April 18th, 2012

Teaching with Confidence: Advice for New Faculty

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In the now classic article Confidence in the Classroom: Ten Maxims for New Teachers, author Jim Eison offers priceless advice for new teachers. Over the years, I have given hundreds of copies of this article to new and not-so-new faculty. Even though it was published more than 20 years ago, it still deserves a place in your collection of indispensible articles on college teaching.

The type of confidence Jim outlined in the article is not to be confused with arrogance—that overbearing pride that finds expression in classrooms where how much the teacher knows is regularly displayed and compared with how little the students know. Those overbearing types are not likely to be reading a blog like this so that’s not what’s on tap today.

We all know that effective teachers teach with confidence, but what makes Jim’s article so great is that he identifies the sources of that confidence. It starts with a clear-eyed examination of why you teach. For the money? Not likely, and not a sustaining reason. For the glory? Not likely. How many rich and famous college teachers do you know? For the students? Now there’s a more promising possibility. Because the future depends on people knowing what you teach? Another possibility with potential. There will be different reasons but they must be ones that energize the intellectual, emotional and physical demands of teaching. Teachers of any age will enter the class with confidence and poise if they are there for important reasons. It’s good to regularly revisit yours.

Helping New Faculty Thrive - Free Report

You teach with confidence when you know the ingredients and components of effective instruction—when you know what good teachers do. Good teaching is not a mystery; it isn’t a gift. It’s comprised of acquirable skills—meaning you can learn what the skills are and work to develop them. Research starting in the 30s has identified the ingredients or components of effective instruction with remarkable consistency. Jim’s article offers a neat summary of three: speak actively (be expressive and enthusiastic), teach actively (engage students, let your teaching be about their learning), and care actively (be concerned about your students; their lives and learning).

You teach with confidence when you are prepared—when you go to a course or a specific class with explicit goals in mind. You know what you want to accomplish and you’ve planned how that will happen. That doesn’t mean that you’re inflexibly married to the plan for the day. There should be digressions and unplanned opportunities for learning, but after they happen they can be folded into your larger course plan. Being prepared isn’t about perfection. Good teachers hold themselves to high, but achievable standards. You teach with confidence when you know you’ve done your homework, when you’ve prepared as intensely as you hope your students have. But you teach realistically; teachers tend to prepare more intensely than students.

You teach with confidence when you listen to what students have to say about your teaching and their learning. You aren’t making assumptions about what they know, you aren’t pontificating about what they should know, you are dealing with what they do know and building onto that what they need to know. Listening to students is not more important than listening to yourself. Confidence grows when you understand what’s happening in class. You and students both have a legitimate perspective on that. They can recommend changes; you decide whether they should be made. They can observe things about your teaching you may not see; you decide whether changing would make it easier for them to learn.

Teaching without confidence isn’t much fun. Things you don’t expect happen and you can’t explain why. That erodes your confidence further. Jim’s first maxim offers an old but effective remedy. If you want to feel confident, act confident. Yes, it’s an act. Yes, you aren’t really confident, but when you look and act like you are, guess what? Students start treating you as if you were and once that happens, guess what? You start feeling confident, start believing that you have reasons to be. Before you decide that couldn’t possibly work, give it a try.

Reference: Eison, J (1990). Confidence in the classroom: Ten maxims for new teachers. College Teaching, 38 (1), 21-25.