Why do new teachers often feel like imposters? by Kristen Fleury
I had to change who I was the day I became a teacher. I don’t mean that in the way you scold your friends for changing their personalities when they’re around their partners or people they want to impress. What I mean is that the persona I put on every day at dawn needed to be different than the persona I slipped into for the past nine years of my life.
The background information you’re likely missing here is that I went to undergrad at Boston University for Communications, with a specialization in advertising. I worked in advertising and marketing for five and a half years in my early twenties. It was fast-paced, demanding and I was basically expected to be the Millennial who rolled in every morning in sunglasses, exhausted and a bit unsure of what exactly I was doing. But really, I knew my manager would tell me if I was getting it all wrong – they reviewed almost every single thing I did anyway. It was hard to make a serious mistake.
But I was tired of this lifestyle and wanted some autonomy. I’ve always wanted to teach, I just thought I would do it much later in life. What I didn’t realize was that the newfound autonomy I received in the world of education would lead to a serious case of imposter syndrome. I was actually in charge of my classroom now, expected to be a serious adult who took everything seriously (did I mention things got real?). No more going out after work until midnight, grabbing a bagel on the way to the office in my totally professional leggings, long shirt and cardigan and chugging coffee while slouching half-under my desk and rereading the same 25 emails trying to look busy, occasionally flipping to a slideshow deck I was “working on.” I was going to have at least 100 little sets of eyes looking up at me every day and I had to deliver.
Here are the instances when the imposter syndrome hit me the hardest the first few days, and what I did to try to combat it:
Day One: The very first day of school with students.
My internal monologue: You are so ready. You’ve planned so much that you’re overplanned. “Hiya!” OMG, did I just have my first words as a teacher be, “Hiya,” to a student walking in my door? Barf. Fast forward…They’re asking me how long I’ve been a teacher. They’re onto me. Am I that obvious? Maybe I can ignore them and pretend I didn’t hear. Nope. I’m an imposter!
How I responded: The entire first day, I just “played” teacher. I tried out the role. I embraced feeling like an imposter, because certainly, it would fade… right? When those pesky 13 year olds kept badgering me about my experience (and my age for that matter) I told them I’d been teaching “long enough” and I was “old enough.” That annoyed them to the point that they gave up. Good enough.
My first grade-level meeting: A meeting with all the other 8th grade teachers in the school, the assistant principal and guidance counselor.
My internal monologue: “What meeting? No one told me there was a meeting!” Oh great, I’m late to the first important meeting with my colleagues. I am the youngest person in the room by about ten years. Why do people only have a coffee in front of them while I have this huge stack of papers, a giant bag, a pen and notepad? I don’t fit in. OMG the assistant principal is explaining important things and she legitimately sounds like the teacher in Charlie Brown to me right now. I think I’m sweating. No, I’m definitely sweating. A lot. Look cool.
How I responded: I wrote down everything, whether I knew what it meant or not. I nodded encouragingly when the speaker looked at me. When they asked if we had any feedback, I wisely had none. After the meeting, I desperately needed someone to decode for me what had just happened. What do I need to do? What am I expected to know that I don’t? There are two ways I approached this depending on who I was talking to. First, I was set up with a mentor who was a fellow science teacher in my grade (I was so lucky!). I went to her with the big questions I knew I absolutely had to ask. She was able to give me the down and dirty, inside scoop – which was so vitally important. Secondly, to start making some relationships with peers, I asked others what they were going to do about x, y, or z or put them on a pedestal by asking their opinion on how I should approach something specific. Successfully faking it.
The stack of IEPs dropped in my mailbox: Did I say stack? I meant mountain.
My internal monologue:
What in the name of all that is right is this? [Insert more vulgar language, to taste.] I am so not ready. I don’t even know how to read these… I should take notes. Is that illegal? I have the weekend to get through these? You mean I won’t
have time in school? Oh. No.
How I responded: This was a case where it was too serious not to own up to the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. My mentor and my colleagues gave me some advice. They recommended that I read through them quickly once and highlight what I thought was important so that I could start to get to know the landscape of what an IEP looks like and who my students are. Then they said I should go back and make a one-sheeter with my students’ names down the left-hand side and the common accommodations across the top, leaving a row at the end for “special considerations.” Then go through and make a grid showing which students require which services. Soon I started to realize that many students have very similar accommodations and this is a handy sheet to help sort it all out. Feeling like a pro.
I can’t say honestly that the imposter syndrome ever fully went away my first year. I did, however, get a lot more comfortable and confident sometime after winter break. I did not ever stop finding new situations where I was absolutely, and obviously, the new kid. (And I am thinking I’ll likely just have to find ways to conquer it or learn to deal with it!)
At the end of it all, what I try to remember is: You’re where you are for a reason. Someone else thought you’d be great at what you’re doing too – it’s not just you wishing and hoping (and faking it ‘til you make it.) You’ll make it. Eventually.
This article was authored by Kristen Fleury. Kristen currently works as an 8th grade science teacher in Milton, MA. Having only worked for one year in the classroom, she is intimately aware of the challenges that new teachers face as they start their careers.