I’ve recently begun to realize that I suffer from a bad case of imposter syndrome. I don’t know if it’s because my first year teaching was such a struggle, or because my first principal was so critical of me, or if it was because my last supervisor kept telling me they thought I needed to grow in the same area year after year, but I find it hard to believe in my skills as an educator sometimes.
When I’m talking with new or inexperienced teachers, or especially with pre-service teachers (i.e. my student teachers), I do feel a sense of expertise. In those situations, I know I have something to share – even if it’s just a message of hope “it gets better.” I can legitimately tell those folks with less experience that I remember being in their shoes, and I remember struggling so hard that I was in tears, and literally, if not for Math for America, I might not have even made it through year 1 of my teaching career, let alone be in the midst of year 8 now. When I’m surrounded by newbies, I am willing to acknowledge my experience as something that makes me somewhat of an expert – by comparison. (notice how I had to qualify that statement!)
But when I’m surrounded by excellent teachers who’ve been teaching as long, if not longer, than I have been a teacher, I begin to question and doubt my ability to contribute to them. It’s ironic, actually, because as my partner pointed out to me last night: I truly believe all students, of all ability levels, have something to contribute to classroom conversations and communities. And I acknowledge that all of the students in my classroom are different individuals with unique styles, personalities, and strengths and areas for growth, with various potential ways to contribute to the classroom. I even believe that students who have skills in math have something to learn from students who struggle with math.
However, somehow, while I can and do believe that of young people/ my students, I don’t seem to hold the same beliefs about myself and other adult learners. I question sometimes whether other teachers will value my ideas or my contributions. Whether my ideas are anything new or if I’m just sharing “knock off” models of other people’s ideas. For example, one of my favorite instructional routines is one I gleaned from Annie Fetter at the Math Forum: Notice/Wonder. I not only use that on an almost daily basis, I’ve shown the video to everyone: My colleagues at my school, student teachers, teachers attending PDs that I’ve facilitated, etc! But I wasn’t the first one to discover it, nor was it a “Kit original,” so therefore, despite the fact that I’m sharing this awesome technique that transformed my practice, I rarely give myself credit for actually pulling this strategy off on a regular basis.
In fact, most of the pedagogical techniques I use in my class are ones that I’ve learned either by observing people or by reading about them or occasionally even watching videos. It is very rare that I’ve created anything truly unique, and it’s mostly been built up on the ideas of people who came before me.
Because of my perceived lack of originality perhaps, I don’t consider myself as worthy as other teachers of recognition. I look at nominations for awards pages and I think to myself “How am I different than all of the other teachers out there who have access to the same resources I can find on the internet?” or “Why should I deserve this award? I’m not doing anything particularly special.” And I’ve never nominated myself for a single award – which by the way, seems like an awkward thing to do!
This imposter syndrome is so pervasive for me that it wasn’t until last year that I finally proposed facilitating a PLT at MfA. Before that, I was always content to attend other people’s workshops because I didn’t think I had anything worth sharing with other teachers. And then, suddenly, I ran this PLT with a co-facilitator, and we had such positive feedback from our participants. And in fact, techniques we had taken for granted as “101,” we discovered were actually new to some of our colleagues. Now, again, I didn’t write anything new or discover anything brand new, but we were putting together a bunch of related ideas and linking them concretely in a way for these teachers that they hadn’t seen before. Some of those teachers had been teaching for longer than I had been. Now, I was mostly sharing other people’s techniques with them, so again, I didn’t feel too original or unique in my sharing. The fact that our session filled up both last Spring and this fall was due entirely to the fact that our group was so small, right? Never mind the fact that it filled up in less than an hour after registration opened.
That co-facilitator connected me with a summer PD that I helped facilitate, and I began to really stretch my facilitator muscles even more, including outside the MfA community. I constantly question whether I belonged on the facilitator side of the room or the participant side – because I haven’t taught these particular lessons before. And it was at this PD that someone shared a particularly powerful quote with me. They said “never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle” and then, because this was at the facilitator meeting, they shared the reverse for us, “don’t compare our middles to someone else’s beginnings.” And I began to recognize that I might actually be a “middle teacher” and not a beginning teacher anymore (in my 8th year of teaching now!). I began to recognize that while I might not have taught that specific lesson from 7th grade, I’d taught most of the 8th grade books, and I knew the lesson structure and I knew the routines, and I know the teacher moves. So it became clear that I had skills to share with these other teachers.
I think because I made the transition right from MfA’s Fellowship into the Master Teacher program, I didn’t quite notice when I’d crossed the line between being a beginning teacher and being an experienced teacher. But then, last year, I changed schools. And while there’s been a heck of a learning curve, because I’m learning two new curricula to teach, I’ve felt confident in my ability to teach because I know the basic pedagogical moves I plan to use, and I know the classroom management techniques, and i know how I plan to build relationships with my students or handle difficult behaviors, or what I value from my classes. I’ve implemented certain systems that have helped me streamline my day in some ways (I’m still searching for better systems for certain tasks!), and I’ve got my stock set of routines, procedures, policies, etc. So while the adjustment was challenging, it wasn’t as overwhelming as being a first year teacher all over again.
Now, it took me until my 7th year teaching to propose a PLT to MfA that I felt confident facilitating. So there was no way I thought I felt ready to give a talk at MfA’s annual “Master Teachers on Teaching” (M-T-squared for short) – an event that essentially has teachers giving TED-style talks for 10 minutes to an audience of up to 200 ish teachers. I’ve never even bothered proposing a talk before, because really, what did I have to say about teaching that was so important that other MfA teachers would be interested in hearing me say it?
And then I got an email direct to me, asking me to submit a proposal. Now, it seemed like a form letter, honestly, probably sent out to lots of master teachers to encourage us to apply, but the letter combined with this year’s theme actually inspired me quite a bit. The theme this year is “Truth Matters: Lies, Trust and Logic in the STEM classroom.” I shared my ideas with my trusted friends and asked them if they thought I had the kernel of a talk in there. They both agreed I did, and encouraged me to apply. I decided to go for it, and spent the next week writing and revising my summary of the speech I hoped to give. I was at MfA to facilitate one of my two PLTs this fall and I pitched the idea to one of the program officers, still not entirely convinced my idea was what MfA was looking for – and I got quite the opposite feedback! She loved how I’d tied my idea to the theme, and she thought it was particularly important in fact! She encouraged me to submit my application that weekend.
After writing, revising, and getting my editor-mom to read over my application, I submitted my idea. A long week later (and a postponed notification deadline!), I finally heard: they chose my speech as one of 8 teachers to speak. WOAH. I’m not sure how many of the 1000+ MfA teachers actually applied to speak, but I’m sure it was competitive (that was the reason for the delay in selection, anyway). I began to wonder – maybe I do have something worth sharing?
In between submitting my proposal and hearing confirmation, I went out for coffee with a friend and mentor who encouraged me to potentially publish my idea, whether or not I gave a speech on it. And she helped me coin a new term for the skill I plan to talk about. Adapted from an idea in therapy called “Therapeutic Use of Self,” she coined “Pedagogical Use of Self.” To learn about what I mean, you’ll have to wait until I finish writing my speech (don’t worry – I’ll post the final version here after December 14th when I present!). She even expressed surprise to me at the fact that I considered myself a “middle” teacher – don’t I think I’m past middle? Into the arena of expert? After all, I am a Master Teacher…
And I wasn’t quite buying it, even still. That pesky imposter syndrome keeps telling me that if people came into my classroom, they would discover that I’m actually a fraud and my skills in the classroom with real students don’t measure up; I fear that I talk a good talk, but I don’t walk as good of a walk (which, intellectually, I don’t think is entirely true – I do think I’m a good teacher – what I think is that I’m not as good as I strive to be – but I might be striving to be perfect?).
Then last night happened, and I began to doubt my imposter syndrome. See, last night was MfA’s annual Fall Function (my 9th!). I saw lots of friends there – people I know from when we were fellows together, people I went to Pride with in June, people I went to grad school with, people I played softball or poker with or board games with, people who’ve been in PDs with me. But, most significant towards attacking my imposter syndrome were a few people in particular who expressed excitement about me talking at the MT^2 event (because my name and the other 7 people chosen to talk were announced on November 1st, in the monthly exponent – MfA’s email newsletter). The fact that they were excited to hear me talk made me nervous but also excited to share with them. The first person I’m thinking of is someone who’s been a Master Teacher for as long as I’ve been in MfA, perhaps even a year or two longer. He ran a workshop for us right before school started and shared his welcome letter and first day activity with me back then; a few years ago, I attended a workshop with him, and he shared other resources with me again. And now, here he was, telling me how excited he was to hear ME speak! Woah.
The second thing that happened was when we were in the banquet hall itself. Besides the fact that I had the best seats I’ve ever had, I noticed a table with a bunch of my fellow former 2009 Fellows (now 2014 Master Teachers!), and I went over to say hello. As I was chatting with them, someone who I admire and respect came over. I thought I was getting out of his way so he could go see someone up front, and he stepped aside, commenting to my partner that he was getting on the Kit line. The what line?? Wait, he was coming to see me specifically? I didn’t even know if he knew me well enough to match my name to my face, but apparently he very much did!
I guess this whole post is me, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I’m someone whom my colleagues respect and value to such a degree that they’re seeking me out at Math Prom and they’re joining my PLTs and they’re coming to my MT^2 speech. People have said to me that they enjoy being in PDs with me because they know I’m going to enhance the discussions. I think there’s a part of my brain that’s still convinced I’m the teacher whose first principal told him it was “doubtful” that I would be a good teacher, and that perhaps I should look for a different career, because grad school was supposed to give me all of the skills I needed to be successful, and since I was clearly struggling with that, maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it.
I was watching a TED Talk tonight by Brene Brown about Shame and Vulnerability (research for my MT^2 Talk!), and in it she talks about how at a TED convention, everyone who gets up on stage has failed multiple times – and that’s part of what made them great. And it made me recognize that my desire to overcome the failure of my first year is part of what’s driven me towards excellence. It’s shaped everything I’ve done since then, though it’s also probably the root cause of the imposter syndrome feelings I struggle with. Luckily, with my Sarah Lawrence College background, I was skilled in the “define the problem, do some research, create a project to solve the problem” method of studying, so I was able to overcome this initial failure. Now I’m in a place where 120 MfA teachers are going to come and hear me talk about teaching. I’m still in shock and disbelief.