Just about a year ago I was honored to receive an award that meant the world to me. When they said my name, I just sat there in stunned silence and couldn’t move. Surely they meant to give it to my colleague in the same district and just mixed up the names. Or certainly they would add “Just kidding!” Perhaps they were just prefacing the real announcement with one about Lauren’s phone was found again! As I was fishing for some other explanation, Bonnie got up and gently grabbed my shoulder whispering, “You need to go get it!”
It reminded me of so many other times when I felt unworthy, certain that someone would pull aside the curtain and reveal the imposter hiding behind. I remember my first year teaching at the age of 22, when I wondered who in the world thought it was a good idea to let me stand in front of a class of 14-year-olds and act like I knew what I was doing. Clearly the superintendent only selected me because he grew up in the same town as my Dad. I remember wondering how everyone else seemed to know how to grade fairly. How they had great classroom management. How they were popular with the kids. How they handled unhappy parents. How they taught about stuff that really mattered, even if it was hard to measure. How they directed or coached or performed or…
Does this sound familiar? According to multiple articles on the subject of The Imposter Syndrome, roughly 70% of US citizens experience this. The numbers are said to be higher among women and other minorities, and in the ‘giving’ professions, although it is very hard to find any actual data. Informally, I can attest that many of my colleagues agree that they often wonder when someone is going to find out that they don’t know what the heck they are doing.
So why am I writing this now?
- Maybe it is finally time to write this because I’m close to retirement and don’t have much to lose. (Now you’ll all know my vulnerable truth.)
- Maybe it is time because I see colleagues struggling through it and I wonder if I might help. (I got into education to make a difference.)
- Maybe it is because I read a blog today from Vermont’s new Teacher of the Year, Tom Payeur who said: “So much of my career is caught up in legacy and seniority, and I was nervous to speak my thoughts out of fear of being written off as another crackpot do-gooder who would burn out or “come around” soon enough…” (So I’m not alone.)
- Maybe it is because I was lucky enough to hear Rushton Hurley at VermontFest who talked about the “Comparative Inadequacy Syndrome” he runs into world-wide in schools, identifying that fear is a barrier to getting better. (That’s when things started clicking in my head.)
- One of the many wonderful resources he shared was the free video library on his Next Vista site. There, as part of the Hey You! project, adults share their Story, their Advice, and their Why. (That reminded me of My Why blog post written in 2014 when I stated that our work with personalized learning is messy and worth it in “helping students to become the people of potential we hope they will be in the 21st C.”)
The Imposter Syndrome seems even more rampant in times of change, such as Vermont educators are going through right now, as we move to proficiency based teaching and learning. Each district is left to define “proficient” and to come up with means of assessing it in ways that make sense to families, employers and post-secondary institutions. At its heart Act 77 and its Flexible Pathways is incredibly freeing! Rather than relying on seat time and a low bar of D-, we now can actually decide if a student understands our content and has the skills they need to succeed. In many ways, it strikes me that this should actually be a very freeing time, if only we can believe in ourselves and our professional judgement. Every educator needs to contribute to this conversation and not sit in stunned silence, doubting their contribution. We simply can’t afford the Imposter Syndrome to get in the way of such outlandish potential.
So what’s to be done?
Let’s start by acknowledging that a majority of us feel this way.
As in so many other challenges, it gets better by naming it, by talking about it. I felt great relief when I stumbled upon this term a few years ago and realized I was far from alone.
Why did we get into education in the first place? Most of us just want to make the world a better place. To do that we have to practice the Growth Mindset model that we so easily to hoist on our students. Let’s wear the mantle ourselves.
I’m reading Michelle Obama’s excellent new book and heard an interview where she said, “We can’t model something different if we want them to be better than that.” In her case she was ‘defending’ the famous quote “When they go low, we go high.” As applied to our situation, we have to model for our students that we are willing to try new things and to be transparent about saying so. “I heard about this cool new tool called VoiceThread and I want to try it with you today. I’m not sure how it is going to go, so please let me know what worked for you and what didn’t in this activity. Did it allow you to show what you know about the proficiency 1F that we are working on?”
We need to practice “just in time” learning. In my school we offer “Lunch and Learn” where the principal provides a free school lunch to any teacher who comes to a session to learn new technology tools as they apply to our Transferable Skills Teachers also host book groups before school. We have coaches to meet with teachers when it is most convenient. What does your school offer? If there isn’t anything, what can you start? By continuing to learn we are modeling what we want for our students, and generating our own joy.
Get social! Join a Twitter group. If you are new to Twitter, find a colleague who is a fan and tag along. Certainly feel welcome to ask me @lparren on Twitter, or email@example.com if you prefer email. Finding like-minded peers on Twitter is usually fairly easy, and I’m very happy to help you find your people. One caveat, though: Remember that most people only post what’s gone well. Do not let this gush of good news add to your “good enough” worries. Over time you’ll see these posts as inspiration, not as a challenge. It will be nice when we post our failures and our reactions to those failures, but that won’t happen until we acknowledge the Imposter Syndrome.
Record your successes. I mean it! Perhaps for you it is a journal, perhaps a spreadsheet. For me it is a SmileFile, a bright yellow manilla file folder where I can store thank-you notes and other tidbits that make me happy. Teaching really is a great profession and we really do make small, wonderful differences often. You don’t need to get a lifetime achievement award to know in your heart that YOU made a difference in a kid’s day.
And just as we hoped to “help students to become the people of potential we hope they will be in the 21st C.”, let’s apply that to ourselves: Help each other become the teachers of potential we hope we will be in the 21st C.
Most of all, make yourself a poster or sew a tapestry or choreograph a dance or whatever mode speaks to you quoting Rushton Hurley: The only person to whom you ever need compare yourself is the you who you were yesterday.
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Lauren Parren is a Rowland Fellow from the cohort of 2012. Currently she is the Technology Integration Coach at South Burlington High School and is the Associate for Social Media for the Rowland Foundation (aka Tweeter in chief and Blogmeister))