The Craft of Teaching Confidence

Judith Harper on getting students to take risks—in literature class and in life

Olivia Locher

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

Judith Harper always began her “Literature and Performance” class at Westwood High School, in Mesa, Arizona, with a discussion of one of her favorite quotes: “Trust is the result of a risk successfully survived.” These words, from the late psychology professor Jack R. Gibb, capture her teaching philosophy: Harper, who retired this year after 38 years in education, believes that young people will always reach their full potential if they can learn to trust their own voice. In her classes, Harper says, that trust emerged when students took on the small, daily risks she intentionally orchestrated through her lessons—analyzing complex poetry, plays, and novels; writing original scripts based on those texts; and learning how to stage and perform them.

When Lisett Montano, a 2020 graduate, picked Harper’s class as a junior, she secretly chose it as a way to avoid reading and writing in English. A native Spanish speaker, Montano didn’t learn English until she was 13. In middle school, she was often bullied for her accent. But to her surprise, in Harper’s class she not only grew her reading and writing skills more than in any other class; she also realized that she enjoys public speaking and performing on stage.

When I visited Westwood High, more than a dozen of Montano’s classmates described Harper’s classrooms as the most intellectually challenging in their high-school experience—but most were clear that the biggest value went beyond academic content. “Ms. Harper specializes in people who don’t believe in themselves,” Montano reflects. “Before Ms. Harper’s class, I didn’t believe in myself, because I didn’t know my strengths. I’m much more open now: willing to take risks, be vulnerable, connect with strangers.” Montano is heading to University of Arizona in the fall to major in biochemistry. In Harper’s class, she says, she “grew as a person, not just a student.”

I sat down with Harper in May of 2019 to ask her how she builds confidence in her students, and what kept her in the classroom for nearly four decades. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Kristina Rizga: What do you think brings out the best work in your students?

Judith Harper: Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. Most of all, I build relationships with my students through their writing and performance work. But it’s also about looking at every student every day, and trying to figure out what’s there: “Are you okay today? You look a little tired. You look dressed up.” Just asking questions, listening to the responses. Switching things up, if necessary, and letting students teach you things. The classroom is this dynamic, ever-changing environment.

I also build a strong sense of community, so students feel safe to take on risks. This means I want them to relate to other students. I want them to feel like we are in a partnership. I want us to have rituals that are our own.

Rizga: Could you give me an example of one important ritual from last year?

Harper: One ritual I really enjoy sharing with my students is eating together. When we have major assignments due, I schedule group evening writing sessions, and I always buy pizza for the group. At some point during our work session, we move to another table, eat pizza, and just talk. We don’t talk about the work—we just talk to each other. It’s a way for me to say, “You matter to me. We care about each other. We are taking time for each other.” We call this our “communion time,” because it’s a literary theme that we explore in all of the texts we read.

All of the books we read in my class are really about exploring one question: How do we find meaning in life? Ritual is one way different authors do that. A play I used to teach, Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, is really about this idea of the daily rituals that turn into the patterns of overall life.

Rizga: Could you give me an example of how incorporating performance into a literature class helps students learn important skills?

Harper: This question makes me think of one of my students, Dulce: a bright, thoughtful, artistic student, who was very shy. I always have students who are confident that people want to hear what they have to say. With students like Dulce, I have to seek their voices out.

We start out our year with low-risk activities, and we gradually build those risks up. The first performance we do is our Shakespeare scenes, and Dulce played Horatio in a scene from Hamlet. During rehearsals, Dulce often had her hands across her stomach, holding on tight, and it was a gradual process of letting go of that. We talked about how we generally have to be bigger on stage than in real life, and part of it means being willing to be vulnerable. It’s also about posture. As you open up, you can feel the breath all the way in your diaphragm, and that creates more space for your voice. These are some of the mechanical approaches to creating confidence.

But the more important part of building that confidence is just this inner sense of accomplishment: “I got up on stage with my partner, and we did it. I made that scene happen, and people clapped.” You gain trust in yourself, in your own ability to be that person who stands in front of other people and speaks. You could see how much pride Dulce had in her performance, and I thought to myself, She has such a powerful voice, and she is not afraid of using it anymore. It’s not me who did it. She made the decision to take the risks that would lead to that place.

Most of my students are not going to be actors or creative writers, but they all will need the confidence to stand in front of others, express what they think and believe, and persuade others that their ideas have value and meaning. It’s hard to measure this kind of learning through a test or a rubric, but it’s moments like these that my former students usually tell me helped them grow in ways that were really helpful in their lives.

Rizga: What are some important things about teaching that you learned with experience, but wish you knew as you were starting out?

Harper: It’s very important to be comfortable with apologizing to students. For example, recently, we were rehearsing in someone else’s space. One of my students brought in a can of Coke and then accidentally knocked it all over the carpet. And I yelled at her: “I can't believe you brought that in here!” The next day, I apologized to her privately. I told her, “I need you to know that I don't think it was appropriate for me to get that upset.” And then I apologized in front of the class too. I said, “I want you to know that I talked to her privately and apologized for yelling at her. I wasn't happy that the drink spilled, but I could have handled it in a very different way.” I want students to know that apologizing can be a very powerful thing to do.

What I know now is that the times that I’m most likely to react in a way that I’ll regret later is when I have anxiety about the lesson and don’t feel like it’s going very well. With years, I feel more comfortable saying, “Maybe I didn’t think it through as well as I should have. Let’s switch to another activity.”

Rizga: What advice do you have for novice teachers?

Harper: The first and most important thing teachers need to do is learn their craft. Coming out of college, we have the content knowledge, but we don’t have the instructional-delivery knowledge. Just the basics: How do I create a lesson? What do I want students to know at the end of the lesson? How do I do it with efficiency and engagement, and how do I assess what students know?

One thing you can do in the first year is watch successful veterans working with students and constantly ask them, “How did you do that? How did you make that work?” But don’t assume that every system and method they are using is going to work for you. It’s fine to say, “This doesn’t really work with how I am as a person and as a teacher.” And keep looking at it, reflecting on your own practice, seeking out research on different methods. As you consider different approaches, it’s important to find things that play to your strengths. One of the biggest problems I see with novice teachers—and the reason many of them leave—is this daily feeling of failure. I think when we play to our strengths, we’re more likely to feel successful at the end of the day.

Collegial relationships are also key. I have one particular person I have been partners with for a long time. I can talk to her about what’s not working in my practice, and I don’t feel like I’m being criticized. You have to find that group, your inner circle. They’re not people who are just going to say, “It’s all right. You’re doing great.” They’re the people who will help you reflect on your practice: “What worked? What didn’t? Have you thought about trying it this way?”

Another key thing: It’s okay to complain about a bad day, but when you find yourself in a cycle of your own, or in a group of colleagues complaining about the students, avoid it like the plague. Now, I’m not saying I’m always the problem—but I am saying that I'm the one who can solve it. I’m the one with the power in the room. It is my job to take care of the atmosphere, the culture, the learning that takes place.

Rizga: What are some ways in which you think communities could improve their schools?

Harper: Policy has gotten too far away from the classrooms since No Child Left Behind. Reform mandates change every three years, before they have any chance to take root. All you need to do is say that something is “research based” and switch everything around again. Meanwhile, we stopped looking at the essential basics, such as smaller classes, adequate time to plan lessons and provide feedback on student work, and working with other teachers to improve practice, grow what works in your building, and edit what isn’t working. We have to look at school improvement as a very local process with many essential components that reinforce one another—instead of this big global change every three years.

Rizga: What has kept you teaching and sustained such a deep sense of joy for so long?

Harper: Teenagers are my group. Kids keep me thinking. If I’m present with them—if I’m looking at them and I’m hearing them and I’m thinking not just about my agenda but our agenda—they teach me things all the time. You are with young people who are experiencing the world. They are reading things that they’ve never read before. They are bringing something new to it every day. This relationship—the ways in which you get to know the minds and the hearts of young people in the classroom—can’t be replicated in any other setting.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.