Classroom Confidence

By Liv Jarrett, Duke University ‘21, LiveGirl Intern

Some of the most frustrating moments in my life have been around situations where teachers have discredited me- my intelligence, my potential, my morals, my needs, my circumstances. A teacher should be someone whose mission every day when he or she goes into work each morning is to elevate. Elevate students to reach further, challenge themselves, and most importantly believe in their capability. I have had teachers who have exemplified this, and they have left a mark on my life that I will forever be grateful for. However, I have also had many unfortunate experiences of teachers who, consciously or not, have demeaned me. Instances such as teachers rolling their eyes at my opinions, opinions that they’ve asked for, sighing in response to a question, teachers who have grazed over my raised hand and called on solely my male peers. I have had teachers that enjoyed sharing a smirk or laugh with my male peers when one of my female peers spoke up, the same ones that made sure the boys always got the final say in class debates. I even had a teacher in one instance literally mock the words that came out of my mouth about an experience I had in a condescending voice, the same kind of childish voice siblings use to mock each other with to get on each other’s nerves. When that happened, I stood up for myself by writing a letter to my principle. I remain proud of myself for doing so, but nothing changed.

In these instances, I have felt powerless, voiceless against my teacher’s classroom-established authority and curiously cultivated superiority. These are strong emotions that scrape away at one's confidence until they leave wounds, sometimes deeper than a mere Band-Aid can fix, especially when they are reinforced repeatedly. They are highly impressionable feelings that can stay with a person for a long time. They’ve been hits to my confidence that years later I still am working on shaking off.  It has been a challenging journey to do so, but also one of the most important ones I’ve ever had to undertake. It may seem silly, but I am still convinced I am incompetent in math, even though looking back I took the highest level of math my high-school offered. That is how impactful these particular evoked emotions can be- even when the facts support the truth that I am not “bad” at math, I still, as I am writing this, have a difficult time fully believing it after years of being told I wasn’t good enough.  I don’t believe in lamenting on what could have been, but I do wonder, in what ways has that feeling of reinforced incompetence at such a young, vulnerable age translated to the formation of my own sense of capability and the limits I impose on myself?

Having to believe in myself when my teachers and counselors didn’t, did however, result in me accomplishing tremendous feats despite them. I was told over and over, I would never get into the college I wanted to go to, that it was a “HUGE” reach for me, that it would be a miracle if I was even deferred, that I needed to think smaller.  Sometimes people even threw in a scoff with their words for good measure. This persisted right up until the day early admission decisions were expected to be released. When I did get in, I was flooded by a wave of utterly shocked, poorly hidden reactions from the majority of people I told. In the days and months following my admittance I heard the whispers, “She only got in because 4 out of the 5 students that ED’d were guys- they had to accept a girl to look fair.” “That B**** stole your spot man.” “Her parents must have donated money.” Some of these whispers were not whispers at all, but made jokingly to my face, as if I would laugh back and agree with them to satisfy their own egos. For a while, I felt like I had to make excuses that discredited my qualification. I don’t know if I expected to finally be taken seriously or recognized by my peers and teachers as academically respectable when that college affirmed my right to be there, but that certainly wasn’t the case. A declaration from an admired school wasn’t strong enough to change their preconceived notions about me and my intelligence or legitimacy. I have a pretty compelling feeling, that this is something I will experience again and again throughout many different emerging aspects of my life and career. People are stubborn. They can be reluctant to encourage success out of fear for their own.  But I’ve discovered that in the long term, it doesn't come down to other people's expectations of you, only your expectations of yourself.

Even so, two years into college, I still sometimes find myself doubting whether or not I “deserve” to be there. In these moments, I remind myself that I got myself here- I did, me. Nobody can take that away from me, nor will I let them. I’ve shared this sentiment on campus before and the number of students who have expressed feeling the same way is grossly remarkable and devastating. We all deserve to be believed in, to be respected, to be encouraged and pushed, but unfairly, quite often the opposite happens, especially in school. When this happens, it is critical to believe in yourself and your aptitude, your talents, your resourcefulness, your resilience. Use these strengths to elevate yourself.  People, teachers, peers, will come in and out of your life- and they may try, they may try really hard to take your potential with them, but they can never succeed if you don’t let them. Believe in your smarts, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.