“Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility.
I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
You do the work, get your observation hours, complete student teaching, get your degree and land your first job. You have the training, credentials, experience and potential to be a great teacher. Yet, when it comes to your abilities, you don’t want to appear too confident.
People want to follow confident leaders! Parents and communities are trusting us with their most prized possessions — their children. We have to be able to look parents, administrators and other stakeholders in the eye and say, “I am the right person for the job. I may not be perfect, but I have the skillset that will ensure your students’ safety and education. I work hard, and I’m more than capable of taking on this role.”
Simple and straightforward, right?
Apparently not, because I have noticed a shift in confidence in both younger and experienced educators. These educators are hard-working, well-qualified and talented. However, their confidence in their abilities has taken a hit for various reasons. We cannot control the expectations or criticism that society may have on teaching. Yet, we can take some steps to make sure that we are not standing in our own way. In other words, we must take measures to maintain our confidence, build a little more belief in ourselves and even be arrogant when the job calls for it.
I learned these lessons the hard way.
Let’s start with a pet peeve of mine: self-deprecation. To me, this is the opposite of confidence. I despise when people make fun of themselves and cloak it in humor. I am generally an optimistic person, but I know that there are enough people and situations in the world that will knock you down. And when you start making fun of yourself, you have joined those ranks.
Negative self-talk can be insidious. There’s a time and place for poking a little bit of fun at yourself, but I’m talking about those who do this multiple times each day. Most of the time, they’re trying to be funny, but they could also want to appear agreeable or may use self-deprecation as a defense mechanism.
But remember my second lesson above — we believe most of what we think. When we start thinking or talking a specific way about ourselves, we’ll risk believing it.
It’s a very short distance from “I can’t believe I was so dumb to do this” to “Maybe I can’t handle this career.”
Try this exercise. The next time you have a negative thought about yourself, pretend that you’ve said it out loud in front of someone who wholeheartedly agrees with your unnecessarily negative thought. Think about how offended you might be.
“You sure can be!”
“Absolutely — you ARE a failure at this!”
What’s the lesson here? If you tell people how many mistakes you make and how you have no business leading a classroom, they will believe you.
On the flip side, if you show that you have confidence in your abilities to lead a group of students but that you need help with some organization, people will believe you.
I’m not suggesting being overconfident. After all, we all have things that we need to work on. But why make things harder? Convincing yourself or others that you are not good at something creates unnecessary barriers and challenges.
Have you ever thought, “I’m the worst at this.” Are you really? Probably not.
And if you are, that’s awesome because you’ll feel great every time you show some improvement. Embrace opportunities for progress — sometimes you’ll master something quickly and other times, your learning curve will be steep. It’s important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and make adjustments to routines accordingly. For example, if you aren’t great at tracking student paperwork for competitions, put weekly reminders in your calendar or delegate this task to a parent or student leader.
How can you expect others to support you if you don’t support yourself?
“Thank you” is a complete sentence.
Why are we so quick to disregard positive feedback for something we worked hard for and put so much time and resources into?
How often have you been told “Job well done” or “Great work” after a concert or event, and you immediately give the credit to everyone else (or the ever-popular, “The kids worked so hard!”)?
Yes, the kids did work hard, as did the district that supports the programs financially and morally. Newsflash – so did you! Your time and work came at the cost of degrees, professional development, time and money — just like everyone else.
“Mr. Stinson, the band sounded great today! What a wonderful concert!”
“Thank you! I really appreciate that!” (Is this so hard to say?)
Obviously, give credit where credit is due, but don’t deny someone the desire to show appreciation for you and your work.
When we think we are “the worst” at something, many of us aren’t satisfied until we’re “the best” at that particular task. I’m going to say something that might surprise you (and me): Work to be the best at some things, but it’s OK to simply be good enough in other areas.
You also don’t have to get better at everything. If you’re a competitive person, this will be extremely challenging. Raise your hand if you’ve worked hard at a skill just to prove a point to someone and later realized that you didn’t even want to personally build that skill. Admittedly, I’ve done this a few times before I realized that I was being driven by rivalry rather than self-improvement. Make sure that your priorities are your priorities, and not just something to prove to someone else who isn’t paying your bills.
I wish I could tell you that it’s easy to just stop thinking negative thoughts! It’s like telling someone who’s angry to calm down. Has someone red in the face ever said, “You’re right. I’ll calm down”? No!
Here’s another exercise. Take an inventory of your strengths, weaknesses and personal characteristics. Rank or categorize them in whatever system you prefer: pros and cons, from 1 to 5, green-yellow-red lights, etc.
In my case, I label my strengths as “green lights.” These are the things that I am naturally good at or worked incredibly hard at. Traits and characteristics in the green category would include connecting with students, writing, playing my instrument, project management and consistency.
My “yellow lights” category contains items that I’m good at but that require work and can fall by the wayside if I don’t pay consistent attention to them, such as fitness, eating well and personal organization. I may fail at these things once or twice a year, requiring me to reset or adjust.
I need to work on “red lights” things, which can be perceived as weaknesses. My current red lights are avoiding conflict, not focusing during conversations, too much screen time and not getting enough sleep.
It’s important to note that a red light item can be promoted to be a yellow light, but a yellow light item can also be quickly demoted to be a red light if I’m not careful. That being said, this list will change over time. The more you deal with something, the more confidence you will have to handle future occurrences.
For example, let’s say you need to tackle a large project. A beginner teacher’s initial thought might be “I can do this.” The mid- to later-stage educator might think “this project needs to be done.”
I had a colleague who sponsored the school prom. She did this job for nearly 10 years, and at two different schools! Every year, the prom went off without a hitch. Venues were secured, tickets were sold, transportation was booked, volunteers were scheduled, food was catered, the DJ was booked, etc. When something went wrong, she would say, “OK, time to adjust.” She called in favors or just did the job herself. The kids had a great experience and didn’t have to worry about how much work went into this.
Why was my prom-planning colleague so confident? Because she had done the job many times before, and there were very few surprises left. At one point, she was a new teacher sponsoring the prom, and she had to deal with last-minute cancelations, including a venue change one week before the dance. She had no guidance, no project binder to refer to and barely any budget. It took her about a week to recover from her first prom. But she stuck with it and was able to come in with a more detailed action plan every year.
Yes, she still gets upset and frustrated, but this does not stop her from finding a solution to the problems that come up. Furthermore, she goes into these events expecting some issues to happen. She is mentally prepared to address surprises and solve problems. If nothing happens, that’s a bonus! Nothing is perfect, and when we expect perfection, we can easily go into a downward spiral that isn’t good for anyone. Things happen, and we can choose to either react or leave it alone.
You might be thinking, “I’ll never chaperone prom!” But if you’re a music teacher, make sure to translate the above statement to every concert, marching band festival and field trip. Some of us are doing the equivalent of three or four proms a year! The up side of this is that there is so much experience packed into one year that you’ll have no choice but to be confident!
Sometimes we need a pick-me-up. This is important, but make sure you go to the correct people. For small issues, it’s fine to vent to a couple of friends. You may have a great relationship with your supervisor, who may be open to listening to you, but I would not make this a habit. As previously stated, you don’t want to persuade someone — especially one who can affect your job — that you’re dealing with some self-doubt about your job.
We all go through rough patches, so treat them as speed bumps or detours, but avoid convincing someone else that this is a roadblock for you.
Arrogance is exaggerating your own worth or abilities. To me, arrogance is the complete opposite of self-deprecation. If negative self-talk can convince you that you aren’t as good as you really are, then perhaps you can use arrogance as a tool to become better than you currently are. Some of my best growth has been from being strategically arrogant.
I don’t practice the type of arrogance that comes from talking down to others. Instead, I hype myself up. In fact, the more absurd and irrational I can make my thoughts going into a stressful situation, the more I lighten up and actually perform better.
True story: I started teaching at a school that had a very high-performance reputation. I spent hours lesson planning, and the students ate everything up and asked for more. They’d even email me outside of school hours with content-related questions or thoughts on the music we were playing. A teacher’s dream, right? Of course, I enjoyed this situation, but the stress and self-doubt were starting to take over. Thoughts like “Am I really the person for this specific job?” and “I can barely stay one step ahead of these kids — what happens if they find out how hard I have to work for this?” crept into my mind.
I was spiraling fast as our first concert approached. Not only did I have to prove to the kids that I knew what I was talking about, but their parents as well. I never stopped working hard to prepare myself and the kids, but my stomach was in knots over my self-doubt.
Two hours before the concert, I made sure the kids were supervised, and I went to our backstage area to decompress and ended up watching one of my favorite videos, Gustavo Dudamel conducting the New World Symphony for the Pope.
Here’s a window into my mind and thoughts as I watched the video. Hmmm, I bet Gustavo Dudamel worked pretty hard for this performance. You know who else has worked hard for a performance? Me! What if someone records this school performance with me conducting, and puts it on YouTube, and then that video gets shared a bunch of times, and in another part of the world, Gustavo Dudamel is nervously getting ready for a performance and goes backstage to decompress and watches a YouTube video, and he sees me! He thinks, “Wow, this guy looks like he works hard! I’m going to take a few conducting tips from him tonight!”*
So, that’s how I got through my first concert. Yes, I worked really hard, but I combined this with my duty to make sure that Gustavo was not nervous for his performance. I was Maestro Dudamel’s only hope (just like Obi-Wan Kenobi, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole!).
I grew up an hour outside of Chicago in the ‘90s, during the Chicago Bulls’ six championships. A lot of my childhood was spent adoring the starting lineup of the Bulls and despising any team that wasn’t them. A famous opponent of the Bulls was Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns. In a controversial Nike ad from 1993, Barkley famously stated that he was not a role model. People can debate whether professional athletes are role models, but everyone agrees that teachers are.
People look to role models and leaders for guidance. Some may look for leaders to take on what they cannot or will not take on themselves. Others are capable of what we do, but simply do not have the time. We don’t always expect perfection from our leaders, but we do expect confidence and capability.
As educators, we sometimes have doubts about our abilities. We fear risk and the unknown just as much as everyone else. We make mistakes and may even fail … hard. But we must manage our fears, embrace the challenges thrown our way and come out stronger on the other side. And even when we mess up, people still follow us because we are confident leaders and have their best interests at heart.