How do you see yourself? A lesson in self-confidence

Diploma Programme (DP) graduate Ishanaz Bahar reflects on the importance of confidence for students to achieve their true potential. This is ­­her second story in our graduate voices series.

Kokusaba Learning Partners conducted free online group lessons for Japanese students to learn mathematics in English during the COVID-19 lockdown. All slots were filled!

By Ishanaz Bahar

Let’s explore the idea of confidence. One of the greatest things I learned from teaching and running a tutoring business (Kokusaba Learning Partners) is the mechanics of confidence.

Here’s a story about the under-confident high-achiever and over-confident low-achiever in class. If you’ve been a student at any time in history, the student A and student B in the scenario below will probably remind you of some people:

Student A: I’m so nervous, I really think I’m going to fail the maths test tomorrow.

Student B: Seriously? It’s going to be easy!

Student A: You can’t be serious. How are you even preparing for it?

Student B: *laughs* I haven’t even opened my textbook yet! How about you?

Student A: Um, I did some questions from the textbook and did 10 past papers yesterday … I still don’t feel prepared!

In this purely fictional scenario, student A ends up getting 90/100, and student B gets 40/100 in the maths test the next day.

My point is that for most people, there is a gap between confidence levels and real performance. I still clearly remember back in Middle Years Programme (MYP) music class, I cried in class upon receiving 8/10 and genuinely thought I was bad at music, just because my close friends got 9s and 10s. In hindsight, I don’t know which was crazier, me being dissatisfied at my high grades or having best friends who were genius-level musicians in high school.

By observing myself and the students I tutor, the main source of the disconnect between pre-test confidence and the results I see is the gap between the words you use on yourself and your real performance levels. I call this the confidence gap.

Ever notice that whenever you repeatedly get a bad grade or result, you or the people around you start to label you?

“This is the downward spiral of being labeled as having low abilities, which does nothing but destroy a student’s confidence over time. Eventually, the student will start using the same words on themselves”.

Recently, a grade 10 student from a local Japanese school approached me to teach him maths in English, saying he was bad at maths but enjoyed studying English. I started teaching him and I realized that he did indeed lack some basic arithmetic skills. So, using English to teach him basic arithmetic skills was a fresh way for him to recap some mathematics he had forgotten. He was quick to catch on. By the end of a few sessions, he caught up on his coursework and I was even teaching him concepts he hadn’t learned at school yet―in English, a second language. I was so proud of him.

One night, his mother texts me (in Japanese). “He seems to enjoy your lessons. How is he? I worry because he’s not good at maths”. Here I noticed the source of his confidence gap.

I noticed that the student had told me the same thing before. So, I imagined that throughout his schooling, at some point, he got a bad grade on his maths tests. The first time, maybe you tell yourself you hadn’t studied enough. But when that continues and you consistently get low scores, that’s when you, your peers and your teachers start telling you that you’re not performing well. That leads to parent-teacher conferences and an overall internal acceptance that you’re, “bad at”, something. This is the downward spiral of being labeled as having low abilities, which does nothing but destroy a student’s confidence over time. Eventually, the student will start using the same words on themselves.

“I am good at―”, “I am bad at―”, the words you use on yourself affect your confidence. These are the causes of confidence gaps and are rarely constructive or informative of the nature of our weaknesses.

So, how do we change the language we use on ourselves?

Create your own wins. Then acknowledge it.

“The best teachers were the ones who made sure their students improved their confidence by creating wins for them”.

In my previous article A shift in mindset: Embrace the power of not knowing, I talked about my struggles transitioning from an all Japanese school to an English-speaking international school. Despite being a high academic achiever in Japanese school, my grades plummeted at the international school because I was unfamiliar with studying in English and the MYP assessment style. Maths had always been my favorite subject, yet I found myself at the bottom of the class. Just like my height that stopped increasing at 12 years old, I started thinking that maybe I hit my peak at primary school and now I was going to be bad at maths forever.

But that all changed when a teacher came along in grade nine, who told me I just lacked terminology and patiently went through mathematical concepts with me, so I could catch up with my peers. Then, one day he invited me to the advanced class. The same goes for the English teacher in grade 10 who carefully looked through my written work and gave me advice. She let me hand in essays to her office over and over until she told me that I could take Diploma Programme (DP) English at a higher level.

These teachers adjusted their teaching methods by recognizing the sources of my academic weaknesses and gave me so many chances and methods for me to improve. The best teachers were the ones who made sure their students improved their confidence by creating wins for them.

But the experience of, “winning”, itself isn’t enough until you acknowledge it as one.

So many of us, just like student A in our scenario, under-estimate themselves and don’t acknowledge their academic successes. Count each successfully answered maths question as a win. The difficulty doesn’t matter―what matters is that you created an opportunity for yourself to say, “I did it”. Each well-written essay is a win, so count each time that writing one feels easier. Count each research report you managed to put your heart and soul into. Only when you recognize that these successful experiences are, “wins”, does it contribute to your confidence levels.

By acknowledging your work, you can close the confidence gap. Because of this gap, the number of wins someone needs to feel confident is different for each student as well as the subject. Subjects you feel you’re bad at are the ones that need the most wins. These amazing teachers let me experience so many wins and acknowledged my improvements over and over.

Creating my own wins at university: Produced the stage for international students to perform at the Waseda University annual festival in 2019, as international students lacked avenues to participate.

By the time I graduated, the words I used on myself became, “I’m an excellent writer”, and, “I want to teach maths”. Notice that the words I used on myself changed.

For the grade 10 maths student mentioned before, I acknowledged every successfully answered question and pointed out how to change the way he approached a problem if he made a mistake. Over time, I sensed that his attitude changed from a shy insecurity towards maths, to a more determined curiosity to learn maths using an unfamiliar language.

That’s the liberating thing about having confidence, you stop worrying about your abilities and you start becoming more curious and engaged to learn more. It’s freeing yourself from constantly protecting yourself from your weaknesses.

The confidence I built up from continuously acknowledged wins was what created a snowball effect on my life in university. Professors at university aren’t as involved in your studies as teachers in high school are. This time it was my turn to create my own wins and acknowledge them as my teachers did for me before.

Having the opportunity to write for the IB’s official community blog is another win for me. This sense of confidence, gratitude, joy, excitement and curiosity are just some things I want to spread to our students and the world.

I hope my students feel like they’re winning too, like I do every day.

Ishanaz Bahar is the founder and CEO of Kokusaba Learning Partners, a personalized tutoring service that connects internationally minded tutors with students from Japan pursuing international education. She studies Economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, where she can be found organizing ensembles and musicals or singing with the Waseda New Orleans Jazz Club. On off-days, you will find her hunting for her next favorite cafe in Tokyo or singing her lungs out on long distance drives.

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