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Confidence Within Reach

Written by Joanna Manning.

As the crowd of parents and guardians assembled in the Commons for a morning meeting, they were invited to think about their middle school memories. The task was met with a few reluctant groans, but the grumbling quickly gave way to laughter as the adults recalled the various hijinks and humiliations of their early adolescence. Though most people looked back on their middle school years fondly, many of those memories were still colored by the confusion and awkwardness associated with the middle school years.

When CWA administrators and faculty think about how best to help Middle School students navigate the future, they are mindful that students still need help navigating the middle-school period itself, a stage of development that is marked by such rapid changes it can be disorienting at times. To support Tarriers in finding their way through Middle School, they focus on building students’ confidence by gradually increasing their responsibilities in a way that feels manageable.

Middle School Director Bill Schuver believes that, to build confidence, students must own the entire learning process, including the metacognitive aspects of knowing how they learn best and how to access the resources they need to be successful. “Students at this stage should begin to be responsive to themselves, what they want to do and can do,” Mr. Schuver said. “They shouldn’t always be reacting to the adult’s expectations; it should be the student’s expectation and the adult saying, ‘I’m going to support you to reach the highest level that you can reach.”

Establishing trust between students and teachers is a pivotal part of the process. “Students need an environment where they feel safe taking risks,” Mr. Schuver said. “You build confidence through positive interactions over time.” In a recent faculty meeting, he asked teachers to think about the best relationship they had with a teacher, then identify the ways that they had a positive impact on their learning. He challenged them to bring those elements to their own classrooms.

“How do you have high expectations and show genuine care and concern at the same time?” he wondered aloud. “We’re trying to figure out how we can interact to really show that care and concern every single day with students, where they’re feeling it in every conversation.”

In addition to building rapport between students and teachers, establishing routines is an essential part of building confidence in these tumultuous years. “Routines provide stability for students to be comfortable day in and day out. They’re not surprised by something different every single day,” Mr. Schuver said. “This is the time to establish those healthy habits of how to study, how long to study, and so forth to achieve the best results.”

The habits and routines, once established, will continue to serve students in the Upper School and beyond. “There’s a lot of work for students to do and a lot of activities in their lives. The routine helps them establish a successful base with confidence,” Mr. Schuver said. “When they get older, things are going to come at them from different directions, and they will have that sense of how to solve problems—how to work through them because of the habits they adopted in Middle School. There’s less pressure here than there will be later.”

Even though there is less pressure and fewer demands on their time during the Middle School years, students sometimes report increased levels of anxiety, a trend that could undermine efforts to build students’ confidence and one that Middle and Upper School Counselor Gina Dean stays ahead of. “Often students are unsure about themselves or about certain things, and the antidote to anxiety is exposure,” Ms. Dean said. “So, we create opportunities for exposure to different stressors in a way that is safe and supported. When a student is confident about something, they assure themselves, and they can move forward and navigate that without the help of a teacher, really. When they are unsure, that’s when there’s hesitation—I don’t want to go forward, I don’t want to look foolish, I don’t want to be judged by my peers, I don’t want to be judged by my teacher. So that’s the piece where we step in, and still let them work.”

Students who are terrified of public speaking, for example, might first be asked to read from a script. Once that is accomplished, they may read from a script and also offer personal anecdotes about the topic. Before long, they are able to speak extemporaneously about their topic in front of a group. Incremental successes yield huge rewards in terms of confidence and student success, and this process of purposeful struggle is essential to overcoming anxiety. “They need to experience the success of doing what they feared or found difficult,” Ms. Dean said.

By managing stress and overcoming anxiety, students are able to grow and engage in the breadth of opportunities available in the Middle School, which includes a variety of leadership opportunities. The skills students gain through leadership are essential to navigating the future with confidence. Each sports team elects captains, who give announcements at assemblies and provide leadership during practices and competitions. Students also have traditional student council leadership opportunities. Two eighth grade students are elected as co-leaders each trimester, and they help run assemblies, plan student events, and encourage other students to propose initiatives for issues that are important to them. Student leaders may also apply to be Green Key ambassadors, who work with Admissions to tour prospective and new students during their school visits.

Assistant Middle School Director Rachel Rippl looks forward to adding opportunities for student leaders, and she’d like to give them a dedicated space to work on crafting proposals or amending school rules. “If kids are wanting to have food available in classes or in the hallways, for example, we’re asking them to think through the implications of that and the responsibilities that come with that freedom,” she said. “Then they can present that to the student body, proposing how they think they would manage the change. We’re trying to give them agency in that way.”

During the three short years of Middle School, students undergo an almost radical transformation from timid but earnest sixth graders into more self-assured teenagers. There will still be room to grow, of course, but the purposeful struggles and nurturing relationships that students encounter during their Middle School years prepare them to tackle the challenges of Upper School and beyond with confidence, creativity, and joy.

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