I am working my way through a delightful textbook about teaching for my PID3260 class. In his “The Skillful Teacher” book, Stephen Brookfield spends an entire chapter on “Understanding and Responding to Classroom Emotions” and in particular on the topic of impostorship.
I struggled with Impostor Syndrome in the early days of my career, learning the ground rules of marketing practice. However, in due time these feelings abated as I gathered more experience and continued to progress through the rungs of my career. The same can be said about teaching – as a guest lecturer I had a story to tell in the short time of an hour or less; but when I was given responsibility for one class, and then a few more, I occasionally questioned my school’s sanity in handing over these young (and not so young) charges to my care. But we all did all right, and my confidence only grew. That ill feeling still comes back to haunt me from time to time, as I try new techniques in class or deviate from my lesson plan to show something new or try a new approach – but the fleeting feeling of “impostor!” fades away as I watch my students try these approaches and I make note whether to repeat this technique or not.
I am surprised, however, at how often I hear my students – young and older – mention that they feel out of place in university, or that they are “not good enough to be there”. It could be that they have been out of school for a long time, and find the routine of reading, thinking, writing a little overwhelming at first. It could also be that they are struggling with a new language, in addition to a new degree. Or they could feel intimidated by the more vocal students in the class, who speak often and provide good answers, and they feel at a disadvantage.
I am very glad when a student approaches me with this concern, because I have a chance to listen to their concerns, discuss the situation that troubles them, and hopefully change their mind and confirm that yes they made the right decision to be here, and yes they are progressing forward, not backwards, in their learning journey.
Brookfield (2015) lists the range of emotions inside of the classroom: “…[Students] talk about the exhilaration of intellectual stimulation, the anxiety of personal change, the pleasurable rush of self-confidence that comes from successful learning, and the shame of public humiliation that accompanies what they see as their failure” (pp. 55-56). Left untreated, the negative emotions diminish or extinguish engagement and can end the students’ careers as learners.
As instructors it is important to leave ourselves open to sharing about feelings of impostorship in our own lives (whether past or present) to open up the dialogue with students about their feelings and concerns. Admitting frailty, admitting struggles and sharing about one’s journey will open up the sharing of similar concerns by students. Brookfield states that “once impostorship is named as an everyday experience it loses much of its power” (p.59). By taking this feeling out of the secret realm, there is a “release of tension as the students recognize their own anxieties and perceptions in these words” (p.60).
Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.