by Jen McCarty Plucker

Cultivate Confidence to Promote Motivation

Recently I decided that I was going to commit to beginning each day with yoga. My work-from-home body was telling me I really needed to start my day by getting my body moving and stretching. So, I searched through my Amazon Prime account for a program and found one advertised as Yoga for Beginners. I got my best yoga gear on, grabbed my mat and water, and set out to stretch and relax. Unfortunately, my virtual yoga instructor didn’t really understand what kind of beginner I was. She quickly moved us through the many, many, yoga moves without talking us through how to do each one. And for someone like me, who does not have yoga vocabulary, it was a challenge to flow through moves like Downward Dog, Triangle, Warrior, and Threading the Needle while trying to figure out what she meant. After two sessions, I felt completely incompetent and so, naturally, I quit. I found myself returning to the exercise I felt most confident doing—walking/hiking. This, however, did not solve my tight back and shoulder issues from sitting at my computer so many hours each day.

Simultaneously, my best friend and I are both navigating supporting our adolescent-aged children who are struggling to be motivated. It is easy to chalk it up as a symptom of the pandemic, but the more I reflect on what we are hearing from our kids and my recent yoga experience, the more I believe a root cause of motivation shut down is a lack of confidence. Nobody likes to feel incompetent. And we especially don’t like it if we are in the presence of experts. So naturally, we may avoid or quit altogether. As we plan ahead to summer programming and the 2021-22 school year, let’s consider the confidence level of students entering our classrooms. How might we create conditions that foster confidence which in turn lead to enthusiasm, persistence, and accelerated learning? Here are a few considerations for cultivating confidence in our classrooms.

Show students our own struggles with confidence.

We know how important modeling is in teaching. We also have to model that our confidence wavers as we go through the hard work of our own learning. When I was in my doctoral program, I remember feeling so insecure. I was struggling to comprehend my statistics textbook. I did not understand how I was supposed to do quantitative research as an English teacher. I recall looking around at my cohort colleagues thinking I was not competent enough to do this work. I thought about quitting. I brought my textbook to my sophomore English class and shared with my students that I was really struggling to read and learn this. Math had never really been my favorite class and I didn’t feel like I could do this class. I shared my experiences with my students so they would know that comprehending is situational. At times we are able to breeze through what we are reading and learning because we have experience and background knowledge. I like to think of this as our Velcro. It makes new learning stick to what we already know. Other times, we must slowly work our way through because we do not have enough Velcro to which the new learning can attach. Sometimes, however, the text is so outside our background knowledge and experience that comprehension is completely out of reach. This was the case for me.

Start where they are.

We have to remember that as experts in our disciplines, we can sometimes forget what it is like to be a novice. We also have to help our students know that everyone starts at the beginning when learning something new. I shared with my students that I decided not to quit my Statistics and Quantitative Research class. Instead, I went to our statistics teacher at our high school and had him help me get started. I found the experience meeting with this teacher intimidating because I didn’t speak the language he was speaking. I felt dumb. I was honest with him that I just couldn’t understand his explanations. He suggested I bring my questions to his class and ask students to help me because they were closer to me in their learning process and might be able to put explanations in words I could comprehend. This worked. They had more recently been in a beginner position and could better see where I was to help me get to my next level of understanding so I could keep going. They even offered to help me design my quantitative study. A bonus for the statistics teacher as it afforded his students an opportunity for an authentic project. These students were able to see my beginning. Sometimes as experts in a subject, we forget what it is like to start without that Velcro. Once the students were able to help me learn statistics in novice terms, I could better go back to the statistics textbook, my professor’s lectures, and my homework to do the more advanced work.

I, too, want to help my students feel confident not only in navigating challenging texts, but also in sharing when text is challenging. And I don’t want them to feel like they are not smart. Sharing our experiences helps our students see that absolutely everyone faces times when learning is hard. A bonus from this experience is that students were able to see that persistence is so important in the learning process. We have to keep trying. Having experienced being a novice statistician helped me remember where my novice readers are at, and to start where they are instead of making assumptions about what they should already know.

Comma “yet.”

Our language matters. Whenever we feel like we can’t do something, we can add a comma and the word “yet.” We can’t do said task, yet. This provides a frame for learning. I can’t do statistics, yet. I don’t see how quantitative research fits English/Language arts, yet. I can’t do yoga, yet. This tells our students that we believe they can.

They can because they think they can.

When we challenge our students to buy into the power of yet, we build their self-efficacy so they can take on this wisdom from Roman poet Virgil, that is also the title of an Educational Leadership article by Richard Vacca. I return to this over and over to help guide my own teaching and learning. This requires more than simply telling students “I believe in you,” or “You can do this.” Those phrases are important, but to truly build confidence, we need to create conditions to convince students of their capabilities. One simple way to do this is to welcome student questions. When I was coaching a social studies teacher to focus on questions more than answers, she decided she would ask students to record their questions as they read a chapter in the textbook instead of assigning a study guide with questions she created. What resulted was students saw that it was ok to not understand what you are reading when you first dive in, but it also created curiosity and gave this teacher a starting point for direct instruction. She took student questions and provided more texts to help them answer their own questions. When it came time for the chapter exam, students were far more successful. Success breeds confidence, which in turn improves motivation.

So, for me, I made it through my statistics course, ended up using a quantitative methodology in my dissertation, and felt completely confident discussing my statistical analysis at my defense. I have high schoolers to thank for their patience in helping me build my own confidence. I did abandon the yoga program I found, but I didn’t abandon my goal to start my day by getting my body moving. Instead of quitting my commitment to an exercise program, I adjusted. I did some research and found a low-impact 8-week program for beginners like me. It’s not yoga—it’s a strength training program—but I appreciate the instructor’s gift for starting where I am and working to take me as far as I can go. While I can’t do yoga, YET, I am feeling more and more confident that I will find the right instructor and program to build my yoga confidence in time.

Jen McCarty Plucker
AboutJen McCarty Plucker
Jen McCarty Plucker, Ed.D., lead literacy consultant for Mackin Learning has more than 20 years experience in public education. First, as a middle school English and speech teacher, then High School English, Speech, and Literacy Intervention teacher. She spent 5 years at the district leadership level integrating inquiry, project based learning, and rich classroom libraries across secondary English, social studies, and science. She is most energized when seeing learners of all ages engaged...totally in their zone.
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