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How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in Teaching

Is there an imposter in your classroom…and could it be you? If you think the answer is ‘yes’, you aren’t alone, says Gordon Cairns – but you’re almost certainly mistaken...

  • How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome in Teaching

As a newly qualified teacher, I would occasionally have a strange sense of discombobulation as I stood in front of the class: almost as if I had stepped out of my body to observe myself working, critically.

“Just because you have put on a suit to look the part, you aren’t fooling anyone. What are you actually doing here?” my inner voice would repeatedly ask me as I waited for the pupils to ignore my presence of authority in the room and start to run riot.

This worst-case scenario never happened, however, and after a while the negative thoughts slowly dissipated.

I thought this was a personal idiosyncrasy and wasn’t aware at the time that I was experiencing anything as imposing as a ‘disorder’, but I now realise I was undergoing ‘imposter syndrome’: “a psychological pattern where the individual doubts their abilities and fears public exposure”.

I’ve also discovered I wasn’t alone. This condition is reported to affect an incredible seven out of 10 adults, according to research published in The Journal of Behavioral Science.

What’s the difference?

These self-defined impostors come from all walks of life, with many high profile authors and actors, such as Maya Angelou and Kate Winslett, revealing the feelings of worthlessness the syndrome can cause.

However, perhaps due to the nature of education and those who enter the profession, ‘impostorism’ may be more prevalent in teaching than in other walks of life.

Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist Audrey Ervin described a typical sufferer as “someone who isn’t able to internalise and own their success.”

And the trouble is, in education it is very difficult to ‘own your success’. The only success that is owned in a secondary classroom is the pupils’, and this is generally only measured by qualifications.

If students perform strongly in their exams, the subject teacher isn’t high-fived in the staffroom for a job well done, and most teachers would also put good performance down to the ability and hard work of the young people themselves, not the quality of their coaching.

Unfortunately, the obverse is not true. Poor exam performance has the class teacher having to explain to departmental heads what went wrong and most reflective educators will mirror the inquest internally.

For the rest of the academic year, improvements in a pupil’s performance tend to be incremental and small; while in the important aspect of classroom management, who is going to go to the pub on a Friday night and have a celebratory pint toasting a week where the pupils did as they ought to?

In this environment, teachers struggle to see where they make a difference, wondering what their successes are and so increase their feelings of being an impostor.

Everyone’s a critic

It is perhaps unsurprising that occurrences of imposter syndrome are high in those working as actors or teachers; careers where individuals have to be prepared to engage with what can potentially be negative audiences.

The critical eye turned on both professions can make even the most confident experience self-doubt, but for teachers it is perhaps even worse – as few theatre audiences actually will the performance to be bad.

Outside of education, it’s rare for someone to work with a group who will delight in their mispronunciations, stammers and minor errors.

It is only natural that trying to teach a class where a significant minority’s main aim is to belittle them, this is going to have an impact on self value and increase the sense of being the impostor in the class.

Although impostor syndrome can affect teachers at any stage of their career, it would be safe to assume it is more likely to happen to those at the start of their journey, especially those who have gone into teaching straight from university after leaving school.

Their memories of being on the other side of the desk will still be fresh, and they may still be trying to shake the sense of being part of the group rather than the focus of attention in the classroom.

Their physical appearance may not be that different from their charges; and it must be hard to put on the robes of authority when senior members of staff stop you in the corridor and ask why you are not in school uniform.

Belief and doubt

According to a recent workplace survey of 3,000 respondents, two thirds of women had experienced imposter syndrome in the previous year, with men 18 percent less likely to have had that sense of being a fraud at work.

As women outnumber men two-to-one in secondary classrooms in England, it seems likely that a higher number than average of teachers will be affected by the condition.

Of course, this is not only debilitating for the individual but can also have a knock on effect on the education of the pupils.

A class needs to have belief in their teacher to learn, but this is made harder if that teacher has periods when they don’t believe in themselves.

Furthermore, these ‘impostors’ are less likely to go for promotion, meaning their talents in education may not be fully utilised.

The good news is, impostor syndrome can be overcome or at the very least managed – see the panel for advice.

And a good place to start is by remembering the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Really, which group would you rather be in?

How to break the impostor cycle

  1. Recognise what you are feeling.
    Name the negative thoughts you are feeling as impostor syndrome rather than incompetence, uselessness or whatever. If you can dismiss the condition as a sense of self-sabotage rather than as incompetence you will be a step closer to lifting your low mood.
  2. Accept imperfections
    This might be hard to do as more and more teachers post beautiful images of perfectly arranged classrooms on Instagram, or share links to their slick lesson plans on Twitter. However, it is important to remember that in the real world of education you are working within the constraints of time, resources and the demands of others. Don’t beat yourself up over clumsy or improvised lessons and focus on the greater goal of educating your pupils rather than trying to achieve perfection.
  3. Accept you are not alone
    While impostor syndrome might feel like a guilty secret, statistically seven out of 10 teachers sitting in the staffroom might have experienced the feeling of being a phoney at some point this year. If you can open up a conversation with a colleague about these what you are going through, you might find they have experienced it too. The shared experience can create a sense of relief and help you manage the syndrome.
  4. Self doubt implies self reflection
    If impostor syndrome is really to do with lacking the capability to do your job, then there can be no greater impostor today than Donald Trump, yet I don’t imagine the President of the United States has sleepless nights thinking he is not up to the task. The self doubt you are experiencing is a sign that you are actually analysing and reflecting on your practice, which can only be a positive for your craft and for your pupils.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. He also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.

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