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Stories From the Classroom:The Long-Term Impacts of Building Confidence in Teen Learners — and How

Listen to Diana Laufenberg talk about building confidence in teen learners below.


Diana Laufenberg is Executive Director of Inquiry Schools, which supports new school creation, school transformation, and teacher development. Here she talks with My Unique Genius, sharing stories from her own classroom practice about building confidence in teen learners with a profoundly lasting impact.


1. What role do you think educators play in helping teens build confidence and agency?

"Educators are in a spectacularly unique position to help teens build confidence and agency through creating as many real world, challenging and interesting experiences as possible. In the early teens, our role revolves around helping students to understand their own potential and possibilities with a fairly steady hand, offering guidance from the adults in their lives. As they get closer to graduation, our role is to release as much responsibility for their own learning as possible. I used to joke with my senior students and parents that if the students still needed me at the end of the year, I wouldn't have done my job. This is not easy work and you always feel like there is more to be done, but chasing the ideal of confident and self-advocating young adults is such a worthy way to expend time and effort." 

"We can do everything possible to help students learn discrete content in the moment, but if that is all they walk away from school with, we have failed."


2. How has confidence-building played out in your classroom experience?


Creating Opportunities Outside the Classroom

"I was a farm kid growing up. Going outside usually was equated with work. One of my teachers was outdoorsy and it bothered him how little time these farm kids he taught actually spent outside for fun. After school let out for the summer of 1987, Mr. Severson and about fifteen 7th graders headed to his property that he called the Norway Valley for camping adventures. This repeated every summer until I graduated in 1992 and we went big — leaving the state to go to the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We learned how to move in the world differently, more independently, and definitely with more confidence. It set me on my own teaching path in a way." 

The Life Builder Curriculum has the tools educators and teen need to build confidence in the classroom.


"My plan as a teacher was always to try and find ways to bring the world into the class, as well as move the class out into the world. Similarly to my adventures with Mr. Severson, I spent 15 years organizing river trip adventures for the students I worked with in Arizona and Philadelphia. For some students, it was their first plane ride, for others it was really the only time they had spent time away from family, and yet others it was the first time spending nights sleeping under the stars. As it was when I was young, the kids were responsible for their own care, contributing to set up, prepping meals, cleaning, etc. The teens are expected to step up and deliver on their responsibilities. It was tough for some, empowering for others, and overwhelming at times."


A Transformative Impact

"As a teacher in this scenario, I acted similarly to how I approached the classroom — provide support as needed, but don’t over-help, over-explain, over-control. All these years later, the now-adult former students still bring up these experiences as transformative. The students who left for the trip were never quite the same when they returned — there was an air of confidence that is difficult to instill so quickly in another way."

Fostering Student Agency in the Classroom

In a more classic classroom space, I spent an incredible amount of time crafting experiences that would (hopefully) produce meaningful and challenging work. One of the protocols that I would lean on utilized student contracts for projects. When pitching their ideas for how to meet the standards/expectations to demonstrate their learning, the students would fill out a short contract. The contract would ask them to lay out their main ideas, resources, supplies needed and then explain where they thought they would struggle. When it was complete, the student and I would review the contract. If everything was in order, we would both sign the contract. There was something very binding about committing to that plan. Students would need to advocate for themselves if they needed adjustments or supports.


The big idea that I was going for was empowering students to plan, execute, and deliver what they had committed to. Projects can get away from students (and adults) sometimes, and this process was a way to instill a sense of confidence but also encourage them to advocate for themselves as needed. It is a small move with high, impactful return for the progression of learning and development.


3. Why do you think it’s important for teens to build confidence and agency? How does it affect them long-term?


"We can do everything possible to help students learn discrete content in the moment, but if that is all they walk away from school with, we have failed. As teens build confidence and agency, they also become more resilient learners and citizens. I posit that the skills we can help them develop along the way are more important than discrete facts. Public speaking with confidence, effective collaboration, clear communication and the capacity to learn are some of the most important skills you can help students build while they are at school. Upon those foundational skills can you then build confidence and agency."


A Little Support Can Build Life-Long Confidence

"I met a young man in 2008 that was smart, precocious, and driven. From an immigrant family that did not speak English fluently, he was often expected to take on more responsibility than the average 16 year old. He and his parents expected college admissions as the next step for him after graduation. It was non-negotiable. As his advisor, I walked alongside him in the college admissions process going so far as to walking them through the entire FAFSA process, since it was largely inaccessible to his parents. Even though the student wanted to go to college, the process was daunting. I helped walk the path so that he could make the right decisions with support, modeling how to think through options. He and I kept up throughout his collegiate years, then the MBA years. It was a joy to watch him build upon the work that we did for organization, decision making and persistence play out in his future work. Most recently, he called me and had me on speaker phone with his parents and wife to share that he was being named CEO of a new company in his field of work. I cried. The work that he did as an adult to build upon those foundational moments were impressive. He always makes sure to thank me, all these years later … and I always assure him that all I did was help him become who he was always capable of being." 

Fostering Skills for Life

"The next year, I met a pair of young ladies that dominated my debate class and team. They were formidable. One of them parlayed her speaking confidence and quick wit into a successful political career, being the youngest chief of staff for the Philadelphia City Council in history. The other student took time to tell me after her college graduation what that debate experience meant to her. At the time, I had no idea. I always saw a powerfully smart and quick-witted young person, but internally she had always felt pretty weak. As a very petite person, she shared that she had never felt strong, until Debate. She used those skills to land an accounting position upon graduation that was quite lucrative. The feedback that she received on why she was hired landed squarely on her confidence to communicate her ideas with ease. She credited the experiences we had in class — all of the public speaking and fast-paced exchanges. One of these two went in a pretty traditional path from debate to politics and has found success. The other one parlayed those skills into a very successful career in the financial industry." 


Educators are Foundational Confidence Builders

"There is nothing more satisfying as an educator to see the outcome of the momentum you tried to create with a student for their confidence and agency as a teen. While social media has many negative edges, I’m forever grateful that I get to see glimpses of these lives my former students are out there living. But I am always adamant that the outcome is always theirs to own — I was just there to help them find their own confidence." 

The Life Builder Lab is an inclusive, school-based curriculum for future readiness that guides students to explore career possibilities, develop next-gen skills, and create their life story, while building a bridge to the workforce of the future. Learn More

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