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'Lacking classroom confidence? Just think of Dolly Parton'

Performing in the classroom can be daunting. But taking inspiration from Dolly Parton can help both teachers and students...

Dolly Parton is a great role model to use when trying to build confidence, says Sarah Simons

Performing in the classroom can be daunting. But taking inspiration from Dolly Parton can help both teachers and students...

My favourite Dolly Parton quote is: “Figure out who you are, then do it on purpose.” This, to me, is the ultimate answer to the question: what does it mean to be confident?

I’ve loved Dolly my whole life. I love her talent, her energy, the knowing artificiality of her appearance, but, most of all, I love her confidence. Dolly is 73 now.

She’s a mega-successful squillionaire who still manages to come across as one of us, even though she casually built a theme park in celebration of herself.

Read more: 'When behaving inappropriately is entirely appropriate'

More news: ‘Three ways I rebuilt my confidence as a teacher’

Background: Behaviour management: 'It’s all about confidence'



I assumed that, like a lot of us, her confidence had bloomed with the years, but I recently watched her at the age of 29 being interviewed by the fearsome American broadcast institution Barbara Walters.

Barbara clearly loves Dolly, but steels herself to trot out this charmer: “Do you ever feel that you're a joke? That people make fun of you?”

Dolly isn't the least bit thrown. She fixes Barb in the eye, smiles, and says: “I am sure of myself as a person. I am sure of my talent and my love for life. I am very content. I like the kind of person that I am. So I can afford to do-diddle around with make-ups and clothes and stuff because I am secure in myself.” Go on Dolly, love, you tell her!

Questions of self-confidence

I've recently started teaching a confidence-building class to adults in the community. When asked to take the session, I dithered, doubting my ability to pass on anything of use. The irony wasn't lost on me.

Then I thought, "Who would I feel more comfortable exploring my own confidence with? One of those over-assertive headaches in human form who continually slips their outstandingness into conversation (alright mate, I never asked!). Or someone who is also navigating the winding road towards Dolly levels of self-assurance, but has done a bit of pre-class prep on the subject?"

So I got on with it.

Teaching new stuff is daunting. Even if I did feel like I knew what I was on about, I still wouldn't march into the classroom assuming that I knew the most about any subject. So I decided that I wouldn’t teach, but ask questions. I hoped that the questions I had put together would prompt the group to pool their experiences, thoughts and knowledge.

Avoiding 'self-sabotage' 

Some of the most interesting conversations came from this question: what do you do that makes you feel bad about yourself?

The plan was that if we could identify acts of self-sabotage, the nasty tricks we play on ourselves without consciously planning to, then we would start to be aware of them and, y’know, pack ‘em in.

I didn't remove myself from the conversation. I’m not a therapist, just an asker of questions and a marker of the register.

I thought I’d share some of the highlights (lowlights) here. How to feel shit about yourself in four easy stages:

Believe the media that sells you stuff by insisting that you aren't good enough

The number of women’s fashion magazines I buy is inversely proportionate to how content I am. I know that the majority are either telling me directly or heavily implying that I am not measuring up to some nutzo ideal that they have manufactured to flog me overpriced tat.

But the jig is up! Not only will I not look like that photo of twentysomething Hollywood beauty Jennifer Lawrence if I slap on the same face cream as her, but also Jennifer Lawrence won’t either. Obviously, she’s still a beauty without the photoshopping, but most of the images we’re told to aspire to don’t even look like the person in them. It’s modern-day Del-Boy- and-Rodney-ing.

Negatively compare yourself with other people

That person you don’t measure up to might be the version of yourself you were planning to be before life got in the way of your fairy tale. Or maybe your fairy tale changed and you forgot to send yourself the memo.

The person you are losing out to might be a Facebook acquaintance who edits their life into a five-star trailer of a two-star film. And if they want to present an edited version, if that makes them feel better about themselves, that’s brilliant. But who hasn’t wanted to reply to a heavily filtered Facebook photo entitled “My Perfect Family” with a straight-to-the-point “Oh just fuck off”. Erm. Not me. Definitely not me.

Put loads of something that is bad for you in your body

At risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious... Whatever your preferred toxin of choice, too much of it will make you feel rubbish (unless your drug of choice is something Class A-ish, in which case even a little bit might make you die). Physically, who hasn’t suffered the effects of too much of what you fancy?  And mentally – those effects may amplify a range of complicated emotions.

For the benefit of the tape: as someone who has a history of galloping towards anything that’s bad for me, I’m the last person to be preaching about this. And even though I'm in a much healthier place addiction-wise, I would still probably eat a table if it was deep fried and covered in sugar. It’s a process, people.

Really, really care about what other people think of you

The only people whose opinion really matters are either people you love or people you hold in great respect. And even then it’s just an opinion.

They may not even think what you think they think… Inventing false narratives around other people’s motivations is a harmful habit to get into. Everyone is the star of their own personal movie. It’s so easy to invent a totally fictitious reason why someone has behaved in a certain situation in order to fit the narrative of your own movie.

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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