Tag Archives: Confidence

Unlocking the Power of Student Confidence

A Conflicting Gift

Before winter break I received an amazing gift. No, it wasn’t a teacher mug or Starbucks gift card, although I received several of those too. It was a heart felt thank-you letter from one of my students. I didn’t even place it in the “good feelings” file where I put things to read when I am feeling discouraged to remind myself why I teach. It currently stays right on my computer podium so that I re-read it often.

This is not the first time that I have gotten a student note of appreciation, but this one hit different. The student shared that they never believed they were good at math until this year. Part of me felt gratified for helping this student see what I see in them every day, but part of me felt very sad that none of their previous six elementary teachers had unlocked this student’s belief in themself.

My school has advanced math classes (which I do not teach), and I highly suspect that many of my students downgrade their mathematical self image based on the fact that they are not in advanced math. My classes are not remedial, just regular 6th grade math, but many students see this class as a negative academically, especially if they are highly successful in their other subjects. They believe that they are “bad at math” or in the “dumb class” (their words, not mine).

I was surprised because the student who wrote this heartfelt note is one of my stronger math students. They are not a struggling student at all. Many students in their particular class have much lower skills and number sense requiring extra support and re-teaching. But this student is attentive, a creative problem-solver, a leader with their group at whiteboards, and performs well on assessments. Honestly, they are easy to teach.

Developing Confidence

Middle and high school is a time when most students are constantly attempting to figure out themselves. It’s a time concentrated on activities such as sports, arts, or passions. Friendships are often centered around similar interests and goals. Students may not articulate it, but sub-consciously they are determining their strengths and weaknesses creating value in who they believe they are.

I believe that a critical part of my job is to teach kid’s confidence in who they are as a person. Maybe in math too, but definitely in how they see themselves. An integral part of growing into adulthood is developing a positive self-image. I refuse to accept students’ statements that they are “not good at math.” I reframe it to “you don’t know how to do this yet.” I cannot force students to love math as I do, but I reject any negative comments about themselves.

Academically self-image is a huge factor in how students perform in school, especially when it comes to math. So many students don’t see themselves as mathematicians. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Student struggles in math.
  • “I am a poor student.”
  • “I can’t do math.”
  • Lowers self-image.
  • Quits paying attention.
  • Quits doing practice work.
  • Fails next assessment.
  • Repeats cycle.

One of the most influential things that a teacher can do is to break this negative cycle and help students see that they can be successful. Of course one of the most powerful ways to do this is through the meaningful work of Project Based Learning. When students address real problems in their community, they begin to shift how they see themselves. They are motivated by work that is purposeful, instead of a worksheet. Students realize that they do have a voice and what they say matters, viewing themselves as powerful agents of change.

As students build their confidence, it leads to academic risk-taking, higher self-esteem, active goal-setting, and perseverance through struggles. They stop giving up easily but actively work through challenges. The self confidence of the SEL competency of Self-Awareness is the necessary first step toward self-efficacy. A student cannot be self-sufficient until they have a self belief in their abilities.

Building student confidence is hard work and takes time, effort, and building relationships with each student. It is probably unrealistic to expect to radically shift the confidence of every student in our classes, but we can nudge them incrementally on the spectrum toward self-belief.

How are you building confidence in your students? What meaningful work are they doing? How might PBL be the ideal framework for students to develop confidence on a path toward self-efficacy.

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how to use PBL to build your students’ confidence, I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

How Does PBL Build Confidence?

Low Self-Image

An important element of the Social Emotional Learning competency of Self-Awareness is confidence. Many students lack a strong sense of self. Middle and high school are a time when young people are trying to figure out who they are. It is a period of experimentation and discovery. Students may focus on sports, music, the arts, or something else that they are passionate about. Peer relationships and social status are incredibly important with social media oftentimes amplifying and publicizing what in the past may have been minor issues. Today’s students feel an increasing amount of stress in their lives.

When it comes to school, some students dedicate themselves to high achievement as they identify education as a path to future goals, while others opt out merely going through the motions of a compulsory education that they find irrelevant to their lives. Some kids are “mentally” dropped out of school. They still physically show up (most days) but are rarely engaged in learning and are just putting in their time to earn a diploma and escape. Some students who have struggled in the past have given up on ever being successful at school and are just trying to get by. As a math teacher, I often see kids who just want a passing grade so they can move on. They have such a poor self-image regarding the subject matter that they cannot fathom ever being successful at it.

PBL Shifts Mindsets

One of the powerful aspects of Project Based Learning is that it can challenge students’ perspectives of themselves. PBL places students in situations where they can grow their strengths and develop areas of weakness with teacher coaching and the support of their team. Once students view themselves as successful, the sky’s the limit for what they can tackle and achieve.

One summer my school had a group of Chinese middle schoolers visit in a student exchange program. They were challenged to design 6 foot tall trebuchets to launch watermelons. The boys immediately started enthusiastically designing and constructing their ideas.

I noticed a group of three girls who were on their phones, basically not doing anything. Now I have lived in China so have some cultural understanding of the situation. In order for any of these students to visit the US, they came from wealthy families. Labor is cheap in China, so these families would most likely pay someone else to do any kind of construction or repairs in their apartment rather than own tools and do it themselves. On top of that, gender roles would definitely not have Chinese girls building something with tools.

So I made it my goal to get this group of girls engaged with the project. I made small talk with them and then asked about what they were thinking in their design. I taught them how to use the power tools to build their ideas. The girls quickly got excited and tackled the project. I wish I had a picture of the girl shown drilling at the top of this post with the miter saw. Once I showed her how to use it, she became “saw girl” and wouldn’t let anyone else use it. The girls started taking pics and videos of themselves working and sending them back home even though it was the middle of the night in China.

These girls lacked confidence because they were being asked to do something totally out of their comfort zone and life experience. They needed some mentorship and scaffolding–I had to teach them how to operate power tools. Then they were full of enthusiasm as they built their trebuchet. Pride flowed in their smiles in the pics they sent to their families and friends. They went from apathy to engaged to proud of their work. That is the power of PBL. When students take on purposeful tasks they develop SEL and academic skills leading to confidence in themselves.

I have seen countless students build confidence through PBL. I have watched shy students, terrified to speak out in class, become school ambassadors eloquently leading tours to guests at our schools and proudly sharing their learning in public presentations. I have seen students who have previously struggled with reading and writing transform themselves to successful students through the literacy embedded in PBL. They are motivated to show off the findings of their projects, working tirelessly to present themselves professionally. Positive audience feedback on their high quality of work further builds confidence in who they are as learners.

Most importantly, students view themselves as change makers in the world with power and influence right now, not having to wait until they are adults to have a voice.

Let’s Connect

If you are interested in how your school can use a PBL framework to develop skills like confidence (and the rest of the SEL competencies too!) I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am scheduling PBL & SEL workshops for this summer right now. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.