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Imposter Syndrome in Education

Have you been too scared to apply for a new job because you didn't feel you were good/smart/experienced enough?

If people praise you for a job well done, do you feel uncomfortable, like you don't deserve it...or even like a fraud?

Do you feel like you've never done enough as an educator?

If a parent or colleague asks to speak to you do you automatically think "What have I done?!?!"

Are you fearful the world is going to find out you're "not a real eductor"? When I say "not a real teacher" I don't mean your degree is produced in photoshop (or you said you went to Harvard when you're really a bike courier #MikeRoss). What I mean is that sometimes(often?) you feel you're not living up to your own expectations of what makes a good teacher. (If you don't watch Suits you should)

If all this sounds familiar, welcome to the club...Imposter Syndrome Club.


What is Imposter Syndrome?

Wikipedia Definition:

Imposter syndrome is an inability for individuals to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as "fraud". Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.

My Definition:

Sometimes/Often/Always feeling like you're unworthy of success or compliment.

Feeling as if you are not worthy of the position you are in.

Being fearful that others will discover at any minute that you are not very good at "x".

Basically you feel like this cockatoo, and you're waiting for the rest of the world to figure it out...


The Downside- Feeling like a fraud isn't nice

Lying awake in bed the night before parent teacher interviews, feeling like you haven't done enough for your students and that parents may come at you with pitch forks...it's not nice.

Working until all hours to make sure your lesson plan is perfect...it's not nice.

At the end of the year thinking about a student in your class that has a tough home life and thinking you could have done more...it's not nice.

Then when things go right and people pat you on the back, you feel undeserving.

Like I said, it's not the end of the world by a LONG stretch, but it can suck.


The Upside- It can propel you to greatness

Imposter Syndrome can suck at times, but it's also got an upside...

Psychological research done in the early 1980s estimated that two out of five successful people consider themselves frauds and other studies have found that 70 percent of all people feel like impostors at one time or another. (This is from Wikipedia)

The realty is if you have imposter syndrome there is a fair chance you're also quite reflective, empathetic and a perfectionist (not always great either).

So ironically imposter syndrome can push people to achieve more than they might have otherwise. I guess that's the silver lining of never feeling like you have "made it".

At the end of his life apparently Albert Einstein confided to a friend, saying "the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler."

Lots of awesome people feel like imposters. It's not a giant leap to suggest their feelings of "never being enough" pushed them to achieve great things:

  • Tina Fey - Actor
  • Chris Martin - Singer/Song-writer Cold Play
  • Dr. Margaret Chan - Chief of the World Health Organization
  • Maya Angelou- Author


How can you deal with Imposter Syndrome?

If you have imposter syndrome I would encourage you to deal with it because:

  • You deserve to feel better about yourself.

  • The world needs you to believe in yourself so you can be the best version of yourself possible.

I am sure there are a thousand of amazing educators out there who have not reached anywhere near their full potential due to feeling like an imposter.

Thousands of educators, teaching millions of kids.

Here are a few ways that might help you tackle imposter syndrome:

Disclaimer: I'm speaking from expereince and have no background in mental health...other than being a teacher of 13 years, husband for 7 years, father for 4 years and alive for 36 years.


Accept Praise

Next time someone says something nice about you say..."Thank you"

NOT..."Thank you but really it was just luck/I didn't have much to do with it/it's only a Noble Peace Prize"

It's amazing how accepting, rather than deflecting praise can allow you to breath. It's almost like by giving yourself permission to feel proud externally, you also do internally.


Anchor Points

We often think of anchors as a negative, holding us down.

In this case I see anchor points as holding us down and stopping our imagination/emotions from taking "Imposter Syndrome Land".

Establish some undeniable truths that you can refer to as reference points.

They might be people, things or thoughts/ideas/events.

My Anchor Points:

  • People: My wife, parents and best mate.

  • Things: A letter from an old student thanking me for all the valuable lessons I taught her. This is not a "You're my favorite teacher ever" letter, it is specifically about the value I provided her as an educator.

  • Ideas: I love my family, friends and being an educator.

  • Events: A parent telling me I saved her son's life.


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Don't compare yourself to anyone else

I'm a big fan of a poem called the Desiderata:

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Accept that you are who you are. There will always be people who have achieve more and less then you. You are always changing. You will never be complete.


Be Authentic

Last year I published a book on teaching.

The whole process terrified me.

"Who are you to write a book on teaching?!?!"

So many other books are published by educational experts, but the only way I could sleep at night was by stating explicitly that I'm no expert.

I want to portray myself as what I am...a passionate educator, not an expert.

I think this is particularly important in the world of social media. We often share our "highlight reel" online, while we know all the "bloopers" that occur in the background. This imbalance can easily lead to a sense of being a fraud.


Identify your triggers

For most people there are certain events or triggers that will cause them to feel like an imposter. If you can identify them before the occur it should help you deal with them better.

My Triggers:

  • Spelling/Grammar- If you read this blog you will likely have found mistakes. I'm dyslexic and no matter how many times I read over my writing I miss things. In the education industry poor spelling is often sign of incompetence. When I get called out for making these mistakes, particularly in public, I feel...not so good.

  • Abbreviations/Jargon/Trends- "Have you completed your ESK? What about the Meta Cognitive Signifiers?" Huh? If I was a good teacher I would know this....rubbish. No one knows everything and often those that appear to know them most are "Jargon Balloons" full of hot air.

In reality is most people have no idea what they're doing...


#GrowthMindset

When you make a mistake does it really eat at you? Even if it's something simple.

"How could I do this? Why am I so stupid?"

Helping our students develop a growth mindset is something we all strive to do (I wrote another blog post on it, Teaching kids to struggle). At the same time it's something that we should all strive for as well.

Next time you make a mistake think about the self-talk you want your students to say to themselves. The best way you can help them develop a growth mindset is by modelling it yourself.

You don't need to even tell you students you're doing, they be able to tell already.


Hangout with good people

Surround yourself with caring, nice people.

You can't always choose who you are around, but where possible try and spend time with people you respect and who respect you.

A sure fire way to feel down about yourself is to surround yourself with people who degrade your self-worth.


Own it

Next time you feel like an imposter acknowledge it.

Give it a name.

Let "it" know you are aware of what's going on.

"What I'm feeling is imposter syndrome. It is likely irrational and will pass."

Give imposter syndrome a label and let it know you know what's going on!


Share it

Share your feelings of insecurity with those you trust and you will be surprised how many of them also feel the same...especially our students.

I'm largely writing this post because I once told my principal "I always feel like I'm just about to be found out...that I'm not a good teacher"

To my absolute surprise she said "I know exactly what you mean. I feel the same about being a principal."

When she confided in me a wave of relief came over me as I realised I wasn't alone.

By sharing your feelings you will release a burden from many others that feel the same way.

As Marianne Williamson says:

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So, liberate yourself and liberate others.

You are not an imposter...unless you are Mike Ross.

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Tim is a passionate educator. At times has been labelled a "Maverick" (amongst other things). He is also the founder of Class Creator and author of "88 Ways to Teach Effectively" (Out mid 2016).