing for the worst. In the classroom, you've already thought of the ways that kids will try to get out of doing work. Instructionally, you've thought through the ways they will misunderstand the concept you're teaching. You have anticipated every question and every misconception and every diversionary tactic, so when they arise, you're not caught off guard. Roald Amundsen took four thermometers for a key altitude-measurement device on his trip to the south pole, in case one of them (or three of them) broke. He left himself four times the necessary provisions along the way, in case things went wrong. In the ultimate badass move, in his youth, he experimented with eating raw dolphin meat, because, if he were to ever find himself shipwrecked, he wanted to know if he could survive by eating dolphins. Amundsen was the first man to reach the south pole, but it was not because he blindly believed in his own abilities; he had prepared for the worst in every possible way.

Most great teachers I know, starting with our principal, Rebecca, are fanatical about preparing for the worst. Like a lot of great teachers, Rebecca balances the wholehearted belief in the good inherent in each child with the understanding that adolescents try to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. She likes to ask about all of the ways in which something could go wrong with any of my harebrained schemes I come up with for our school:
  • What if kids don't have their homework?
  • What if they don't turn it in?
  • What if they're at the doctor's office?
  • What if they were absent yesterday?
  • What if they arrive late?
  • What if a teacher forgets to check homework?
  • What if a key person is absent? What is the backup plan?
  • What about this plan will make parents most upset? How do we proactively communicate?
  • How much time will this take away from teachers? How can we lighten the load?
  • What are all the ways this could be misconstrued by kids and parents?
  • How will this affect our existing systems? What are the negative effects we'll need to mitigate?

Note that none of this is hypothetical; it's all phrased as what will happen, because if we don't assume that these things will go wrong, we will likely fail to plan for them. 

Final thoughts

Finally, two examples from chess may help to clarify the duality of confidence and pessimism.

First, Magnus Carlsen, a 22-year-old Norwegian player who is the highest-rated chess player of all time, in an interview for the Financial Times:

“Self-confidence is very important. If you don’t think you can win, you will take cowardly decisions in the crucial moments, out of sheer respect for your opponent. You see the opportunity but also greater limitations than you should. I have always believed in what I do on the chessboard, even when I had no objective reason to. It is better to overestimate your prospects than underestimate them.”

Contrast this with Paul Tough's assertion that the best chess players are pessimists who assume that a given move won't work, and actively try to find all the ways this particular move will lead to their own defeat. 

So in the end, we're left with confidence about the big things, and a neurotic obsession with the details of the small things. I will win this game, but this move will probably keep me from meeting that goal if I'm not careful. I will reach the south pole, but I will probably hit dozens of freak storms along the way. I will teach this classroom full of kids, but not before several of them try to keep me from reaching this goal along the way, and not before half of them misunderstand the key idea behind what we're doing. Now think through all of those things that will go wrong, prepare for them the best you can, do one small thing well and feel good about it, and, in terms of confidence, fake it 'til you make it.

1 comment:

  1. It's like stockdale's paradox. Optimism about your eventual triumph with and unsentimental evaluation of the challenges of your current situation. Told you I'd comment!