Noun: impostor: a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others, especially for fraudulent gain.
I’ve recently read the big hit by Adam Kay “This is going to hurt” which outlines his life as a junior doctor. One the biggest themes running throughout* is his feelings of being less than adequate to do his job. One that he trained for 5 years to do! He was routinely in situations diagnosing and treating patients where Google felt like his only ally. He well and truly had imposter syndrome. It occurred to me, if a doctor (well he’s no longer on the GMC, so he could afford to be more honest!) could own up to these feelings, when his action or inaction could literally mean life or death, I think owning up to and owning imposter syndrome as a teacher is doable. (*the other major theme is the absolute annihilation of the NHS by an inadequate Health Secretary, but this blog is not the place for that!)
I had always accepted impostor syndrome as part of the job, especially as an early career teacher, but, I assumed that this would soon fade with time, and I would soon be part of the omniscient elite of ‘experienced teachers’.
So, you try to become that: The experienced teacher.
And now I’m a Research Lead, and apparently part of this crew! A big part of this remit is to plan and deliver whole school CPD around the school’s development plan. So here I find myself standing in front of peers, delivering sessions. Eyes staring hoping for a glimpse of something new, exciting, useful even. We’ve all been there, dry mouthed, with an empty head and long silence where your words should be. Who am I to stand in front of these people, what did I know that could offer any value to their practice?
Having received training and CPD by people whose unwavering confidence could outrank the likes of Donald Trump, what am I doing trying to fill those shoes?
I vividly remember delivering my first ever whole school CPD session (at my first school), the focus was AfL. I’d been teaching little more than 18 months, but I was keen and eager and a good puppet for someone’s agenda. Standing there shaking, geed on by an enthusiastic Head “Go on Louise, you can do this”, so I ploughed on, robotic voice and beads of sweat adding to the effect. I was a real impostor. I had no real understanding of AfL, I just knew what I’d been told to say. It was their agenda, not mine, but I wanted to impress. I had no place there, I spouted out something around exit tickets, thought triangles and brain dumps, but was it of any use? I highly doubt it. I was unconvincing because I was unconvinced.
During ResearchEd national conference, 2018, I witnessed a debate between some of education’s elite, Mark Enser, Clare Sealy, and Sri Pavar (to name a few), examining “What should a 21st century curriculum look like?” chaired by Christine Counsell, and I couldn’t help but feel awe struck at the knowledge oozing from every pore. Not only knowledge, but passion and the ability to retort on a pin head. The impostor syndrome strikes again. To the outside world, we were the same species, but so different in this habitat.
It really struck a chord when Sri Pavar discerned that a student’s ability to join in on the “conversation” of science is a rite of passage, as opposed to merely accepting facts laid out before them. So when is a teacher’s rite of passage? Upon completing ITT, submitting a Master’s thesis, time served? Or ever? Will I/we always feel like impostors? Even the most confident of colleagues experience it. But why and to what purpose?
As a biologist, I teach a whole host of biological concepts, all of which confer some kind of advantage to survival to the organism. So that got me thinking, what is the advantage of impostor syndrome? There must be one.
After much soul searching, I believe I have found the advantage to me:
My doubts have made me:
- Read more, thus develop my knowledge and understanding of the learning processes
- Communicate with colleagues on the best strategies for learning, both subject-specifically and purely pedagogical.
- Question everything! *
I see so many posts from teachers talking about the dreaded imposter syndrome and I am almost certain they have no reason to feel that way. But in the climate of performance related pay, high stakes observations, media scrutiny and a general political trend of teacher bashing, is it any wonder so many of us feel this way? The feeling of inadequacy is a powerful weapon for those who do not want teachers to be empowered. Whether it be to use specific instructional strategies, behaviour management techniques, lead a school to success or to simply do our jobs! But, in the immortal words of Sir Francis Bacon “Knowledge is power” and knowing the effect imposter syndrome can have, and, more importantly, how it can be an advantage, is key.
Reflecting on my doubts, they have been far from crushing, but eye-opening to a whole world of professional development, I once didn’t even know existed. The process of teaching is a complex spider’s web of variables and nuance, making it an unsolvable Rubix Cube. But isn’t it great to have such a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips and the confidence in our misunderstandings to embrace it?
So, are we all always impostors? Or, would a more accurate description be an eternal work in progress?
* Especially this blog post! It’s been in my drafts since October, 2018!