Good teachers should suffer from imposter syndrome…

...and if you don't, you should be worried about missing an essential dose of self-doubt

Stephen Petty

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Someone occasionally leaves our team at very short notice and it's down to me to teach a new class in a subject largely unfamiliar to me. There is usually no other option. Sending Petty to the rescue is very much a last resort. You need to think Partridge or Bean here, rather than Bond or Batman. 

Last time it happened, I was placed in front of a Year 9 Religious Studies group for a few weeks. Their real RS teacher had suddenly announced that she was giving it all up to go around the world with her morris-dancing boyfriend.

My brief was to deliver the module “Does God exist?”, including the Big Bang theory. Even before the first lesson was over, I could see that some in the class were already starting to lose faith. The opening discussion had begun to degenerate. Heated debate was turning into a trading of personal abuse. I decided that it was time to change tack.  

“Give me the name of a playing card – any card you like,” I challenged them. “Six of clubs,” called out Hannah, the loudest in the class. “Six of clubs, do I hear?” I repeated, as if on stage. From my breast pocket, I slowly pulled out the only card resting inside there and then turned its face to my audience – the six of clubs it was. 

“What the…?” began Hannah, plainly as astounded as the rest of them. It was clear to all that she had not been an accomplice. After pulling off the same stunt with the queen of hearts, I closed the lesson with a flourish: “So, maybe there is a god after all?” (It's a good trick and works nearly every time.)

Every lesson was a similar mix of bluff and improvisation, showmanship and shamanship. Explaining to impressionable people my own unique interpretation of the Big Bang theory felt especially wrong, though at least I knew that a science teacher would be revisiting this and doing a better job with them a couple of years later. All being well, those children would have forgotten my hopeless inaccuracies and oversimplifications by then.  

My feelings of “imposter syndrome” were entirely justifiable with that class. There was indeed some polite querying of my credentials. “Aren’t you really a business and economics teacher, Mr Petty?” asked young Eddie. “Yes, but there’s quite a lot of overlap with RS. Profits and prophets, for instance.” Eddie just nodded thoughtfully, as if I had made a valid point. 

Though surely we are all to a degree "imposters", anyway, even when we are teaching our so-called “specialisms”? Just reflect on the aforementioned Big Bang, and the ever-expanding universe that has been created out of it. Is it any surprise that, deep down, we tend to feel relatively limited in comparison?

Relatively speaking, we have only scraped some of the surface of our so-called “specialist” subjects, whatever our degree and subsequent qualifications. At best, we have a few favourite topics that we like to think that we know and teach quite well. But there are many black holes. 

Teaching is more than just about having knowledge, clearly. But in the theory and practice of teaching, there is even more space and darkness out there. We are still in the relatively primitive research stages of knowing how best to do it. 

Nor can many of us truly believe that we are always teaching the things best suited to the needs of the children before us, quite apart from the present distorting influences on that teaching of league tables, graded inspections and performance pay.

Given all this, no teacher should worry at all if they feel "imposter syndrome". It is only right, natural and healthy that we should feel it. Surely the teachers to worry about are the ones who don't have that self-doubt?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire. 

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