I’ll never forget my first day teaching a college-level class. Heart racing, palms sweaty, and out of breath, I hoped the students would believe it was the walk up the stairs and not my nerves that were to blame. As I emptied my bag with the textbook, a class roster, and my notes, I felt their stares and confused glances toward each other. At 23, I barely looked old enough to sit in a college classroom, much less teach freshman comp. I felt like an imposter. That feeling that I was an imposter has never gone away, at least not completely, even after 17 years of teaching.
I wish I would have known then what I know now. Most teachers, if they are honest with themselves, have felt like a fraud at one time or another, and though that feeling never goes away completely, you can learn to manage it. Today, I will share 5 tips to overcome imposter syndrome as a teacher.
Imposter syndrome, first coined by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, refers to the anxiety created by feeling you do not have the qualifications, skills, or knowledge to fulfil a role. According to Dr. Audrey Ervin those who experience imposter syndrome are unable to internalize their successes and instead seek external validation.
It is estimated that 70% of all people will experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. That’s right, the very ones you are comparing yourself to have probably also experienced the same feelings. Knowing you are not alone and that this feeling has a name can allow you the space to combat the lies you are telling yourself.
When you are new to teaching, there is a tendency to act like you know everything, at least in front of your students. You are guaranteed to make a few mistakes. Own them. Don’t know the answer to a question? Tell students you will look into it and let them know. The worst thing you can do is try to confuse them to mask your own lack of knowledge. And trust me, I have seen it happen during class observations. Be prepared for not knowing every random grammar rule. You want your students’ trust? Be honest.
Self-reflection is the key to growing as a teacher. Though I never kept a formal journal (well not since 6th grade), I have developed the habit of writing notes on my lesson plans each day. Though my lesson plans have gotten less detailed over the years, I always prepare a roadmap for the day and estimate time spent on each activity. During class I make notes of what is going well, what isn’t, and ideas for tweaking activities. I also incorporate student feedback throughout the term and include these in my course binder. (Check out my previous blog post on getting the most out of student feedback.) Responding to my own observations and student feedback lets me see how I am growing, which helps me overcome those feelings of doubt.
Don’t have one? Seek one out. I have found that my best mentor relationships develop organically without a formal discussion. Not sure how to find one? Ask to observe your colleagues for your own professional development. Then, ask a couple of them to observe your class and provide you with feedback. When you find one who offers you constructive feedback, develop a relationship with them. Growing as a teacher is not a sprint, but a marathon, and knowing you have someone waiting for you at checkpoints along the way gives you the extra boost you need to keep going.
You know the one I am talking about. The one who has been teaching since you were in diapers. The one who seems to function on autopilot. Sure they have all the answers and don’t need to prepare for class, but consider what you have that they don’t. In fact, while you are at it, make a list of all your strengths - everything you bring to the class that they can’t. Shifting the focus from what others can do, to what you can do will help you appreciate what you are bringing to the table. None of your students will remember you misspelled surprise on the board (oh God, I hope they don’t!), but you can bet they will remember that class TikTok project you created.
What do all these tips have in common? They all stem from a spirit of continuous growth. Whether you have been teaching for 2 weeks or 20 years, imposter syndrome can dampen the joy of teaching. Want to overcome it? Don’t let yourself become stagnant. Find ways to grow, accepting there will be some bumps along the way.
Do you have any tips for managing imposter syndrome I missed? Free free to share your comments on our Linkedin page.
About the author
Based in Savannah, Georgia, Misty Wilson is an experienced English as a Second Language instructor.