The Confidence Conundrum

11025712_10102531285889658_8337106593222034264_nby Rachel Klein

I spend a lot of time in my kitchen, as any food-obsessed person might be expected to do. When I’m not snagging a spicy pickle from the fridge or popping a prune in my mouth, I’m trying a new iteration of a favorite dish, tweaking a tried and true recipe, or experimenting with a brand new concoction. I’ve spent so much time in my kitchen that I’ve gained quite a bit of confidence about my skills. A lot of the time, this confidence produces balanced plates and harmonious flavors.

Occasionally though, I’ll burn the marinara. Face, meet palm.

For me, this type of face-palm behavior stems from too much confidence, from a line of thinking that “even beginner cooks can make a basic marinara.” I’m no rookie, so watch me finesse the hell out of this sauce, I think. A person with a healthy amount of confidence knows to budget time and prioritize tasks in the kitchen, which results in heavenly marinara, just-right pasta noodles, and a perfectly succulent piece of chicken. But sometimes, if I don’t put enough time and thought into even the simplest of recipes, I’ll go and burn the marinara, and what was once the heart of a classic dish is now the reason why the dish has fallen apart.

Previously, I wrote about being a lifelong learner, and why I value it so much. I spoke about the importance of learning, even if it comes from normal daily experiences or interactions. There’s a good chance that a lot of my non-academic learning experiences are food-related, and it seems to be a theme in my life. Often, I try to apply my own learning to my classroom, always seeking out a nugget of truth that can inform my practice. This tragic marinara tale is one of these experiences from which I’ve drawn inspiration.

As teachers, we are the cheerleaders in the classroom, encouraging our students to celebrate success and be confident about their abilities. We push them to demonstrate a multitude of qualities that, when put together just right, create a balanced and harmonious product. However, when one part of the recipe for success is lacking, underdeveloped, or totally left out, the outcome falls flat. It tastes bad. It gets burnt.

Student success is much like a recipe, consisting of many important ingredients. Adaptable chefs rise to the occasion deftly and figure out a substitution if they’re out of a certain ingredient. However, even the best chefs know that there are some ingredients that simply cannot be replaced or substituted, lest they botch the whole recipe. Adaptable teachers look at a student’s “ingredient list” and determine what they can do to provide supports to fill in the gaps. But, just like with cooking, certain ingredients (or qualities) in too large or small a quantity can ruin the whole recipe. Confidence is one such ingredient that can make a break a student’s success.

A student needs confidence in the classroom so that when they make mistakes, they can bounce back and learn from them. They need confidence so that they can open their mind to a learning task. Confidence allows students to believe in themselves. Yet a student with too little confidence may come to the classroom defeated before a learning task is even presented. They may not have the open mindset to see mistakes objectively and grow from them. Conversely, a student with too much confidence may think that they don’t have to pay attention because they believe that they already know how to do something. As a result, they may fail a test.

Or, in my case, burn the marinara.

So how do we prevent arrogance or apprehension from spoiling a student’s “success recipe”? How do teachers prevent our own expectations for the desired outcome from ruining the dish? We must foster just enough confidence that our students remain humble in their pursuit of knowledge and growth. We must remember that our own classrooms are test kitchens, and that if we don’t want to “burn the marinara” ourselves, we must be just confident enough in our practice that we, too, remain humble. We must constantly adapt the parts that make up the whole and accept when a substitution doesn’t work. Piece by piece, stir by stir, we demonstrate to our students how to use just the right amount of confidence.

An old chef’s tale suggests that when you throw cooked spaghetti at a wall and it sticks, it’s done to perfection. Sure, we shouldn’t throw our students to find out if they’ve properly mastered a skill or concept, but I can say with confidence that when a student learns just the right amount of confidence, plenty of things will stick.  

If I am always seeking to improve my craft, and if I am always seeking new knowledge, then I must become masterful at blending the two. I am learning that I can apply what I learn from my own experiences and translate them into important skills and lessons in the classroom. Humanizing and humbling myself before young minds sets examples for them and helps them to see that we’re all on different paths toward success in life. If I can do so with just the right amount of confidence, then hopefully my students will see how harmonious their own learning can be if they add the right ingredients. It doesn’t matter if we still burn the marinara every now and then. It’s what we do with the experience of burning it that really counts.