Self-Esteem in Schools

The Goals of Education

To encourage self-esteem in schools is to create a climate that supports and reinforces the practices that strengthen self-esteem.

Perhaps the place to begin is with an examination of the primary goal of education.  Is it to train young people how to be so-called good citizens?  If so, a high premium may be placed not on fostering autonomy or encouraging independent thinking but on memorizing a shared body of knowledge, learning obedience to authority and absorbing the “rules” of the particular society.

Teacher and Student

Earlier in American history, this clearly was the goal of the educational system.  I vividly recall my own experiences in grade school and high school during the 1930s and 1940s.  The two most important values conveyed to me in that world were the ability to remain silent and motionless for long periods of time and the ability to march with my fellow students in a neat row from one classroom to another.  School was not a place to learn independent thinking, to have one’s self-assertiveness encouraged or to have one’s autonomy nourished and strengthened.  It was a place to learn how to fit into some nameless system created by nameless others and called “the world” or “society” or “the way life is.”  And “the way life is” was not to be questioned.  Since I questioned everything and found silence and stillness unbearable, I was quickly identified as a troublemaker.

Some teachers demand obedience and conformity from their pupils, and discourage rather than support normal and healthy progress toward autonomy.  This is antithetical to the development of healthy self-esteem.

If the proper goal of education is to provide students with a foundation in the basics needed to function effectively in the modern world, then nothing is more important than incorporating the art of critical thinking into every school curriculum.  And if self-esteem means confidence in our ability to cope with the challenges of life, is there anything more important than learning how to use one’s mind?

Role of Teachers

As with parents, it is easier for a teacher to inspire self-esteem in students if the teacher exemplifies and models a healthy, affirmative sense of self.

Teachers with low self-esteem tend to be more punitive, impatient and authoritarian.  They tend to focus on the child’s weaknesses rather than strengths.  They inspire fear and defensive behavior.  They encourage dependency.

Children watch teachers in part to learn appropriate adult behavior.  If they see ridicule and sarcasm, often they learn to use it themselves.  If they hear the language of disrespect, and even cruelty, it tends to show up in their own verbal responses.  If, however, they see benevolence and an emphasis on the positive, they may learn to integrate these qualities into their own responses.  If they witness fairness, they may absorb the attitude of fairness.  If they receive compassion and see it offered to others, they may learn to internalize compassion.  If they see self-esteem, they may decide it is a value worth acquiring.

One of the greatest gifts a teacher can offer a student is the refusal to accept the student’s poor self-concept at face value.