5 ways to overcome impostor syndrome in education
Ever feel like you're not qualified enough to do your job? You're not alone. Education coach Amanda talks us through how to swat away feelings of inferiority and step into our own brilliance, whether in the classroom or at the next leadership team meeting.
“What am I doing here?”
“I’m not qualified for this role.”
“I don’t know as much as everyone else.”
If any of these phrases sound familiar to you don’t worry, you’re not alone. These are common statements made by those who experience the impostor phenomenon – more commonly known as impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is an experience which came to prominence in 1978, from research carried out by psychotherapists and educators Dr Pauline Clance and Dr Suzanne Imes. They described a sample of high-achieving women who shared the conviction that they were less competent and less intelligent than they appeared to be.
Fast forward 50 years and little has changed. What’s apparent is the fact that impostor syndrome is not exclusive to women; men are also prone to feelings of inferiority, thoughts that they too are undeserving of success. With this in mind, it's no wonder that impostor syndrome also affects those in the education sector.
Teachers today are more likely to take on responsibilities early on in their career compared to 20 or 30 years ago, when leadership roles would have been given to more experienced teachers. With the rise of MATs, all-through schools and partnership working, there are more opportunities for teachers to lead on a larger scale — which can be daunting and lead to feelings of inadequacy. Assuming a new role in a new department or school can also lend itself to feelings of not being ready, or thoughts that there is someone else who knows more than you or could do a better job.
These feelings are self-imposed — if you allow them to consume you, they will cause you to become less effective. As leaders, we need to learn how to manage those feelings so that we can fully embrace our roles and help to create a school culture where the adults are thriving just as successfully as the children.
Here are five tips to help you overcome impostor syndrome:
1. Trust the process
The most common thought when it comes to impostor syndrome is that you haven’t earned your place at the table.
When it comes to recruitment, those on interview panels have to read dozens of applications, observe candidates performing in many different scenarios, conduct hours of formal interviews and spend a lot of time debating who is the best person for the job. All this takes time, so remember: if you’ve been appointed to a position, it was because you were considered to be the best person for the job. Schools don’t have the time or money to recruit someone just to fill a vacancy. So, if you’re appointed to a role, be confident in the knowledge that it was because you went through a rigorous process that allowed you to earn your place.
2. Be confident in your credentials
Those who come into leadership come with different levels of experience, which may have been gained whilst teaching or in a previous career. Many leaders have also undertaken a range of continuous professional development (CPD) prior to taking up a role: National Professional Qualifications, in-house CPD, masters level qualifications, attending conferences – they all add up to make the experience you hold. You know the journey that you’ve been on to get to where you are today, and no-one can take that away from you. With that in mind be confident that your credentials have also helped to get you in the room and a well-deserved a place at the table.
3. Be confident in your content
Impostor syndrome can often occur when we’re asked to deliver a presentation. It’s at that point when we suddenly think: ‘I can’t do it, they’re going to see me as a fraud.’ I would encourage you to consider the following. You have been asked to deliver a presentation because someone considers you to have a depth of knowledge worth sharing. Those you present to may not have the same depth of knowledge and are coming to learn or be enlightened. To lessen your worries, make sure you are fully prepared before you deliver your presentation. Go over it several times so that you know the order and structure. That way if something happens - a technical failure, a sudden coughing fit, or suddenly being bombarded with raft of questions - you’ll be less likely to be thrown off course because you know the content well.
Inevitably there will be those who have questions throughout the presentation, but don’t piffle. Either give an answer or just be honest and say you don’t know but can find out. If you feel brave enough, and depending on the context, you could even throw the question out to the audience. It doesn’t mean you don’t know your stuff; it just means you’re in control of the situation.
4. Don’t fake it ‘til you make it
The ‘fake it ‘til you make’ adage is one which is often cited to those who experience impostor syndrome. However, employing this method takes away the fact that it’s ok not to know everything. No-one goes into a role knowing every single detail. When I became a headteacher, I had limited knowledge when it came to whole school budgeting and finance. But it’s not something I hid, and it is something I picked up from those who did know. Not knowing something isn’t a bad thing and when you live by the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ philosophy, you run the risk of being found out. Being honest puts less pressure on you.
5. Conquer your self-talk
Impostor syndrome often occurs because of what we think is going to happen; it’s not based on factual information. We try to pre-empt situations, second guess what others are thinking and generally think in worst case scenario terms. These thoughts are self-sabotaging and will stop us from making the most of exciting opportunities and demonstrating our true worth. If you find this becomes is a regular thought-process, talk to someone about it: your mentor, a trusted colleague an external coach someone who will help you to see the reality of your situation.
Stepping into your own brilliance
In her famous book A Return to Love, Marianne William wrote these memorable words:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
As educators we have an important role to play when it comes to supporting children and young people. Part of Teach First’s mission is to support talented teachers to become inspiring and effective leaders at every level. This means being champions and role models for children from a range of backgrounds, who need to see what happens when you allow your light to shine.
When you allow impostor syndrome to take over, you’re dulling your light. How can you encourage children to know that there are opportunities available to them -regardless of their background - provided they are willing to step out and own their brilliance, if you’re not willing step out and own yours?
Amanda Wilson is a primary school headteacher with over 20 years experience in the education sector. Over the years, Amanda has used her coaching and leadership development skills to help individuals become more aware of their abilities, find effective solutions to the challenges they face and move forward in their careers. She thrives on helping others to accomplish their goals and views herself as a personal cheerleader to many. She firmly believes in the leadership concept of ‘sending the elevator back down’ and will do whatever she can to support those who want to develop further in their careers.
Amanda is currently undertaking a Masters in Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University and integrates a range of psychotherapeutic models to support the work she undertakes with her clients. She is a regular contributor to TES and also sits on a number of education committees within the Royal Borough of Greenwich.