Newly Qualified Teachers And Impostor Syndrome

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Do you know what you are doing?

Fake, fraud, phoney, quack. Feeling like you are an impostor and not up to the job is a common syndrome. Teachers are plagued by nagging self-doubts and are seldom comfortable in their own teaching skins. Intelligent people are usually full of insecurities.

As a new teacher, no matter how much you are told not to fret, you can’t help but worry about what children, colleagues and parents think of you and your ability as a teacher. You worry about being found out. When you are new to a job or new to a school, what people think matters and this can play on your mind even if you try not to let it.

Some of this anxiety lessens with time and experience. However, I’d be doubtful of anyone who said they were past caring what others thought. Everyone wants to think they are doing a good job.

Even though you might have a really supportive team around you who don’t mind if you ask supposedly ‘stupid questions’, you still worry about asking ‘stupid questions’ without fear of judgement. According to Halliday (2018) classic impostor syndrome behaviours include perfectionism, over-preparing, comparing themselves to others and discounting praise.

But beware. As Stephen Brookfield says in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, “The feeling of being an impostor can ruin a teacher’s life. Taken to extreme levels, it is crippling. The worst way to live as a teacher is to believe that you are the only one who is falling short of the perfection that you suspect is exemplified in your colleagues’ practices.”

Fresh Out Of The Teaching Oven

Impostor syndrome can be particularly strong for a newly qualified teacher. You can be riddled with self-doubt and this can be paralysing. Having an unwarranted sense of insecurity is common even when you do a great job. It’s worth reminding yourself though that impostor syndrome is something that doesn’t just plague new teachers. Colleagues of any age can feel a fraud even if they accomplish great things. That’s why embracing reciprocal vulnerability is so important.

You might feel like a bit of a fraud and less capable because you only know a fraction of what Mr Jennings in Year 6 knows. The fact that Mr Jennings doesn’t know a lot of stuff too and he doubts himself in various ways doesn’t enter into your thinking. It’s hard not to compare your insides with other people’s outsides. Mr Jennings has a fear of being ‘found out’ but is pretty good at wearing a false mask of competence. He too suffers from impostor syndrome.

For children and colleagues, the fact that you are new to the job is a considerable asset because you have the energy, passion and talent to do the job. Your ideas and skills are worthy of their attention.

Parent Power

It’s not always the case but often the hardest audience to convince are parents. Some will welcome you with open arms and try to find out as much about your personal life in the first five minutes as they can. They will already have ‘Googled’ you and checked your social media so it’s worth remembering they might know more than you think.

Then there are those that will doubt your ability to teach and see you as some sort of intruder who doesn’t belong.

They will doubt and question your every decision and because you are new they won’t trust you. The typical probationary period some parents give teachers is around 3-5 years so don’t be perturbed if acceptance isn’t forthcoming. They’ll need to see a few of your assemblies first and they’ll judge you on how fast you answer an email and whether their child likes you.

Show no fear, be confident and assertive if you have to be because you’ve earned your position. You are not auditioning for the part. You do belong and you are not a fake. If you have to cloak and mask your fears by adopting the graceful swan position then do it.

Parents will question you about the curriculum, they will get tetchy about assessment and they will make your life difficult on occasions but see it as parental priming. Yes, you need a few layers of protective paint to remain waterproof and appear glossy and shiny to the outside world even if inside you are patchy and peeling.

Enough Is Enough

New teachers have to stand their ground and hold their nerve. Worrying about what others may or may not be thinking is energy-sapping. We can’t second-guess or overthink because it isn’t good for us. Impostor syndrome is not real but completely irrational. As Alex Quigley (2016) says in his book The Confident Teacher, “You are enough.”

Teaching has plenty of energy extractors as it is without focusing on what parents are saying and you are not a pretend teacher.  As Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy says, “ Impostorism steals our power and suffocates our presence.” When things don’t go right in class then this can make impostor syndrome especially tough. Every teacher makes mistakes but if a new teacher drops a clanger then some parents might not be so forgiving.

Children talk. They are your best friends and your worst enemies. If they’ve had a wonderful day then they might just feed this back home after some parental prompting. But if you misread a sentence, got your maths in a muddle or forgot to give some letters out then this will be reported back without fail and in delicious detail.

Be An Honest Impostor

On the whole, most parents are very friendly and genuinely want you to succeed and to help their child. Older and wiser colleagues may appear to be in control but even the most talented and experienced teachers can’t possibly know everything. The difference is they have the confidence to admit when they don’t know something and can bat away the tuts and headshakes.

If things do get you in a tizz as a new teacher and you don’t have the gift of the gab, the best policy is to be honest with parents if they quiz and challenge you. Hiding your internal panic is important but saying “I’d have to talk with my colleagues in more detail about this and get back to you” is better than blagging, looking nonplussed and saying “Errr.”

Being at the bottom of a learning curve is no fun. There are butterflies all over the place and you can feel out of your depth. The fear of being remembered for doing something idiotic isn’t pleasant. No one wants to be remembered for losing a child on a school trip or making a hash of a playground incident. Learning curves are seldom smooth.

Be Gloriously Vulnerable

It is our colleagues who are the strongest support but even then you might feel guilty about asking for help. You don’t want to add to their workload because you know they have just as much to do as you. But don’t hold back. People like to help and they like to be asked. Little moments of triumph will come when you seek support rather than going it alone.

Having open and regular professional conversations is crucial to feeling on top. Being vulnerable with colleagues you can trust can be liberating, ‘contagious’ and exceptionally helpful. Having the confidence and courage to embrace vulnerability is important. There will be days when you feel like teaching was the best decision you ever made. Then there will be days when you stare at the yawning, huge impossible weight of all the ‘teachery’ things you don’t have in your toolkit….yet.

The learning curve is bumpy, steep, challenging and painful. Even after 10 years you might never make it to the top. The trick is not to give up but start climbing the next peak because when you do get there the view is worth it. You will still doubt yourself though!

No one wants you to fail. If you collect and revisit the positive feedback you get over the course of a week or term, you’ll realise that you are more than up to the job and ‘enough’. Listen to Angela Watson’s podcast ‘7 Ways Teachers Can Push Past Imposter Syndrome’

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