An Absence of Confidence

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley14 Comments

Sometimes surveying a scene from a different perspective gives you a new, fuller understanding of things. For the last few months I have been writing about confidence and becoming a confident teacher. I have researched the hell out of it and talked to many people about the notion of confidence. In the past few weeks I have been unable to read and write much about it at all because of being ill and tired, but I have certainly learnt something new: our confidence in ourselves can easily drop with work absence.

I have been ill for the past month and more with whooping cough (most of that time unbeknownst to me). I thought it was an illness consigned to the dustbin of history and Victorian slums, but apparently not – it was punching its way around my body! I know talking about my illness appears rather self-pitying (my apologies), but it did lead me to consider how quickly your physical health is twinned with your sense of self and even your sense of confidence.

After being off work for over a week, you return to work with a marathon email trail and a to-do list spiraling out of control. The world doesn’t stop – though you are coughing and spluttering trying to catch up. You can easily start to question your own skills given the difficult challenge of catching back up. Of course, most teachers don’t return fully healthy – it just doesn’t work like that – which compounds the matter further.

I talked to my partner about this notion of work absence and trying to get your head back above water and her quick response was “try being off for a maternity leave”.

She related the following about her experience of returning to work at school having had a year off work on maternity leave:

“I found going back to work after my maternity leave incredibly difficult. Not only did I feel like I’d lost a limb leaving my children, but returning to the work arena felt very alien after so long away.

My confidence was at an all time low. I found that I’d forgotten things that used to be second nature: some routines had changed, others I’d forgotten. Staff had changed, so all the hard work that I’d put into establishing myself as a hard working, reliable member of staff before I left to have my baby, somehow felt obsolete on my return.

I realised that I had to start all over again and the very thought of it was exhausting.

The first confrontation I had with a student left me shaking and unsure of myself. My normally calm, self-assured responses were hesitant and far from sure because that’s exactly how I felt. I had a whole year of kids who didn’t know me, so not only was I trying to re-establish myself amongst my colleagues but the students as well.

I also went back part-time, working three days a week. So I had to get used to job sharing and not knowing everything that had happened the two days I wasn’t there. 

I had fraught staff asking me questions that I couldn’t answer which left me feeling like I was letting them down as well as myself. It all added up to a lot of stress and even though some of my confidence did return after a while, I never felt that I regained the professional confidence that I had before I went on maternity leave.”

Whether is it a minor seasonal ailment, a long-term illness, or a maternity leave, the impact of absence on our confidence, and our well-being, is really significant. It is something that we should communicate about more – I certainly will be.

We must recognise that confidence is relative and changeable and not wrongly see it as something that is fixed for good. In doing so, we can help ourselves and be better positioned to help others too.

We can all walk around presenting our professional selves when often we are struggling. We can be unwell at work, or down, and mask it and attempt to march onto the next half-term of breathing space – ignoring the signs of stress in ourselves and subtly marked in the behaviour of our fellow teachers. Crucially though, we need to be careful, and be kind to those those who return from absence, whilst being kind to ourselves too.




  1. I can definitely relate to this, I’m returning to teaching this September after taking nearly two years off with a long illness. Even though I’ve been qualified since 2006 it is a scary prospect and I feel like an NQT again!

    BTW, Huntington is an excellent school, it served me well as a pupil many many years ago!

  2. Blimey – and your wife is quite right about the terrific problem mothers face returning to work after maternity leave. It may not comfort you, but I find this short film by John Lloyd, via the RSA a very big comfort.
    Leadership at its best needs to reflect “How does it feel to be a member of staff in this school?”
    “How does it feel to be a pupil in this school” and “How does it feel to be a parent of a pupil in this school”.
    Taking care of people, being kind and inclusive, being concerned but focussed in support marks us out when we lead well.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the link James – will take a look. I agree with your point about kind, value driven leadership too.

  3. Having had three children whilst being a teacher I can honestly say that going back to work in one of the most challenging things I have ever done and it does not get an easier. Alienated is the exact word but loneliness and insecure follow on quickly. What makes it worse, is the well meant pity some colleagues show you.

    1. Author

      That appears to be the common message coming through. Can you describe the issue with the ‘well meant pity’ – how does it manifest itself?

  4. This is interesting. This seems to be to be more of a school system phenomenon than something that is seen as widespread as this in other industries i.e.. if a company made/allowed employees feel like this on their return from sickness or maternity then those employees (and their colleagues who see this) would not hang around long, and the company would not grow. It was a huge relief to my mind to spend some years after university in the service sector (sales stuff) where the job didn’t follow me home and a day off from sickness or holiday was simply a day off. Very different from being a student (especially GCSE/A Level & Degree) where I learnt to hate my own weakness for occasionally being ill; because deadlines were deadlines and so I simply had to succumb to the fact that life must not affect my ability to ‘achieve potential’ and all that… by the end of this I was breaking down. We need to be careful. We need people. We need people to not develop guilt about being human. Students pick up on these stresses that our teachers are put though. We must be careful. I’m admiring your courage Alex, in bringing this issue forward.

    1. Author

      Thanks Leah – of course, I cannot account for other work – I have only ever been a teacher – but perhaps the personal nature of the job means that the guilt is somewhat inevitable?

      1. Hi Alex, I don’t believe anything is inevitable. If we stop believing in a currency, it’s value disappears. If we stop believing in a religion, it’s power fades. We live within systems created by our ancestors, for the good of us. What about when life happens and things change? What’s possible when we stop believing in systems that hurt people now, because time has moved us forwards? Money and Faith have always existed. Currencies and Religions come and go. Education has always existed… Who says we must continue to believe in a system that seems to consider education an emergency, to the detriment of teacher well-being?

  5. Nobody concerned about how you’re feeling after returning to your work, you have to face all this on your own and overcome ASAP. Only you can judge yourself and you’re the know who actually know the problem and you’re the only one who knows how to overcome them because nobody knows you better then yours

  6. I can 100% relate to this after an absence of most of the first term this academic year after breaking my wrist in the summer holidays and having 3 successive operations on it. The guilt of missing the start of the year was terrible and the anxiety that arose from that was almost as bad as coping with my physical ailments; I remember trying to keep on top of emails at home, feeling sick and having palpitations waiting to see what was waiting for me. During this time off I also hit long-term absence triggers so received the inevitable letter in the post – as a senior leader I had an understanding of the system and knew that this was just a formality, but it certainly didn’t make it any better and this added to the stress of living with the fear of not making a full physical recovery. Going back to work after many weeks off was tough and people’s concern on the first day soon disappeared. Once you’re back you’re back and you just have to get on with it, but it’s not that simple, we often return to work before we have completely recovered. I was lucky to have revised duties and adapted working conditions for a while, but people stopped enquiring as to how I was coping and assumed that everything was fine. In my back to work meeting I talked to my headteacher about the emotional issues I had encountered when I was signed-off, as well as the anxiety that the long-term absence letter provoked. This lead us to look at the wording of such letters to make them more personal and to try to understand the situation that the member of staff may be going through. I certainly have greater empathy for anyone returning to work after a long absence, be it maternity leave, sickness or bereavement, and I try to enquire about their well-being not just on their return but in the days and weeks after as the effects last longer than you may think. Thank you for voicing exactly how I felt!

    1. Author

      Thanks Jo for sharing your personal story. I have received lots of messages privately and publicly about being absent and its impact. It is something that we need to look a as a profession I think. We can be kinder to one another and deploy better systems – as you describe.

  7. So sorry to hear you’ve been unwell, Alex – hope you’re feeling much better now.

    I think it’s interesting how our mental health is bound up with our physical health – when we’re tired and physically under the weather we aren’t so robust mentally either. We need to be aware of that – in ourselves and in others so that we’re suitably empathetic and supportive. Interesting comment from Jo above about how going through this herself helped her to look at the school’s systems, as a senior leader, from a fresh perspective.

    And lastly on the maternity leave issue – I’ve worked with a lot of women who’ve struggled, in terms of confidence, when returning from maternity leave. In some cases, if they had several years off to raise a young family and then returned, they almost seemed transformed in terms of their self-assurance and belief in their capacity to do a good job. We really need to think about why this happens and how we can address it….

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