Sunday, 6 December 2009

Self Esteem

For years (as a teacher and a teacher trainer) I have pondered on the idea of self esteem and read a variety of books and documents on the subject. The researchers seem to be unable to reach full agreement over many of the finer points (mostly chicken and egg type arguments) but debates tend to consider that low self-esteem could be a contributing factor in:

• crime and violence
• low academic achievement and engagement
• teenage parenthood
• alcohol and drug misuse
• depression and suicide
• poor interpersonal relationships

It makes sense to me. If you do have poor self-worth and no pride in who you are and what you can do, life is probably going to be a bit of a struggle. You're likely to:
• feel overly challenged at the drop of a hat (because of a real fear of failure and you assume you are always going to fail) and therefore unlikely to attempt much
• often become defensive (because of a need to protect yourself from perceived threats) and/or
• be unwilling to branch out from the small sphere (and behavioural patterns) in which you feel safe and secure.

If you don't believe you are capable or can achieve anything because that is the message you have received all your life, you're going to look for 'false' ways to boost your ego - thus some of the list of negative outcomes above.

There was also, of course, the self esteem backlash: people saying that high self-esteem equated to arrogance, cockiness, narcissism and disrespect. Well to that I say, falsely inflated egos and those that regularly hold contempt for others (because they have a need to feel better than others - because in reality, they feel inferior) is not the result of true self-pride. Self esteem is based on genuine achievements and competences and means a person has no need to feel superior to others.

My conclusion: we need to let kids achieve. With the current narrow idea of what 'success' is in school (heavily academic), many kids leave school with a sense that they weren't very good at much or that they are certainly not as 'good' as those that achieved academically. They 'fail' school and this impacts massively on their self-worth. I am not saying get rid of academia, but introduce a wider range of ways of succeeding.


  1. Here here. Our education system is rooted in the 'old days' of academia and the changes introduced are superficial, built upon that base. We need to start again (and copy Scandinavia mostly!). And introduce Parenting as a subject at school to break the cycle of crap parenting leading to crap parenting leading to crap parenting (and the low self esteem it breeds)xxx

  2. My Grandfather was head of secondary school in Jarrow, which he came to from a posh fee paying school. He always said he got more satisfaction from seeing the less academically bright achieve.

    Once, he organised for a group of pupils who'd been branded 'no-hopers' to build a boat - it was special boat that used a rotating pillar instead of sail (a Fletner Rotor-boat)- they not only built it, but they sailed it round much of the northern coast and were on TV, doing interviews, in the press etc. Some years later one of the boys contacted him to say how much it had meant at the time.

  3. Exactly that kind of thing...sounds fantastic!

    Show kids they CAN do things and get a real sense of achievement instead of only plugging at the same things that they are not necessarily that great at, year after year after year!

    That's where non-academic mentors come in too. Music, sport, building things, making things, fixing things, ...bring back apprentices..

  4. My Grandfather was also the head of a secondary Glasgow. He always said that, in his opinion, all the kids needed was someone to encourage and believe in them. He also thought that being clever academically was not the be all and end all and that everyone has something to offer....I adored him!!

    C x

  5. I agree with most of what is being said here, but I want to put in a good word for academia. Not everyone is academic, clever or whatever. Nor does everyone have good practical, or inter-personal skills.

    But for a country to succeed, it needs to develop all of its talents to the full, and that includes academic ones.

    In the same way that to get on the football team, and not be left sitting on the bench, you have to apply yourself to be the best footballer you can be, so academic success also requires application. As does building a good sailing boat.

    To suggest that someone is a failure because they don't get onto the football team is a nonsense, as is the idea that the same applies if they're not in the academic élite.

    But what's wrong with celebrating academic success and achievement in the same way that getting into the 1st football team might be?

    The key is accessibility. Everyone needs to have equal access to the education that will draw out their talents, whatever these talents might be. That means that there need to exist environments, micro-climates, if you like, where academic achievement is challenging, environments where sporting success is challenging, where practical boat-building is a challenge.

  6. Yes but sadly, that is not our current education system! The majority of lessons are just aiming for high academic achievement.

    There's nothing wrong at all with academia, but schools are made to focus too heavily on academic stuff - for ALL pupils. I would like to think we had better finer tuning in the 21st century (more individualised learning)but as James said, our system is an old one that has been tweaked and tweaked real new thinking to match the increased understanding in what brings out the best in everyone.

    I will also say that nobody 'labels' anyone a failure (well hopefully not in schools now) but kids very soon realise where they exist on the capability spectrum in any subject. They label themselves. We're also not many decades on from when people were actually labelled failures in school (I know I was because I couldn't read until I was about ten) and it takes a while for a society (or person) to get that out of its system.

    I suspect you succeeded academically Cogitator and couldn't know what it was like to fail in so many lessons? Not that it makes your point invalid!

  7. I'll also add, I was pretty good at sport as a kid ("the fastest runner in the school"!!!!) but this was not as valued in the school as much as academic stuff was, so my overall feeling was that of failure!

  8. Well yes, you're right, I did succeed academically, and even though I was never all that good at traditional sports, never really felt a failure in anything. I could of course be labeled a failure at sport, but for whatever reason, this concept doesn't fit my recollection.

    I think that the idea of creating islands of excellence, be they in sport, academia, or practical skills etc is a good one. I actually think that the grammar school system was a good one, although it had its flaws. It created an environment (the grammar school) where academic performance was paramount. It resulted in the greatest social mobility this country has ever known.

    These schools were surrounded by a host of options for non-academics; apprenticeships, secondary modern schools for skills training, polys and the like. So that it was likely (although not guaranteed) that whatever your area of skill, you could find an environment to exploit it.

    If modern secondary "comprehensive" schools focus on academia to the exclusion of other skills, then everyone has lost out.

    Students label themselves? Yep. I recall a pall who rejoiced in the nickname of "cack-handed moron".

  9. I went to a school with a 10% boarding population of which I was one. With no one to help us with our homework and limited access to resources the boarders achieved poorly, were labelled 'thick' but responded with the attitude that academic success was uncool. As a house our sense of cameraderie in adversity meant we were good at sport instead. Well, not me personally. I was good at listening to prog rock, smoking pot and making snide remarks about the high achievers. Self-esteem - what's that?
    Of course the school, when it threw me out, had no sense that it might have been in any way responsible, a fact that only occurred to me a couple of decades later.
    Come to think of it, that was an expensive education. Any lawyers out there?

  10. Ah Jonathan...we have a boarding school to blame for your wonderful clarinet playing then


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