Weekly reflection: Help! I’m feeling like like an imposter

For my first teaching experience I was fortunate to be placed with a year 8 enrichment class.

As you can imagine the students were thoughtful, intelligent, interesting  and highly articulate. In short they were a dream class.

There was just one small problem, I was absolutely terrified of teaching them.

For the first few weeks I was utterly convinced that these brilliant children were seconds away from working out that I had no idea what I was doing in the classroom and chaos would ensue all in front of my associate teacher’s eyes.

Now throw in how to work the photocopier, find resources, connect your laptop to the schools wifi while navigating the school’s staffroom and trying to remember everyone’s names and you have those first few days of Teaching Experience.

Does any this sound at all familiar?

I’m guessing a lot of people, student teachers or otherwise, go through the ‘ZOMG what on earth was I thinking when I decided to….’ phase when they do something new and starting doubt themselves and their abilities. And it seems that  higher the stakes, the more inadequate you start feeling as you take that intial leap into the unknown.

Although I’ve already been on teaching experience, in just over a week I’ll be in a new school with new students and new teachers. I’ll also be taking a big jump in age levels going from a year 7/8 to teaching year 1/2 and woah how did it get to be term 3 already? Time is ticking by and there’s that constant background worry of finding a job next year.

As student teachers we have it drilled into us how important these teaching experiences are for our career. In the briefing about the upcoming TE one of the remarks made was that our practicum was in essence a 7 week long job interview. At a time when rumours of up to 70% last year’s cohort were not able to find teaching work are flying through the student body that pressure to be perfect just went up a few more levels.

Then there’s the thought next year I am going to be doing this teaching thing for real and the huge responsibility that this entails. In general the theme across my diploma is that teachers are these all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present people in the lives of our students and I wonder how I can ever match the standard set down in these textbooks? Especially since we know that bad teaching can have a massive negative effect on students’ journeys through the education system. Right now there are 120 Auckland students whose concepts of  level 4 probability have now been determined by my teaching and I can’t help but wonder did my teaching help or hinder their learning?

When I mention any of these doubts out loud I often hear the same responses ‘Don’t worry’ or ‘I’m sure you’ll do fine.’ These sort of platitudes might work for a few hours of feeling better but eventually that self-doubt drifts in again and I’m back to feeling like an imposter.

So what to do?

Do I keep up with trying to keep up with trying the bestest student teacher there ever was on the outside while spending another TE quaking in my boots that I’m just a few seconds away from being outed for incompetence? Or do I admit that there’s a scary monster lurking under my bed right now that goes by the name failure?

Our society doesn’t do well with failure, it’s an ugly beast that is something to be avoided at all costs.  So we stuff our failures into a closet or under a bed somewhere so that nobody can see it and we can pretend failure is something that happens to other people. But the problem with failure is that eventually it will catch up to you with some harsh lessons for not paying it enough attention.

Perhaps what is worse than being the student teacher who goes into Teaching Experience thinking they know it all is being the student teacher plagued by self-doubt and the fear of failure that they miss the most important lesson of all; making mistakes in and of itself isn’t bad, not learning and reflecting on them is the problem. After all if you’ve gone through life without failing at something, then your life has been lived so cautiously that you have failed by default.

I’m going to put my hand up and say that I spent far too much of my last TE trying to be a good teacher with excellent evaluations when what I needed to do was focus more on the learning, both mine and also that of my students.

As a result of this failure I am giving up on the idea of setting myself impossibly high standards then finding myself overwhelmed by the task I’ve set myself to accomplish and will go into this teaching experience with a different mindset.

I’m here to learn.

But to do this I’m going to embrace learning for all of its flaws. Because although most of the time learning is interesting and exciting, it is also messy, frustrating and, at times, utterly terrifying.

So the next time I find myself feeling like a great imposter I will mutter three times under my breath, ‘a fail is a First Attempt In Learning.’

Perhaps that will make that failure monster just a little less scary but I’m not sure if it will help make me feel like less of an imposter those first few days weeks at school.

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About Stephanie

Stephanie is a teacher of a fabulous class of year 7/8 students (11-13 year olds). She bakes, goes to the gym and geeks out in Wellington, New Zealand.

Posted on July 24, 2011, in in the classroom, managing emotions, weekly reflection. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. A great post and I’m sure you will find lots of other people feeling exactly the same, I’ve only done some small group teaching but recognise the same symptoms of self doubt!! Being able to know that you could be doing it better is surely the first step to getting better?

    • Hi Jo,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve done a full Teaching Experience and so thought that these emotions might have subsided since I’ve already successfully completed a teaching experience. But no still here. Part of blogging for me is sometimes about trying to unpack where emotions are coming from to alter my behaviour. Hopefully it works!

      Stephanie

  2. I don’t really get what you mean by “failure”… There is no perfect teacher – not even after a 15-year experience like mine.
    So when I tell you “You ARE going to be fine”, I mean it. It is not a platitude.

    When I started teaching (at 19 , imagine!) I did not have a PLN, the internet was something of a utopia and PD was a fairy tale. I think these very means of “learning” – having access to resources and interacting with so many educators – can often be felt as a further pressure on your skills and on your self-evaluation. Because you tend to compare yourself with the rest.

    So stop doing it…and just teach. You are more than ready (Just look at your reflections and your willingness to expose your vulnerabilities. That speaks volumes.)

    • Hi Christina,
      I guess what I mean by failure is that I’m struggling with the idea of being this all-wise, all-knowing person with great evaluations perhaps I need to focus more on my learning than the external stuff I can’t really control.

      Stephanie

      • Precisely. Stop struggling. Just enjoy being a teacher. It is so much more rewarding and it is the real drive of your career.
        Since you chose this path you were meant to be one! :)

  3. Great post, what a joy to read that you are so reflective and thoughtful about your own learning! This is going to make you a wonderful teacher! I agree with Cristina’s comments wholeheartedly – you really will be fine and you are perfectly qualified to teach because (a) you doubt your ability and (b) you actually KNOW how much there is to still learn! Yay you – you are truly ahead of many in the field because you are teachable. May you ever remain that way! :)

  4. Hi Kimberley,
    Thanks for your comments. I’m hoping that the first step towards knowing is not knowing because right now I don’t really know much.

    Stephanie

  5. Stephanie
    Powerful post. I love reading deep honest reflective writing. Do you know a student teacher who is also a Dad of one of my students, wanted to spend a Friday in my class during his hols. I said yes, but dreaded it. I was so relieved when I got sick and lost my voice and had to cancel. All for those same fearful thoughts you mention. I still feel a fraud, especially if someone talks me up! I hope you enjoy the young ones. While they are not my fav age group to teach there is a beautiful innocence to them that I love. Relax, and remember your strengths. Your associate will not be perfect either. Be gentle with him/her and yourself.
    Kathryn

    • Hi Kathryn,
      Thanks for your wonderful comment. It’s good to know that you can still be in the teaching game for years and have those moments of self-doubt. I’m sure the student teacher you mentioned would have learned a lot from you. I certainly love stopping by your classblog every so often to see what is happening.

      Thanks for the advice about realizing we are all flawed.

      Stephanie

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I would love to email with you directly, as I’m having serious doubts about myself as a teacher. I never anticipated such a struggle…I’m doubting my content knowledge, my ability to plan curriculum, my ability to weave all the learning together into something productive. I’m beyond nervous—I’m not sleeping well and I don’t know what to do with my students on the day to day! I’m normally a high achiever and this is very frustrating/confusing.

    If you’re willing to email, you’d really be throwing me a lifeline. I would love your help.

    Sincerely,
    MB

  7. Hi Megan
    Sent you an email . Hope you are feeling

    Stephanie

  8. Hi Megan (via Steph) – we have all felt like this from time to time. It is hard, but sometimes taking the time to look at our classroom practice, what we are teaching and the learning that is occurring is enough to give us a breath of fresh air. Take heart – you are asking for help and also admitting that it is hard. That is the toughest thing to do and you have managed it!

  9. I don’t recall much from my post-grad year. I remember I thought that the majority of the lectures populated by odd folk, and I kept tabs on a few, just in case my kids ever had to be taught by them. ;-) My TEs were great experiences – made odd by the amount of seemingly irrelevant paperwork that I had to construct. I was blessed/honored to get to go on 2 camps out of three TEs – talk about real learning about what it is to be a teacher.

    But one comment from a lecturer still stands true.

    “Be the force in that classroom”

    Each day – you hold the power. Not to determine the future, nor for the fates of your students. Don’t burden yourself with Mr Holland’s opus, or Sidney Poitier’s legacy. But hold to the simple truth, that you have the power to make that room a place – where you affect change. In little ways, in big ways, in simple ways and complex ways. Your moods, your energy, your being is the key factor in what that room is like. That’s not you as a teacher – that’s you as a person. That is your power. The teacher bit is just the label.

    That power has nothing to do with your ability to deconstruct the curriculum or analyse test and cohort data, or moderate a piece of nationally standardised pie chart. That’s the label.

    The power comes from explaining a math strategy, or providing a smile for a kid who never gets one from an adult. It might be reading them a story, with expression and vigour and OTT actions that make them laugh.

    A great teacher is one who’s constantly trying to figure out young people – pushing and prodding to get them to see the value and beauty in their lives. We cover that process up in curriculum and paperwork, but that is, IMO, at the core of our role. To give students the chance to see a glimmer of what they could be. And helping them find ways and means to chase that glimmer.

    Don’t stress about being the best. Be honest. Be open. Be constantly adjusting. Be OK with having shit days. Make sure you come back after a shit day and give it another go. Be OK with not coming back and giving your students a break from you.

    Know that Michelle Pfieffer is an actor, and no ex-Marine looks like her – so why should teachers? Know that we can’t all riff like Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”. Know that Mr Miyagi is who you should be for your students. Spend a day painting a fence (metaphorically and literally) with your students, stand by them no matter how they treat you – and let them know that their success honours you.

    There is always something else you can/could/should do as a teacher. Be OK with leaving it all to one side and watching Desperate Housewives. Know that it will all be there when you wake up after your whiskey/wine/sherry-infused sleep – and that you can start again.

    On the job tip – get a slot in a decile 1 or 2 school as a beginning teacher – fall into the deep end of our societal issues, with a job title that attracts equal parts scorn and respect – and be prepared to be humiliated, humbled and honored by what you see and experience. Best training ever – if you’re interested in the real guts of life.

    I wrote this last bit back about 4 years ago, posted it on publicaddress.net – I think it still stands – and maybe says it better than what I’ve just said.

    ““Max – welcome to the most noble pursuit on the planet. I use noble in the sense that teaching is a pursuit that is decent, unselfish, righteous and worthy. You will be frustrated, challenged and despairing at times. See through the paperwork, the politics, the constant planning.

    Be there for your students.
    Be the one positive, passionate, purposeful person in their lives.

    Give them hope.
    Give them dignity.
    Believe in them.
    Believe in the possibilities that they are.
    Every day.

    That might be in teaching them how to balance algebraic equations, how to make sense of a piece of text, or just be greeting them with a smile each day.

    All that might sound like pablum and hokey to some. But we adults seem to have forgotten to believe in our young people. We reduce them to statistics or put them into boxes.

    I showed Apple’s ‘Think Different’ TVC to my students today and we had a discussion about the vocabulary and what it meant. I didn’t think the challenge would come from explaining ’round peg in a square hole’ – but then how do you argue with a student who states: “You could do that if the peg was smaller than the hole.” :-)

    My 12 year olds only recognized Muhammed Ali and Mahatma Gandhi, but when I asked which individual did they think was the most important, several considered, then answered carefully: “The little girl at the end … because that’s us.”

    The kids are alright.

    As are you.

  10. Hi Kimberly and Tim
    Thanks so much for your comments. I have passed them on to to Megan.

    Stephanie

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