Impostor Teacher

I’m a huge fraud. If you asked around, there would be a lot of people who might tell you that I am good teacher. I get high marks on my observations, students seem to like me, and I often hear positive remarks about what I do in the classroom.

And with each compliment, a feeling of guilt floods my conscious. I usually start explaining away the compliment before they even finish it.

“That is nice of you to say, but you don’t see what I see.”

There is this ever-present feeling that it is all a mask. Somehow, by some grand act of illusion, I have unintentionally made everyone believe that I know how to teach. It's only a matter of time before everybody notices this charade and my bosses tell me that I would be much better off growing the best beard I can muster and steaming soy lattes at some corner coffee shop. Teaching our young people, especially in places where they have not been taught well, seems like a huge task. I convince myself that there has to be someone better for this gig, society has put far too much faith in me.     

Admittedly, There is this really vain part of me that wants others to think I am a good teacher. But there is a bigger part of me that wants to believe that myself. The challenge rests in the persistent fact that I see my body of work play out in room 375 every day. I see the student with her head down most of class. I hear the complaints about reading, or writing, or even thinking and the dread on a student’s face when I hand out something to read. I notice it when I look down my list of students and ask myself how each of them are improving. And for all of my attempts at creativity and shine, I end up feeling like the days get more and more cookie-cutter as the year progresses. I feel like I’m the creative equivalent of a ‘96 Ford Taurus. Four doors, spacious, and extremely practical.    

In the spirit of objectivity, a skill I try to give my students, I have to recognize the positive strides as well. For every kid that can’t seem to put their phone down, there is a student who is pushing to be better. For every complaint about how boring my class is, there is a conversation that is rewarding. And while the mention of data seems to anger some people, there is a fairly solid chunk of numbers suggesting that most of my students are learning.

But the feelings that fill our brains aren’t objective, and many teachers live in the relentless and anxious world of impostor syndrome. In other words, I think it is only a matter of time until this entire gig catches up to me. People are going to realize what I have known for a long time. In spite of my advanced degrees, my tireless effort, my job performance ratings, and my 9 years of experience, I have no idea how to do this job well. It is not for lack of effort, reading, reflection, or analysis, but because the only predictable aspect of my work is failure. My own, glaring, failure.

I didn’t even know that impostor syndrome was a thing until a conversation with a friend a few months ago. He told me that most people who are good at what they do feel some level of this at times in their career. It’s so pervasive, that some companies, especially in the tech field, hold a mandatory impostor syndrome training for all new hires.

Those companies have learned something that I have yet to apply to my practice: that this feeling isn’t helping anybody. As a teacher, it is obviously not helpful for my own well-being if I leave work most days feeling like a failure. It is also not helping my colleagues who may need to hear stories of success and areas where I may be doing well. Most importantly, my constant self-doubt and lack of confidence is not helping my students. Students deserve thoughtful and reflective practitioners in their classrooms, but that shouldn’t cripple us.

In my case, I welcome feedback and try to listen to all criticisms of my practice. Those are needed habits that make me a better teacher. However, I’ve noticed that there is a fine, and sometimes indiscernible, line between reflective listening and helpless descents into doubt and insecurity. Students recognize a listening ear, so they are quick to share their feelings about class.  I’m probably a pretty standard millennial teacher filled with self-doubt,so I linger on the negative moments and brush off the positive ones. It’s not healthy.

Here is where I wish I had some sweeping revelation of positivity for an ending. Instead, I just have a google search for how to deal with impostor syndrome, a desk scattered with papers, or reminders of all the balls I am dropping, and mind that feels a bit less organized than my desk. It is April, and T.S Eliot called this “the cruelest season.” It certainly is in schools. We begin to think about the end of the year, and all that we did wrong. Those things that we will try to fix if they are stupid enough to let us try this again next year. I hope we can see the good. As we finish and reflect, that we will listen to the “thank yous” with the same weight that we hear the complaints.

-Jason