Teachers are generally assigned a mentor their first year, but most of the time the mentor system is joke. The teachers selected to be mentors are the most skilled, dependable, and proactive, and because administrators know they can count on such teachers, they press more work on them, and because those teachers are so busy, they are ineffective mentors.
I was fortunate that I had an excellent mentor. She had both administrative and classroom experience, multiple subject endorsements, and special ed training. There was no question she couldn’t answer, and she always made me feel like a priority.
Many new teachers struggle with failure. Veteran teachers know that failure is inevitable. Teachers speak thousands of words a day. They make hundreds of decisions, and interact with dozens of young people. Early in my career I had a habit of psychoanalyzing every interpersonal interaction. I tortured myself over the possibility that I’d ruined a student’s day by speaking too harshly or lacking understanding. I examined each lesson from every possible angle. I poured over assessment data, and I fretted over student achievement.
For all that contemplation, my conclusion was that I had no idea what I was doing, and that I was unfit to be a teacher.
I went to my mentor’s office to share my findings. It had been a rough day. I’d taken my 7th grade class outside to play basketball as a reward for their good behavior and improving classwork. It was a beautiful day in early spring. Birds were singing, and I was tossing a football around with one of the kids when one of my students called another a faggot. The resulting fist fight, office referral, and injury report, took my attention for the rest of the day. Admin suspended everyone involved, laughed it off, and asked me not to take students outside until one of the boys could be transferred to an alternative setting.
I had done everything right with the struggling group. I’d planned careful assessments, engaging lessons, and positive reinforcement. But any feeling of success fled the moment I had to separate two warring 12 year olds.
I stopped to visit my mentor at the end of the day. I flopped down in the chair.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I answered. “I just don’t know if anything I’m doing is working. I don’t know if my kids are learning, and I don’t know if I’m cut out for teaching.”
“Pssh.” She waved me off. “No body knows if they’re cut out for teaching. The second you think you know what you’re doing is when you’re wrong.”
“I just feel like I’m not capable of teaching these kids. They aren’t learning anything. Do you ever feel like you’re not really a teacher?”
I went on to describe feeling like an impostor. I had the nagging feeling that I was a charlatan. I was convinced that my kids and my peers knew it. I had feelings of paranoia. I felt insecure and anxious. Every sideways glance, minor correction from a senior teacher, or overlooked detail in a lesson carried crippling weight.
My mentor explained to me that everyone feels this way at first, and that feeling insecure is a sign of a caring teacher in training.
My formal education did a poor job of preparing me for the classroom. I received a great background in pedagogical theory. I learned how to arrange a classroom and build a curriculum. Each of these things is important in their own right. But the effortlessness that a veteran teacher displays in working a classroom can’t be learned in a university. The veteran teacher seems to glide across the floor, their routines are so efficient, and they have the answers to every question.
I can’t remember where I first learned the term “impostor syndrome,” but I should’ve learned the term as a part of my university education. It would’ve been comforting to know that feelings of inadequacy were so widespread in the profession that it was a named and studied psychological phenomena.
A name yields extraordinary power over a thing. We see this in Christian myth. Many of the great heroes of both the old and new testament change their names post-revelation. Jesus names a demon to call it forth from a man. Adam is given dominion over the creatures of the Earth and names them. God claims dominion over Adam and names him. There is a website called Behind The Name where people can search the meaning of a name for their unborn children.
Just knowing that something has been named diminishes its mysteriousness and power. Naming the feeling helped me to overcome it.
I finished my first school year with high marks on my evaluations. My administrator was so satisfied that she awarded me full certification before the year was over. I was made New Teacher of the Year in my school district. I was proud of myself for each of those accomplishments, and they served as evidence of my competence, but despite what I knew to be true about myself as a teacher, I couldn’t internalize my ability.
I think teachers are so susceptible to impostor syndrome because of the importance of the job. In many cases, students spend more time with their teachers than they do with any other adult.
The profession is a paradox, a contradiction. It’s no wonder that many accomplished teachers struggle with feelings of inadequacy.
Our society says that education is the future and then cuts funding. Teachers love children and advocate for their intellectual freedom, but because of institutional needs, we have to enforce rigid rules and procedures. Teaching is considered a profession, but requires an apprenticeship and internship like a trade. It is a job that is public without fame. It is a job that is respected but pitied. It requires vast psychological, pedagogical, content, and social knowledge to do well, but that knowledge alone does not make a good teacher.
The notion of a good teacher is nonsensical. No teacher is good for the same reason as another. Some are personable but unorganized. Some have genius levels of content knowledge but aren’t friendly. Some are brilliant lecturers but can’t host discussions. Some are respected for their community work and not for their classroom work. Almost no single teacher is strong in all areas. Every teacher fails their students. Every teacher will plan, rehearse, and give a bad lesson. Every teacher will be remembered fondly by some and with resentment by others.
I’m nearing the end of my third year of teaching. I still feel like a fraud on occasion. But I know that the feeling will subside, and I know that how to better read the signs of learning in my students. I’ve developed my curriculum and classroom procedures. I communicate clear expectations. Teaching is the best job that I’ve ever had. And it seems that I’m always encouraged by my students and peers just when I need it most.
We have a lot of new teachers in my district and in my building. They look tired and unsure. They look like a rabbit in a shaken cage. They stay late on the weekends and arrive early in the morning. Now I’m the teacher who glides around the room without effort. I’m the mentor, and when I have the opportunity to give a pep talk, I share my greatest failures.
If you’re a teacher struggling with impostor syndrome, just know that you aren’t alone. Many fine educators have felt the way you do. The fact that you feel insecure about your performance in the classroom is a strong indication that you’re developing, and will continue to develop. When more experienced teachers around you are impressed with your work, let them encourage you. Hear them. You have a responsibility to your students to plan the best lessons possible, but you will fail. Your kids will disappoint you, and you will disappoint them. The best that you can hope for is to get it right more often than you get it wrong. Work at improving a little at a time, and realize that you feel this way because you care enough to examine your work, and that is the most important step in your journey to the top of the profession.