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I have a side gig teaching a writing class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

As a father, it's a win-win deal. Teaching helps me be a better parent, and parenting helps me be a better teacher.

Plus, grading papers on the weekends takes me away from wasting time watching endless football on TV.

As my UTC students were taking their final exams the other day, I let my eyes drift from one to the next. For each one I said a 10-second silent prayer. (Call it lifting up positive vibes if you prefer.) This meditation was private, my whispered hopes that the universe is good to each of them. I hope they find meaningful work and strength for the challenges ahead.

As the father of 20- and 15-year-old boys, I hope their high school and college teachers have sincere concern for them, too.

I've decided that the best teaching involves encouragement meant to build confidence. With most college students, their confidence is as fragile as a robin's egg.

Every semester, the last essay question on the final exam for my class is essentially: What did you learn on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. that you think is worth remembering?

Here are a few quotes from this year's group:

— "This class has helped me tremendously as a young writer to feel more confident in my work," said one young woman.

— "One of the greatest things about this class was the words of affirmation I received. It was a huge confidence boost," said another.

— "This class, above all, made me feel more confident in my writing skills and my interviewing abilities," wrote another student.

I offer these examples not to call attention to praise but to show you the common denominator: Confidence. It's like a precious metal, always in short supply and worth its weight in gold.

Being a writer requires a level of confidence that most young adults don't have. Even if they can write elegant sentences, it doesn't mean students can approach a stranger and ask for an interview.

In my experience, developing confidence requires two separate actions: acknowledging fear and asking for help. Both require a humble heart.

If something frightens you, say it out loud. Talking to strangers makes me nervous. Even after 40 years and thousands of interviews, I have butterflies before every encounter.

I heard someone say the other day that you should learn to cherish butterflies, because almost anything good that a human experiences involves a nervous gut: a marriage proposal, the birth of a child, an interview for your dream job.

Some people are so afraid of butterflies that they run from them and never take risks. I've been guilty of that at points in my life. There were even times I wanted to turn and run from my chosen career.

But I didn't. And I'm grateful for that. Now, if I can only convince my students that slaying the butterflies is not important, but learning to welcome them is one of life's most important skills.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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