Projecting Confidence in the Classroom

As instructors, we probably all have an image in our minds of an ideal classroom. The atmosphere is orderly, but relaxed. Our students find us wise, yet open and approachable. During discussions, everyone is engaged and participates; when we lecture, the students are rapt and attentive. The reality is usually not so pretty. Students may talk while you lecture and fall silent when you pose a discussion question. You may feel awkward at the front of the classroom and fumble your way through the section meeting. An instructor’s ability to run a classroom effectively grows out of several sources, including preparation, experience, and the development of specific teaching skills, but it also comes from the instructor’s attitude. Your attitude sets the tone for the class, and if you can walk into the classroom feeling positive and self-assured, or at least seeming like you do, it will help you create that relaxed but orderly atmosphere in which students feel comfortable speaking up while you remain in control of the class.

The way that you express yourself in class can project confidence, or it can convey insecurity. Novice instructors may undermine their own credibility by persistently mentioning their lack of experience. If you tend to say things like: “I don’t know very much about this subject,” “I’m not really an expert in this,” or “I’ve never taught this before,” you should make a conscious effort to stop. It may well be true that you’ve never taught the material before and you’re not an expert—yet, but you should avoid deprecating yourself, because you’ll set low expectations for the course in your students’ minds. You’ll communicate to them that they shouldn’t expect to get much out of the class. Another way that instructors may unknowingly undercut their authority is by ending sentences with a rising intonation, in other words, by turning statements into questions. This makes it sound like you’re looking for confirmation or support for what you say. Your students may think, “Is she asking us or telling us?” Also, try to avoid apologizing for things that aren’t your fault. Find other ways to express sympathy or concern for students when there is a problem, instead of implicitly taking the blame onto yourself.

Almost every teacher, at one time or another, will feel unqualified or lack self-confidence. If you feel like an imposter or a fraud, like you aren’t good enough or smart enough to be teaching, try to keep in mind that you aren’t alone in those feelings. Your graduate program didn’t make a mistake in admitting you. As an academic-in-training, you are entitled to your authority in the classroom. You will make some mistakes (experienced teachers do too) and you have more to learn, about your subject matter and about teaching, but you do indeed belong in the classroom. If standing in front of the class makes you nervous, try to channel that nervousness into positive energy and enthusiasm. Use your nervous energy to interject liveliness into your presentation. Some instructors gain confidence from dressing up for class or having students address them with a formal title; others prefer a more casual style. There isn’t a right or wrong way. Do what makes you feel most comfortable.

Teaching is often described as a kind of performance. This doesn’t mean that you should pretend to be someone you’re not; students will probably be able to sense a fake personality. It also doesn’t mean that you need to show off your intellectual skills and demonstrate how smart you are all the time—that will just intimidate your students, and it puts the focus on you instead of on them and their learning. It does mean that you recognize that you need to play a role in the classroom as a leader; you need to present those aspects of your personality that best fill the role of instructor and help you fulfill your responsibilities as a TA. Try to put forward your most confident self when you’re teaching. Take a few minutes to mentally prepare before stepping into the classroom. Just as an actor would be sure to be “in character” before stepping onto the stage, pause to make sure that you are in an appropriate frame of mind—that you are in your assured, energized teacher mode—before class begins.