A Fair, Respectful Imposter
When your undergrad days feel as though they happened yesterday, it can be extremely daunting to stand in front of a room of 100 students as their course instructor. I finished my undergrad in 2013, a decade ago; however, this temporal distance from my bachelor's degree did not ease the insecurities I had about teaching. "Who am I to be teaching this course? Am I treating everyone fairly? How do I respect and provide students with a safe learning space? What if they don't enjoy my class?" These questions were all racing in my mind behind the mask I was wearing to reassure my students that I had everything under control. However, as I finalize the semester and enter my students' grades online, I realize that along the journey, my beliefs about my ability to teach eventually caught up to my actions of leading the course. For those just beginning their journeys in teaching, I've compiled the musings I've had throughout my first time as a course instructor. Perhaps they can make your journey less bumpy and your experience more enjoyable.
Imposter syndrome can be haunting. Conceptualized by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 as "chronic feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and fraudulence despite objective success", imposter syndrome has been found to impact up to 82% of people regardless of their field or level of expertise. Some highly accomplished, successful women of various lines of work, such as Hollywood stars, business leaders, Supreme Court Justices, and even political figures such as former First Lady Michelle Obama, have reported experiencing imposter syndrome despite their widely established and well-earned recognition in their respective fields.
Knowing that I share this false sense of disbelief in my abilities with these important public figures whom I respected helped ease my stress but did not completely extinguish it. I would have my lecture slides prepared but would also make sure my notes were present so that I stayed on script. The predictability helped keep me at ease while teaching my lectures. With time, the sea of unfamiliar young faces became more familiar and less intimidating. The questions students were asking in class turned out not to be beyond my reach because I knew the material. And the students and I began to have a pleasant rapport; I started making jokes, some successful, some not, but even the latter was funny in its own awkward way.
But you don't have to wait for sloth-paced familiarity to rescue you from the negative impacts of imposter syndrome; there are known techniques that can help you reduce its effects. An article published by the American Psychological Association discusses seven strategies to overcome imposter syndrome, starting with learning the facts. This first strategy asks those suffering from feelings of inadequacy to remind themselves of the cognitive distortions that may be contributing to their feelings about their position being undeserved. Acknowledging the qualifications and accomplishments that have made you eligible for your position can increase your level of confidence in the fact that you are the right person for the job. After this, you can find peers and others within your social network with whom to share your feelings and from whom to ask for validation. These same individuals can be the ones with whom you celebrate your successes to increase your self-awareness of your qualifying accomplishments. Next, you must let go of the unattainable notion of perfection and, as a result, cultivate self-compassion, share your failures, and finally accept it. 'It' being new experiences can result in self-doubt and other symptoms attributed to imposter syndrome.
What is Fair?
Another question I kept considering throughout my teaching experience: 'Am I being fair to my students?' This brings us to the concept of fairness. Being fair is defined as 'impartiality and honesty: free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.' At its most basic form, practicing fairness manifests in a teacher's transparency about what they expect from their students. One of the main takeaways from my pedagogy courses and workshops was that an instructor can fairly assess their student's performance only if the students are aware of what the course expects. So, during the semester, for any assignment, quiz, or exam, I only evaluated my students based on what had been mentioned in class or specified in the course outline. What good does it do to penalize a student for something they were never asked to do or were unaware was part of some hidden evaluation rubric?
Another situation that required some guidance from the fairness compass was when two students in my class asked me to provide references. I was able to compose a reference for the student who produced the documents I requested to evaluate the skills for which she needed a recommendation. But I was not able to help my second student. This student required a more thorough recommendation letter for skills and qualities that I could not verify he had. And so, even though it pained me to say no to him, I had to because I felt uncomfortable making statements I couldn't verify with evidence. In this case, I was haunted by guilt that perhaps I was being unfair because I served as a reference for one student but not the other. But, beyond it being unethical to do so without proper evidence, providing an unverified reference for student #2 would have been unfair as it would've been an act of favoritism to him and of dishonesty to other students who were applying for the same role.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T, find out what it means to everyone involved
The operative word here is mutual. Mutual respect is necessary in a classroom, not only toward the professor but also toward your students. The opposite of falsely doubting your ability to perform a role is being pompous and undermining while performing that very same role. In this case, perhaps the former is the lesser of the two evils because at least it's easier to build confidence than to dismantle a toxic personality.
Respecting your students means providing a safe space for them to learn and feel comfortable enough to engage with their peers, with you as the professor, and with the course material. I did not predict that respect could easily be misperceived as weakness. As a result, being lenient with those who did not want to attend lectures translated into students leaving in the middle of class while I was in mid-statement. It also translated to loud chatting and phone use in class. I learned that kindness and respect must come with firmness and self-assurance, which may have been difficult for me at the beginning, given the bouts of imposter syndrome. However, this epiphany came to me later in the semester than I would've liked, so fewer rewards were reaped than expected.
Teaching to Learn, and Learning to Teach
While I could never fully answer the questions that kept me up, that was never necessary. I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching is a learning experience. As people, we continue to learn and adjust what we do and who we are as we go about our lives, and teachers are no exception. I hope to continue to learn from my students and experiences so that I can hone my skills, better my techniques, and feel deserving and confident of my role as a teacher.