Confidence is a highly desirable attribute, in life and in learning. The magnetic illumination we sense around people with confidence is almost physical, while the feeling of being confident is exhilarating and empowering; an unstoppable force where there are no immovable objects.
Gaining or maintaining confidence is the tricky part of course. Whether it be a nagging inner voice which tells us we are not good enough, or past mistakes that have scarred us, or others’ judgements voiced without thought for the consequent impact, or even well intentioned praise which is twisted around, it can be difficult to gain the magnetism of a virtuous cycle.
Self-awareness can be double-edged, but critical in sustaining a resilient sense of our own identity and in valuing our own attributes, as well as those of others around us. Filtering the pseudo-perfect and finding the grittier reality allows us to gain traction and control.
It can seem murky and lonely, like staring up a darkened cliff-face from a seeming abyss, when the familiar crumbles or change swifts in with rug-pulling challenges, scattering our beliefs like iron filings. At such times it is understandable that we might hide, avoid, fall silent, excuse, flee, lash out; but in order to climb back into the light and re-forge our beliefs, we must take a risk, take on the challenge, find or re-polarise our magnets: our sense of self.
I am confident. I say it and therefore I am. My inner voice is very nice to me; it didn’t use to be, so I sacked it years ago and hired one of my own choosing. I am in no way remotely perfect, yet experience has taught me what I can achieve when I set my mind to it.
How startling it was then, ten months ago, when I confidently sat down one Sunday morning in January to write model reading answers for the new English Language GCSE. I had marked my Upper Fifth’s papers, had seen and understood the mark scheme, had had time to let the source material sink in. I had one hour, a pen and paper. I had my experience and my confidence, as a student but also as a teacher. There were four questions, with 40 marks distributed unevenly towards the latter questions. I expected almost full marks.
As time ticked inexorably on, I began to realise that I had seriously misjudged things. Each question seemed to require far longer than I could afford to give it, yet my experience told me I had to stay calm and see each point through properly, otherwise it would be wasted. At every pause there came a fresh wave of rising panic, a rush of blood, a prickling of the skin, a sense of things unravelling. Not since an A Level Biology examination some 21 years ago had I expected so much and delivered so little. I was being harsh on myself of course, but I had effectively failed; I had only answered three questions in over an hour and needed at least 25 minutes more for question 4. My ambition, my confidence, my sense of self were being threatened.
I would not accept it.
This was not a real examination. I could re-write my answers, learn, adapt, cut back, speed up. I had a coffee break and started again. 75 minutes later I had something like I had expected the first time around, with the benefit of having learned from a mistake. I shared the experience with my Upper Fifth. I think they appreciated the honesty. My message to them was to take confidence that we all learn to adapt, that with practise comes improvement and to repeat my advice that mocks are so valuable as long as you give it everything you have at that point.
It has been said that we learn best by teaching, something I tend to agree with. I decided to take it a step further: we learn best when there is motivation. For me that motivation involved a risk, one which would sharpen my own learning and therefore my teaching and consequently my students’ learning. I entered myself for the actual public examinations in June.
I was called “a brave man.” If I was expected to gain the highest grade, what was there other than the risk of failure? To me, it was a principle: if I expected my students to do it, and yet I was not confident that I could do it myself, I needed to regain that confidence. With greater risk came greater motivation and from that the ‘confidence trick’. I believed I could do it, I worked towards it, I practised. I sat the examinations in real conditions and experienced again all those sensations felt by teenagers across the country. I walked out knowing I had done my best, had stuck at it when the going had got tough, had stayed calm and strategic.
Regardless of any outcome, I was proud of myself because I had not hidden, but had played my trick and forged ahead, feeling the dynamism energise me as I did so. 21 years ago I entered an examination expecting to gain the highest grade, having worked for it, and the wheels came off. 6 months later I re-sat the paper, dealt with the pressure and gained the grade I wanted. That was the start of my belief that I could do anything if I applied myself to it; my ‘confidence trick’. 21 years later I have revitalised that trick. It would be easy to make light of what I did, or to dismiss it, but that would be to rob me of my confidence, to doubt, to criticise, to put obstacles in front of something so hard won and so easily lost: confidence.
I often talk about confidence with students and parents and it is something I seek to nurture. Our school is a brilliant environment, where the girls really do grow visibly in confidence over the years, albeit not without bumps along the road. All I really want is for our students to be confident enough to dare to be the best them they can be on any given day.
So, look out for opportunities to build confidence, be kind to yourselves and each-other, feel able to take some risks and become unstoppable forces.