Do Your Students Make You Feel Second-Rate?

We’ve written before about impostor syndrome, that nagging sense that the certificates you hold and the years of experience under your belt still don’t qualify you to do your job. Well, we’re going to take that one step further now and develop it into an inferiority complex.

Now, we’re all familiar with the phrase, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”, and we all know it’s an idiotic idiom. We can all do our subjects to a high degree of specialism and it’s the joy of sharing our talents and imparting our knowledge that led us to teaching. But that doesn’t mean to say we’re necessarily the crème de la crème. We didn’t all score A*s in our own school days and we didn’t all leave university with firsts. What we’re going to explore here are those rare encounters with pupils who are not only destined for the top but already possess sufficient ability to make their teachers feel second-rate.

My own exemplar of a child prodigy actually made me cry. Yes, I’m man enough to admit that a fourteen-year-old girl reduced me to tears! Reading some students’ essays regularly makes me emotional, but not in a good way. Sticks and stones may break our bones but words used effectively can turn us into blubbering wrecks. And so it was that her teen poetry managed to move me more than the efforts of Duffy, Armitage or any other laureate ever has.

To suggest that she could outshine the titans of GCSE anthologies probably smacks of the positive discrimination regularly shown to cherubic TV talent show performers who are above-average but never gonna set the world alight. That may well be the case, my gut response affected by my scholarly fondness for an accomplished pupil. On the other hand, repeat analysis still had me marvelling in wonder and feeling woefully inadequate; producing work of the same quality was well beyond me.

As awe-struck as colleagues also were by her work, it’s not even as if one could bask in a small degree of reflected glory. I mean, how much credit can be taken for five hours per week of teaching divided by thirty pupils? What’s more, everyone could judge by the rest of the class’s efforts that it was very much her work rather than mine.

However, I could at least take solace that I wasn’t the only one feeling substandard. Her peers, of course, felt deficient by comparison every day of the week but so, increasingly, did other subject teachers. The music teacher confided that she could knock out concertos in a way that made him look ham-fisted. The home-ec teacher dined out on stories of her cordon bleu concoctions. The science teacher had her earmarked for a career in astrophysics.

There is no shame in not being the best but, when the apprentice becomes the master soon after hitting puberty, it can definitely be disconcerting for us elders. Comfort can be found in brushing aside both the inferiority complex and the age gap and looking at these type of teacher-pupil relationships anew: there might be little you have left to teach the supernova student, but used wisely they can be formidable allies in bringing the rest of the rabble up to scratch. Perhaps only if you’re a primary school teacher beset by an inferiority complex do you really have cause to worry…

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