Education · Gender · Whiteness & racism

Imposter syndrome: my experience

I regularly call my Mum when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me.
“I’ve got a new student. I’m scared. They’re supposedly working at a high level. What if I can’t help them?”
“Relax darling, you’ll be fine.” she soothes, leaving me a little calmer but unconvinced . After the session I send a text
“That was fine! Of COURSE. Why was I worried?”
“See! You are brilliant.”

So far, so banal. But this happens every time I get a new student or start teaching a new course. A persistent inner voice tells me I’m a fraud; I’ll be exposed; people will see I’m no good and I’ll lose my job; I’ll be kicked out; I’ll be disgraced. I know I’m qualified; I know I can do what I signed up to do. Every time I’m tested, I pass, and laugh at myself. But the fear always comes back.

My anxiety partly goes back to the day I was told, on arrival at my second training school during my PGCE: “you’d never get a job at this school” by the deputy head who’d seen my CV. Later on, having seen my teaching, she was complimentary and supportive, but the damage was done. And I know my weak confidence makes me worse at what I do, because students can sense it, and they need to feel confidence in their teachers.

When I qualified I went into private tuition instead of classroom teaching. I meet a lot of fellow tutors with higher tier awards than me, like PhDs, and relatively few who have qualified teacher status (QTS) as I do. Parents seeking tuition usually value academic accolades more highly than vocational training, which adds to my anxiety; I constantly feel like an outsider and hate being asked about my education background. Recently though, a co-worker with a doctorate unburdened herself to me: “I feel like such an imposter doing this job! I know I can do it, I know I’m qualified, but I don’t have teacher-training like you, so I feel like a fraud!”

This set me thinking – none of our male colleagues ever exhibited a scrap of self-doubt. Were they just hiding it better? A few days after the conversation, I was preparing to teach a course on critical reading and grammar, going through the practice tests I would be using. It was a time consuming, tiring process. I spent a whole day doing it was still only half finished. The next morning I came back to the work and suddenly the realisation dawned on me that I was completely comfortable with the material. I need do no more than read over the texts to familiarise myself: I could trust myself fully to choose the right answers. I started to laugh, then called my Mum. “How long did it take you to stop feeling like an imposter?” I asked her. My mum is in her second leadership role in heritage education, and she is undoubtedly the most talented workshop leader/creator I have ever met, with thousands of hours of experience. “It never stops, unfortunately.” I finally realised the absurdity of my fear.

A quick sweep of articles turns up plenty on the relationship between gender and worrying about feeling incompetent, and how this can cause women to ‘downshift’ career ambitions, specifically relating this to the sexism women in science and other STEM fields are up against.

But reading this article about the experiences of Black women at universities makes me wonder just how much worse imposter syndrome must be for women (and men) who are minoritised and othered due to their skin colour, first language, or migration status. If I can’t convince myself I belong, despite White privilege, how much worse must it be without that advantage? My respect for women like Britain’s youngest barrister and the magnificent constellation of stars highlighted by Media Diversified in their eight women poll is deepened now I recognise my own psychological barriers. There is so much need to celebrate and congratulate these mighty women.

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