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Confidence Builder

That’s what a great school is for students

What is the true purpose of school?

Thomas Jefferson wrote about preparation for citizenship. Today’s business leaders speak of instilling workplace skills and sparking innovation. My take is a bit different.

The fact is that with very few exceptions all children will learn to read and write, to add and subtract and multiply and divide. Eventually, they’ll learn algebra, biology, etc. I don’t mean to diminish all that — helping each and every child learn the academic content and skills that will be necessary for their future is absolutely an essential part of school and schooling. But all schools do that work. I’m interested in more.

I’m interested in what makes great schools great. What attributes help the greatest number of students become the most successful adults? What do great schools do to inspire their students to live productive lives as citizens, economic actors and members of families and communities? What do great schools do to foster students’ ability to connect with others and their desire to leave the world a better place for their presence in it? What prepares students to best meet their future? What should schools do to meet all these ambitious goals?

Seek knowledge and build character and confidence. Knowledge and character are topics I will leave for another day. In this piece, I will explore how schools build confidence.

Building Connections

At home, in school and in the community, confidence comes from connection to others. Praise and encouragement from infancy to adulthood generate feelings of competence, security and trust. Praise is most effective in developing confidence and a growth mind-set when it is directed toward your child’s effort, not for seemingly innate qualities like being “smart.”

Specific and effective praise should also be a part of every child’s school experience. Students who connect through the relationships, organizations and culture of school clearly build confidence through the experiences in which they participate. That’s why we have sports and activities in schools. We don’t produce concerts and plays as a means toward the end of raising the next set of professional singers, dancers, and actors. If we did, we wouldn’t open these activities to very many students. We have those activities as a means toward building confidence in our students. Working toward achieving both individual and group goals and then accomplishing them is a sure recipe for teaching and instilling confidence.

There are two elements of confidence-building besides goal-setting and achieving that must be present in great schools: students must be known and they must feel as if they matter. The opposite of these two elements are perhaps the worst things students can feel from their school experience: insignificant and anonymous.

If students feel that they matter, that their feelings, tastes, ideas and contributions are important to the life of their school and their community, then they build a healthy confidence that they are capable of making a difference. This sense will be with them throughout their lives. Students who have opportunities to lead and participate, to have an effect on what happens to them, build structures of self-confidence that have lifelong importance to them. Thus, schools must provide students opportunities to matter — opportunities to be important to their community through clubs, teams, student government, the arts, and any other ways that help create a voice.

Teachers have an enormous impact on the creation of students’ confidence. When teachers have time for kids, it sends the message that they are important, that they matter. Schools in which teachers have little time for individual students are working in opposition to the development of confidence. The “I have no time for you” message students can take away from their experience with a teacher, coach, administrator, or institution is ultimately very harmful — and it will be remembered.

Effort toward knowing each student and working to make her/him feel important has another very positive impact — it is effort directed against anonymity.

The Negative Power of Anonymity

Anonymity is an extreme message-sender. Though many students may believe that they want it (after all, it initially feels easier than meeting the expectations that come from being known), it is, in reality very destructive to the development of a strong self-image and, ultimately, confidence that “I can play the game of life successfully.” Being anonymous is evidence that you don’t matter. And kids who feel that way are much more prone to making the worst and most destructive choices for themselves and others.

It comes as no surprise, then, that these are significant reasons that make me an advocate of small schools. For in the small school, each student matters more to the daily heartbeat of the community and its culture. Larger schools simply bring less opportunity for students to be important and more opportunity for them to be anonymous.

I have worked in schools for the past two decades, and I have seen firsthand the power of the small independent school to create confidence in young people. Because of their experience in these schools, graduates have the confidence to believe they can do just about anything they choose. They believe this because they have lived it as students.

I recently heard the story of two Florida independent school classmates who are children of two of my colleagues. The young men are now in their 20s, and though they were not particularly close in college, though they have made successful careers for themselves in other industries, they came together and have now jointly produced a Broadway musical. It’s running now on Broadway and it’s the brainchild of these two Florida kids who simply believed they could do it. They were not stymied by the roadblocks; instead, they had the confidence to ask, “Why can’t we?”

The nurturing of confidence is an extremely valuable affirmation of the value of the outstanding school experience. I believe that many public and private schools have the ability to produce this kind of successful result, but the percentage of success in small schools has the potential to be much higher because of both scale and philosophy. Great schools avoid the dangers of anonymity and build confidence when they cause students to get beyond the “Why me?” lament in favor of the “Why not me?” attitude. That shift makes the power of possibility both inspirational and very real. And it’s the type of hard-to-measure outcome that is evidence of a great school.
Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3 – 12th grade independent school in Land O’ Lakes. Academy at the Lakes serves students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties. Visit Academy at the Lakes at

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