Have you ever had the following thoughts?
- I have no idea what I’m doing as a teacher.
- My principal was crazy to hire me for this position — I’m clearly not experienced enough.
- I’m not knowledgeable enough about this subject area to be teaching it.
- I’m just not capable of doing everything that needs to be done as a teacher.
- I don’t know why other people say I’m such a good teacher — I really don’t deserve it and haven’t done a very good job.
If you can relate to any of those feelings, you might be dealing with a phenomenon that’s commonly known as Imposter Syndrome. It’s that feeling of being a fraud, an almost panic-inducing sense that at any moment, other people are going to figure out you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing and have no business being given the level of responsibility you have.
This is a real thing, and it can be paralyzing. If you struggle with Imposter Syndrome, you may find it’s gotten worse in recent years and is exacerbated by social media, where we see (or think we’re seeing) what other people’s lives are like, and inadvertently begin comparing ourselves to them. We wonder,
How come my house or my classroom doesn’t look like that? How come my family or my students don’t act like that? Everyone else is being a responsible grownup and I’m over here struggling with basic adulting. I can’t even remember to get my teeth cleaned every six months, how am I in charge of running an entire classroom?
Imposter Syndrome is something that I personally struggle with, as I talked about back in the beginning of the podcast season in Episode 101, Your classroom does not have to be Pinterest-worthy. I struggled with Imposter Syndrome as a teacher, even back before Pinterest pressure was even a thing.
I had back-to-school nightmares that involved kids running absolutely wild, not listening to or even seeing me in the room because subconsciously I worried I had no idea how to manage a classroom (despite having literally written a book on it.)
I’d have a lesson observed and think: Welp, this is the moment my principal realizes I don’t actually know how to teach, and I’ve just been faking it for the last 10 years. Or I’d have a Back-to-School Night and think: Now all the parents are going to know I’m not nearly as good as the teacher their kid had last year.
In truth, I never felt like I had a firm grasp on what every student in the classroom knew and was able to do, and I was just doing my best to try to keep up every day.
That self-doubt was always with me as a teacher and has never left me even now. Imposter Syndrome is not something I grapple with daily anymore, but I’d say it happens on a very regular basis, at least weekly. Sometimes the moments of Imposter Syndrome are fleeting, and I can brush them out of my mind in a few seconds. Other times, they loom over me for hours or even days.
They’re just these moments of self-doubt in which I feel like I have nothing new or original to say to the world, so why even bother putting my ideas out there? The podcast feels stupid. My teaching resources are dumb. It feels like everything I want to do or make has already been done, and someone else already did it better. Who am I, to think that I have ideas that are worth sharing with other people? I worry that any day now, people will decide I’m a fake and phony who has no idea what she’s talking about.
So, while I don’t have any solutions that can make Imposter Syndrome go away permanently, I CAN let you know that you’re not the only one grappling with it. And, I can share some strategies from personal experience that help with countering Imposter Syndrome and managing the self-doubt. I’ve chosen seven specific things that have been helpful for me over the years, and I hope they’ll be helpful for you, too.
Click the player above (or use the download button to listen on the go)!
1) Remind yourself that self-doubt is a natural part of being self-reflective and wanting to be your very best.
Anyone who is analyzing their work and striving to be better is going to feel like an imposter at times. Reflecting on your shortcomings is an important part of growth and improvement, so don’t shy away from it because you’re worried that you’re not going to measure up.
Instead, recognize that Imposter Syndrome is normal and will likely creep up from time to time. It’s something that people in all walks of life have struggled with, particularly women and those in service-oriented or creative fields. Even the most successful and accomplished people we know have admitted to feeling like they aren’t doing enough and aren’t good enough. Check out these quotes:
- ‘There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.’ -Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook
- “I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”– author and speaker Maya Angelou
- “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented. I’m really not very good. It’s all been a big sham.” – actress Michelle Pfeiffer
- “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this. I’m a fraud.” – actress Kate Winslett
- “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert. How do these people believe all this about me? I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.” –Dr. Margaret Chan, former Chief of the World Health Organization
So, Imposter Syndrome is normal. It means you’re wanting to be your best self. Accept it as just a part of growth and improvement, and plan strategies for countering it.
2) Observe your Imposter Syndrome triggers and thoughts without judgment.
When you feel self-doubt taking over, the least helpful approach is to get even further down on yourself and start feeling bad about feeling bad. Remember … Imposter Syndrome is a normal feeling. Don’t judge yourself for it or set an unrealistic expectation that you should never feel that way.
Instead, train yourself to simply be aware of what’s happening. Pay attention to the things, ideas, and people who inadvertently cause you to doubt yourself. Notice the feelings and tell yourself:
Something in this situation is triggering feelings of self-doubt. I’m feeling a bit like a fraud right now. But just because I’m thinking and feeling this way at the moment doesn’t mean that’s true or that I need to give any consideration or credence to it. I’m just going to observe that it’s happening, notice how I’m thinking and feeling, and let those thoughts and feelings pass on their own. They always do!
3) Use feelings of self-doubt to help you experiment with teaching styles until you figure out which one is right for you.
When you’re feeling like a fraud as a teacher, that’s a cue that you might be doing something which isn’t an authentic expression of who you are. As a new teacher, I was constantly looking for effective strategies to emulate, and that meant trying out different personas, from the strict veteran teacher next door who didn’t let the kids get away with anything, to the soft-spoken teacher downstairs who corrected every misbehavior with a song and a hug.
I imitated all kinds of other teachers and naturally felt like an imposter because none of them was like ME. I didn’t yet know who I was in the classroom — I was still trying to figure out my teaching identity. As a teenager, I went through lots of phases and completely changed how I looked and dressed every six months because I wasn’t quite sure which persona was really me. And, I had to go through that same process again as a teacher (fortunately without the Manic Panic hair dye).
Trial and error is required to discover the “special sauce” that you alone can bring to the classroom. And even then, best practices are always evolving, and your personality and preferences change, too. It’s important to be willing to experiment, grow, and adapt, even when that process induces Imposter Syndrome because that’s how you become an expert in your craft.
4) Accept that it’s impossible to please everyone, and use criticism as an opportunity to reflect on WHY you’ve made your choices.
There’s a saying that you could be the juiciest, sweetest peach in the orchard and there’s still going to be somebody who walks past you with a turned up nose because they don’t like peaches.
For me, grappling with Imposter Syndrome has meant accepting that not everyone is going to like me or my work. I am 100% positive that there ARE people out there who feel like my teaching, advice, books, 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, or even this podcast are really not very good or original at all. I know those people exist because some of them feel the need to email me or comment on my social media and say so. It doesn’t happen often, but when I hear “This is nonsense; this won’t work for me” or “This isn’t anything I haven’t already heard a million times before,” it’s easy to start doubting my abilities.
And I think that’s just part of the price you pay for being in a position as a leader, including leadership as a classroom teacher. Not everyone’s going to like what you do. Some principals will watch your best lesson and still be unimpressed. Some students and parents will dislike you, no matter what. Some of your colleagues will disagree with the way you manage your classroom and teach your lessons. There are people who will look at how you set up your classroom and think, meh, not impressed.
Embracing the fact that not everything is for everybody will help you move past feelings of being a fraud. Try to be open to the critique, and self-reflect:
- What is the grain of truth in what the person is saying that’s worth holding onto, even while you disregard the part that isn’t helpful?
- How can you use the situation to your benefit and an opportunity for growth?
- Do you have a solid rationale for WHY you’re making the choices you’re making? If so, practice articulating it; if not, dig deeper to uncover whether your choice was the right one, or if this is an opportunity to go in a different direction.
When you are grounded firmly in the WHY behind your choices and are honest with yourself about your shortcomings, you can confront Imposter Syndrome without trying to wait until every person approves of and is impressed with your work.
Some people will not like what I do, but if I can use their critique to help me figure out where I need to improve, I’m less likely to feel like a fraud because I can respond with honesty: Thanks for pointing that out — you’re right, this is something I should take a look at. And when the critique is not valid, it’s still an opportunity for self-reflection. It’s a chance to reflect and make sure my words and actions are aligned with what I really believe.
I’ve found that when you’ve truly analyzed your decisions and know you’re making the right ones, you won’t feel so much like a fraud when someone questions or criticizes you and you can rebound from Imposter Syndrome more quickly.
5) Be honest with your students when you don’t know what you’re doing.
Imposter Syndrome tends to crop up in classroom-based work a lot because children are like little Authenticity Detectors. They can tell when you’re being fake, and their facial expressions will let you know if they’re not buying what you’re selling.
The best approach I’ve found is to just level with them. Tell them, “I want to try something out that I saw online. I’m not sure if it’s going to work, but it would make this lesson better and I thought it was worth trying out. Let’s give it a go, and then afterwards, we can talk about if the activity is something you want to try again and if so, how we can improve it together.”
Kids respect this sort of transparency from their teachers. Saying, “I don’t know, let’s figure it out together” is preferable to making up an answer. Be honest when you need to Google something the kids ask about, and model that as a problem-solving strategy. Use the LCD projector to let them see the exact phrase you type into search and how you figure out which result is accurate.
You can even let them know which unit is your weakest and hardest for you to teach, and model how you’re overcoming that challenge. My students knew I struggled with science, and knew hardly anything about the solar system before becoming a third-grade teacher. We brainstormed ways I could become more knowledgeable and I shared my learning with them, for example, by letting them know when I found a good documentary on TV the night before and a new nugget of information I picked up. They loved learning alongside me and delighted in saying, “Mrs. Watson, did you know…?” and hearing me say sincerely that I had not known, and they’d taught ME something.
When you drop the persona as Grown-Up-In-Charge-Who-Knows-Everything, and are instead positioning yourself as a fellow learner, you don’t have to fake your way through the day as much, and Imposter Syndrome is easier to manage.
6) Find a colleague who’s willing to be your Imposter Syndrome Co-Conspirator.
It’s important to have another teacher you can be vulnerable with and admit when you have no idea what you’re doing. I like to think of this person as a co-conspirator in fighting Impostor Syndrome because you can equip each other with the information needed to feel more competent. Instead of showing up to a meeting and feeling totally out of your depth, you can go to your co-conspirator and say, “I’m having an Imposter Syndrome moment and am clueless about what I’m supposed to say at this meeting. Can you help me figure out a couple key things that will help me feel more prepared?”
If you’re wondering how to find that person you can go to when feeling like a fraud, I’d say that the best way is by being that person for someone else. Other teachers are more likely to be vulnerable and transparent with you when you are that way with them. We all know teachers who are brutally honest and real, and we’re drawn to them like magnets, right?
Try opening up at a team meeting about a minor issue you’re struggling with, and watch the reactions of the effective teachers who you really respect. Which person immediately latches on and chimes in with his/her own struggles? That’s your Imposter Syndrome Co-Conspirator.
7) Change your self-talk so Imposter Syndrome propels you to be even better.
Choose to fight that imposter syndrome each time it crops up. Actively push against the internal voice that says, You’re not good enough. You need to do more. Remind yourself:
“I am enough. My efforts are enough. I have a limited amount of time and energy, and I choose to channel my resources into doing the best job that is sustainable for me, regardless of what everyone else is doing. My room and my lessons don’t have to be ‘perfect’; and will improve over time as I get feedback from my students and learn from them what’s most impactful. I’m going to stay focused on the kids and streamlining the learning process because if I do that, I can’t go wrong!”
Changing your self-talk is really crucial, and it’s a big part of the reason why I partnered with Dan Tricarico to create Finally Free: The teacher toolkit for conquering anxiety and overwhelm. (Check out the episode prior to this one if you want to learn more about how we designed the toolkit to help you change the way you think about your work so it feels less stressful and overwhelming.)
In fact, you can listen to it anytime you are feeling not good enough and are comparing yourself to others. you’ll get an audio lesson from Dan and me, as well as a PDF transcript and some reflection questions and exercises to help you work through Imposter Syndrome via the lens of freeing yourself from comparison to others.
You have the ability to confront Imposter Syndrome. Plan for it. Be prepared with these 7 strategies when the feeling of being an imposter pops up because feeling like a fraud will hold you back from taking risks. Figuring out a process to manage Imposter Syndrome is the only way you will ever do anything great. So, change your self-talk and learn how to practice believing in yourself so you can share your gifts with the world. Let your fears inspire you to do better and become the best person you can be.It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not. Click To Tweet
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