Inessa on Self-Confidence:

A couple of weeks ago I gave a test to my math class. Every lesson I give my students a short 20 min accumulative quiz on everything we have learned since the first lesson of the school year. Instead of teaching a topic, testing it, and putting it to rest, we, at Russian School of Mathematics, continue testing on old material along with the new throughout the entire school year. We call this spiral learning.

Since the beginning of the year, I only gave mean test results for the class as a whole, and did not announce individual scores. Usually I give a mean result for the group in my weaker classes. I do it in order to inspire children to compete with the material as a group. It works as a sort of “material vs. the class” competition. I can say: “ it’s very good guys, on average we comprehended everything by 85%. It’s a good thing for the whole class, now please look carefully at your score and decide if you need personal help.” Personal help is available at Russian School of Mathematics every Friday from 4 to 8.

This time around I decided to give students all their results in the open. It was already our seventeenth lesson, which marked almost half of the school year; we have 36 classes for the academic year. I felt that the students had become very comfortable with each other and comfortable enough with me to be challenged. I reached the point where I thought that unless I let them openly fail, it would be almost impossible for me to push them any further. Quite frankly, for some of them the motivation just was not there.

Things did not work out quite the way I planned. I received a very concerned letter from the mother of one of my students. We’ll call this student Jennifer. Jen’s mother was really upset with her daughter’s results and believed that announcing results to children in such a fashion was detrimental for her daughter’s self-confidence. The mother told me that our school and educational system was great for children who were already on the Harvard track. We probably would just make this process a bit smoother for them.

I was puzzled and hurt by this reaction. Where did I make a mistake? Was I wrong announcing results to the children? Should I have continued to hide individual performance behind the class mean? And finally, most importantly — did I inadvertently hurt my student’s self-confidence?

Jen’s mom believed that her daughter was not showing any progress in math. To make the situation worse it was the first time I sent results to the parents, and Jen’s mother was shocked — she did not know her normal results.  (The class consists of teenagers, and my strategy is to try to motivate them for half the year without their parent’s involvement — at this age they are usually fighting enough with their parents without my help.)

I did not agree with Jen’s mother’s assessment of the situation. I could see that the girl was making progress. Actually, Jen herself also believed that she was making progress. Even though she was upset with her results, she was less upset than her mother. Both Jen and I knew that she had become much more active in the class, was paying attention and was giving correct answers during the class work much more often than in the beginning of the year. But now Jennifer’s mother wanted to take her out of the school. At first Jennifer wanted to stay in the class, but she quickly saw an opportunity to escape the extra learning of math all together and decided to use the situation to quit Russian School of Mathematics.

I take the fate of my students personally. For me it was not just one of 4,000 students in my school who decided to leave. I am very passionate about every child’s math abilities, and I believe that the low level of math preparation affects a career choice, especially for girls. It does not need to be so — I don’t think that math is so difficult.

I decided to do everything in my power to resolve the situation. I talked to Jen, we looked together at her notebook and could trace how her learning skills were changing. We could see that she was gaining momentum. I told her that even with all of the positive signs, learning is a two-way street; to get better grades, Jen had to invest more in herself.

After that I asked Jen’s mother to meet with Jen and me. After a bit of back and forth between us via email, and after realizing that I was not taking a ‘no’ for an answer, Jen’s mother agreed to meet.

At the meeting I discussed with Jen’s mother the girl’s progress. I told her that she could quit Russian School of Mathematics, but she could not escape the situation. Her daughter had to be taught mathematics, and I felt that finally I was capable of doing just that, because now Jen had joined forces with me. The meeting ended well. All three of us decided that giving up was not the right choice. We decided to continue to fight together. What was I able to explain to Jen’s mother during our conversation that I could not explain in our email exchange?
I think that when Jennifer’s mother saw me, she believed me more. She saw a person who was deeply invested in her child. Behind a businesswoman, she saw a teacher and a mother.

Who was right? What did we learn? What is self-confidence? I believe that self-confidence starts with an honest assessment of your real situation and with belief in your ability to make progress and to improve it. A student, as any of us, needs to know where he stands, where he is going, and what he needs to do to get to his destination. The dictionary defines self-confidence as “belief in yourself and your abilities”. To me, such belief starts with a record of success. We as adults must help our children to build such a record. We can help our children to define a challenging goal, and to make a first step toward this goal. We can help them by believing in them. After all each one of us has the biggest competitor in ourselves. There is a Jewish story about a sage named Reb Zusha. He is famous for saying: “Almighty will not ask me why I was not like Abraham or Moses, He will ask me why I was not more like Zusha”.

Each of us has to live up to our own fullest potential. One way of doing this is by building our results and self-confidence one step at a time.

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