“Express yourself”: Nurturing high self-esteem through creative teaching

Rosalyn Norbury

Rosalyn Norbury has been a qualified teacher for five years, teaching secondary drama to 11-16 year old girls at Levenshulme High School in Manchester. Prior to teaching, her career was focussed on various theatre and arts projects in and around Manchester. 

Website: www.levenshulme-high.manchester.sch.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

I think most people who work as teachers would agree with the importance of having high expectations of your pupils. And similarly, how important it is to model these expectations, and strive to do so, most of the time. I'm sure that again, for most teachers, it comes naturally to model good behaviours; positive attitudes and respect. After all, why should we expect this from our students if we ourselves are lacking in traits that are so fundamental to healthy human interactions?

If we, as role models, treat our students with a lack of respect, talk down to them rather than as equals, we can never expect to get the most out of them, right? I'd be a little concerned if any teachers I spoke with did not agree with this most basic principle.

So having spent the past five years teaching secondary drama to girls in an inner city Manchester school, I have become acutely aware of another basic principle, absolutely necessary to expectation and achievement – self-esteem. And more specifically, high self-esteem. I would suggest that high self-esteem is fundamental to achievement in all its forms, and furthermore, to all facets and areas of a person’s life, experience and well being.

With this is mind, we would hope, as teachers, that the pupils pouring into our classrooms, brimming with energy, potential and a passion for learning, do so with high self-esteem already firmly in place. We would hope that low self esteem does not show itself as a barrier to their learning, personal growth and achievement. And of course, some pupils do possess this magical self-belief and confidence; it's easy to spot them, especially in a drama classroom.

It is perhaps not so easy to spot the students who have made an art form out of being and remaining invisible. You don't have to be an expert to know that for every time a confident pupil asks, answers or puts themselves forward to progress in their learning, it can be at the expense of another pupil who will happily let them. So circumstances are created - circumstances where greater confidence leads to greater achievement. It is unhelpful in these circumstances to place blame - whose fault is this? The teacher's? The pupil’s? Both confident and not so? What I have found helpful as a classroom teacher, and more specifically as a drama teacher, is to address the issue and instead, ask this question - how can I help to raise the self-esteem of my pupils through creative teaching? And as a direct result of this, help them to achieve, not just in my subject but wherever necessary and possible.

So I started with the basics. What you might call the bones of any successful learning experience – the space within which your pupils learn. Creating a safe, positive learning environment for your pupils when they enter the room is the first step; talking to them as they come into your space is a crucial part of this. Even eye contact and a smile is sufficient. It tells them, with very little effort, ‘I see you, I welcome you, I’m happy that you’re here’. And with time, they give you this back. ‘Hi Miss,’ ‘Morning’ ‘Miss, you look nice today’ – the building and establishment of positive, healthy human interaction; they feel good, and you feel good, before the lesson has even begun.

But once inside, creating an environment where pupils feel they can express themselves freely and without fear of being reproached requires tenacity and absolute clarity from teacher to pupil. As a drama teacher, this is always a top priority and something that can never be overlooked or relaxed, because as much as the drama classroom has the acute potential to build confidence and self-esteem, it has equal power to chip away at it or even destroy it. Here, we come back to our expectations of pupils and how they treat each other and behave in our lessons and how we ourselves, model this. This has to come from the teacher and their own moral foundation, but has to be absolutely clear and consistent, with no exceptions. In my classroom, pupils know that when they show work, the rest of the class will be quiet and respectful and clap at the end to show appreciation.

It sounds simple enough, and indeed it is; it might even sound too obvious, but imagine the alternative. I’ve seen the looks on pupils’ faces when their work is laughed at in a spiteful way, or when negative comments are made purely to cause hurt or offense. Their self-esteem is damaged, and next time they may not take that risk in their performance; they might even refuse to perform full stop and consequently, achievement, progress and personal growth is compromised and stunted.

As I mentioned earlier, I teach secondary drama to girls, and for this section of the article I would like to focus on how curriculum and content of lessons can be tailored to your pupils’ needs, and how this, in turn, can help to build self-esteem. I am always very aware as a teacher of girls how important it is to provide my students with education and experiences that centres on positive female role models and achievements. I would go so far as to say that if I did not do this, I would be doing them a disservice.

The reason I feel this is so important is linked to my own beliefs and philosophies, as (I feel) all good teaching should be. I will get to my point by asking a question. If, as a teacher of girls, the only references I ever made in my drama lessons were to male actors, playwrights, practitioners, musicians and artists, what message am I communicating to the young women whom I am educating? How will they recognise themselves and their own abilities and potential in the face of exclusively male achievement? Unless they come from a background where they have been strongly educated in female achievements, or have a very strong sense of self, they will probably not recognise themselves, or be able to aspire to that level of achievement or ability. Here’s another example of this – a class of black pupils only ever being shown and taught about white history and achievement – how can they place themselves as a high-achiever in the face of this?

So I make a conscious effort to teach my female pupils about fantastic, inspirational, creative women – actors, artists, playwrights, revolutionaries, innovators - in the hope and belief that they will identify with these women, and be able to picture themselves in aspirational places. This is a powerful tool in the creation and development of high-self esteem through creative teaching in any subject; going beyond the black and white of a curriculum that is written mostly for a faceless pupil.

Looking at YOUR pupils – really looking – what do they need to see? What will help them to aspire? What are their experiences? Where do they come from? Where do they want to get to? How can you help them to visualise themselves in that place? And this is where I think the real power of creative teaching lies – in visualisation and transformation. The journey of creating something has powerful potential for a person’s self-esteem; I feel better about myself for writing this article!

This this is transferable to any subject – it is the skill of the teacher that finds and illuminates the worth of creating; not just the finished product but the journey itself. The most confident and successful people are not afraid to make mistakes because they know that this is part of the journey, part of the learning, part of the success. As teachers, we must help our pupils to recognise this – take risks, make mistakes, learn, grow, and in doing so, self-esteem will soar.

Have you used similar methods in the classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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