Impostor Syndrome: Why Do Teachers Second-Guess Themselves?


I remember my first ‘outstanding’ observation – An English Language A-Level lesson with a class of eleven students. I recall the self-doubt and the onset of impostor syndrome that told me my lesson was poorly planned and headed for a disaster before I walked through the door.

What makes teachers question their ability to do the job they’re trained to do?

The First ‘Outstanding’

The lesson started out with a couple of latecomers, more absentees than I’d have wanted and the invasion of a particularly large spider from the ceiling five minutes in. I was polite but firm with the latecomers, didn’t waste time getting the register done and somehow mustered up the courage to grasp the spider in my bare hand and throw it out of a window. What I don’t remember, are any particulars about the lesson. I just remember the observer telling me that it was ‘outstanding’ and that I felt physically sick.

I struggled to comprehend how my shambles of a lesson, with missing students, latecomers and spiders, somehow warranted the grade ‘outstanding’. Worst of all, internally, I refused to accept the feedback and I told myself that I have no idea what I’m doing. I was in the tangled web of impostor syndrome.

‘I have no idea what I am doing!’ – Impostor Syndrome Hits us All

Fast-forwarding a few months: I teach GCSE English, A-Level English Literature and Language, and Media Studies. I’m generally in the swing of things until a strange, but familiar, feeling hits me: what if am simply pretending at this? What if I am doing a great job of pretending to know what I’m doing and what happens when someone finds out? The fear of being found out followed me around for a few weeks. I was fearful that my HOD would knock on my door and say ‘we know it’s all a farce’ and escort me from the building.

I took my concerns to a friend who had recently been promoted to head-up literacy across the school and I was hit with a truth-bomb: it happens to everyone; some people are just better at hiding it. There was an immediate sense of relief in hearing that someone who looked so cool and calm on the surface also had that voice telling them that they have no idea what they’re doing from time to time. The fact that it had a name, impostor syndrome, almost felt like a weight off my shoulders. My next question was: why? Why do teachers feel this way? The only answer I could come up with was a personal pursuit of perfection coupled with scrutiny telling you otherwise. The perfect storm.

A Matter of Perspective

Being a teacher is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you differently – some teachers seem to have a natural knack for dealing with the workload, stress, difficult kids and all of the planning in their stride and those are the lucky few. Learn from them, but do not think for a moment that they’re not working hard to make it look so easy.

Occasionally, it’s important to take a step back and tell yourself that there is no shame in asking for help and being vulnerable; and there is certainly no shame in being far from perfect. You may be a trained professional but learning doesn’t stop the moment you leave university or training. There’s always something to learn, something to perfect and you’re definitely not an impostor just because you don’t sail from lesson to lesson with relative ease.

Being ‘OK’ Is Just Fine

I realised that one of the contributing factors to my own impostor syndrome was anxiety, self-doubt and a lack of perspective. I had never told myself that I was doing alright. I never considered that I wouldn’t be amazing right out of the gate and I certainly never assumed that those ‘perfect’ teachers ever had bad days. In hindsight, I probably should’ve. We all have bad days, we’re human.

Teaching is perhaps among the only professions where the professional is scrutinised so regularly. That alone can be problematic for some teachers without the burning desire to be perfect biting at your heels. Celebrate the good, reflect upon the bad. Cut yourself some slack, put things into perspective and tell yourself that ‘yes, actually, I am OK at this and that’s just fine’.

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