When we think of insecure teachers, we often think of the newly-qualified CELTA trainee who is unsure about their knowledge of English tenses, or the non-native speaker teacher who worries about their possible lack of instinctive knowledge of English. Yet, I have heard many an experienced teacher (both native and non-native) confess to feeling like a fraud. Even those with expert-level knowledge of the language, its systems (lexis, grammar, pronunciation, discourse) and the pedagogy of language teaching are sometimes filled with self-doubt.
The experienced General English teacher might hesitate to take on new challenges to teach Business English, fearing that he/she might be called out for his/her own lack of experience in the business world.
The experienced Business English trainer might have to take on clients from the engineering industry, an industry he/she knows nothing about. He/She worries about the engineering knowledge he/she would be expected to have and the engineering jargon he/she might be lacking.
The experienced DELTA trainer who has done back-to-back DELTA courses for three years might now have to teach a General English class and wonders if he/she might be able to walk the walk as well as he/she talks the talk.
The experienced teacher is asked to take on an exam class teaching exam preparation skills for an exam he/she has never encountered before and is concerned that his/her students are going to catch him/her out on this before long.
The star teacher of the school gets a promotion and becomes the Director of Studies, managing 40 teachers and trainers. He/She worries about his/her complete lack of experience in management and is anxious that he/she might not be the best person for the job.
In a job that requires us to be so many things and play so many roles all at once, it is no surprise that many teachers feel like impostors in their own field. The more we develop, the more we realise that there is just so much we don’t know. For some of us, we might be happy to keep ‘winging it till we make it’ and keep striving to be better at what we do. But for some of us, this feeling can become debilitating and have a negative impact on our self-worth and ambition.
This crippling belief that we don’t deserve to be where we are is part of a psychological phenomenon called impostor syndrome. Characterised by a feeling that we are the only ones so grossly inadequate in our jobs, we live in fear of the day someone is going to reveal us for the frauds we are, and this leads us to be constantly afraid of taking on new challenges. Ironically, this is something that could strike the experienced and the high achievers, possibly because the higher up we go in our careers, the more aware we become of the experts in our field and how far away we are from being great at our jobs.
While some feelings of inadequacy could serve as impetus to seek more professional development, these feelings might potentially become overwhelming, and if left unaddressed, could grow and fester and hinder career development.
But impostor syndrome can be dealt with, starting with these five simple steps.
1. Become aware of your feelings and their impact
Instead of sweeping these feelings under the carpet and telling yourself they don’t matter, it is important that we acknowledge them and understand them. Where do these feelings come from? Are they borne out of anxiety about a new job or an unfamiliar task? Are they triggered by a bad experience or some negative feedback from a student or a manager? Are they exacerbated by a need to compare yourself to others? Are you a perfectionist? Don’t seek to blame others but acknowledge the feelings they give rise to.
How are these feelings impacting on you? Are they causing you to avoid the unfamiliar? Are they making you nervous about getting feedback? What kind of effects are you feeling on a daily basis?
2. Find people to talk about this to
There are two reasons for doing this. One, talking about your feelings can help you reflect on them, understand them and discover potential ways to deal with them. Two, you might realise that you are not alone in feeling this way, and this revelation can be powerful for some. As they say, there is strength in numbers.
Consider talking to someone at work like a colleague, a mentor, or a manager – someone who you think is likely to be sympathetic and able to give you their time and a listening ear. Alternatively, consider talking to someone you don’t work with, e.g. a fellow teacher you met online. Some of my best conversations about teaching have taken place on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Line. Sometimes, it can be easier talking to someone who is not in the exact same teaching context as you are.
3. Recognise your abilities and your achievements
Feedback is a funny thing: it is so easy to ignore the positives and obsess about the negatives. Take time to think about your talents and capabilities: What are you good at? What skills have you developed along the way? What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? What are some of the things you've achieved? Think about the students you’ve helped, the trainees you’ve supported, and the colleagues you’ve inspired. You didn't get to where you are now purely by luck. Give yourself the recognition you deserve for your hard work and experience.
4. Understand the expectations of your students/clients
What exactly are you being hired to be? A linguist? An expert at language learning? A coach that can motivate and help students/clients become better? An ESP professional who can analyse the written discourse of a particular field and teach their student to write in a similar fashion?
You might realise that your students/clients are not expecting you to be all things – that your engineering clients are not expecting you to be an expert at their field but would like you to focus on helping them communicate more effectively in meetings; that your students might prefer fewer lectures with linguistic jargon and metalanguage, and more exposure to useful language practice; that language learners might not notice when you are not optimising the use of a particular methodology but would most certainly tell the difference between a motivating lesson and an unmotivating one.
So, get to know the needs of your students and focus on how you can go about fulfilling those needs. Set realistic goals, and if there’s something you are not so good at doing, now is the time to start working on it. After all, the best way to learn something is by teaching it.
5. Understand there is no such thing as ‘a perfect teacher’
In your imagination, what does a perfect teacher look like? What are they able to do? What qualifications or achievements would they have? When we start to try and quantify ‘a perfect teacher’, we start to realise that there is no such thing as a perfect teacher. Some teachers are good in certain areas and have certain skills, but many of these are learnt and refined through hard work and experience.
So instead, consider what in your mind ‘a great teacher’ might be. What knowledge and skills do they have? What are they able to help their students with? How do you measure up? Use that gap in knowledge/skill as motivation to improve yourself and remember Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule – you can become a world-class expert at anything you put your mind to if you do it for 10,000 hours. In essence, practice is key.
If you suffer from impostor syndrome, these five steps might be only the beginning of your journey in battling those negative feelings, but remember: rather than letting yourself get sucked into a downward spiral of self doubt, take charge of the situation and know that any talent, knowledge or skill can be learnt and developed. You only have to give yourself time.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). Outliers: the story of success. New York: Little, Brown and Co.
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