Embrace the imposter in you

The trouble with schools is that they bring out the imposter in you.

Confession time – Sometimes I feel as if I’m a total fraud.  I’ve felt this way ever since I became a Head, in fact, I think it’s been with me since I began teaching thirty years ago.  There’s not a day that goes by without me worrying about not doing the job well enough.  When I meet other Heads, I automatically think, they must know a lot more than I do about running a school.   I then found out about the term: Imposter Syndrome.

The term (first coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes) refers to the idea that you don’t feel you deserve to be in the position you are in and that you are somehow lucky to have got as far as you have; any qualifications or experience you possess, doesn’t count.  A research article published in the International Journal of Behavioural Science (2011), found that around 70% of people experience this at some point in their lives.  

I find I worry about everything connected with my school. For example, I worry about how staff perceive me when I do briefings in the morning, I worry that my senior team don’t think I’m good enough and they’re only humouring me because I’m Head.   I worry about speaking up at external meetings and although I know exactly what I want to say, I often become really nervous and so what comes out is never good enough.   My school has performed well over the last few years, but I worry that it isn’t good enough and that it will all come crumbling down around me.   I’m consumed by the tiniest error I make, which push all the positive accomplishments to the back of my head.  This last example happens on a daily basis and leads me to constantly question my competence.  

I often walk around with this nagging worry inside me that I can’t put my finger on.  I call this my ‘unspecified anxiety disorder’.   Worst of all I prefer complete tasks on my own, rather than delegating or asking for support from my team because I think that if I ask for help, I’m a failure or a fraud. Oddly, I’m never worried when I have to present something publicly and I seem to do this well, but I seldom write down any notes to read from, because I believe it’s a sign of not being good enough.   A few days ago, a senior colleague who works for the Local Authority, mentioned how well the school is progressing and I typically replied, “yes it is, but can I keep it going?”  Her answer was, “For God’s sake Armando, you have to get rid of that worm, whispering in your ear!”   And she’s right.  Her comment inspired me to write this blog.  

This all sounds as if I’m in a mess and not fit to run a school, but I’ve functioned like this for as long as I can remember.  I know deep down the school isn’t going to nose dive and I know we’re doing all the right things, yet this doesn’t take away from the persistent doubt.    I’ve spoken to some Heads and other colleagues about this and I’m surprised by how many have similar thoughts and feelings.   

Regardless of how I present myself, my imposter syndrome on balance has been a positive force in my life.   It has driven me to work hard and always look for ways to improve, not only my own performance, but the performance of the people or establishment I work with.  I don’t say this as a boast, it’s a fact.  I think I’ve learned to live with this constant fear and although it can seem to be a negative way to accomplish something (a fear of doing something wrong and failing), I’ve used this fear to push me.   I need good people around me to hold me in check and give me much needed reassurance, when deserved, but overall the positives certainly outweigh the negatives. 

I recently listened to an interesting podcast (“London Real”) which featured an interview with Steven Kotler.   Kotler described the state of ‘flow’ which we sometimes experience when we begin to intensely focus on an activity we are doing.  We become rapt and nothing else disturbs us.    It often happens in sport, but can also occur in everyday working life, bringing about a sense of happiness and wellbeing.   If you’d like to find out more about it do a web search on the expert: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi or better still read his book “Flow”.  Interestingly, Kotler believes fear can move a person into a flow state.

Kotler has interviewed what we would regard as some of the toughest people on the planet and concludes that what drives most of them is being constantly scared.  This fear inspires them to look for creative ways to overcome problems and consequently, this creativity releases chemicals within us that create a Flow state.  I’m no tough guy, but I’ve certainly experienced Flow and it has come about from that fear of not doing something well enough. It’s a negative premise to begin anything, but I guess I’ve made it work for me without realising it.

I would love to find ways to help our pupils achieve a flow state in class, but instilling fear in them probably isn’t the best way to go about it!   We obviously don’t want to create a sense of fear which results in a feeling of helplessness.  I rarely feel helpless.  It’s about challenging to the point where you are encouraged to take action.   What I would like to begin doing is encourage staff to explore with young people, their insecurities when it comes to completing tasks in class.  If we can focus these insecurities/fears and build resilience and confidence to face them head on, when they are feeling challenged, perhaps we can then begin to turn these negative thoughts into a creative, driving force to overcome obstacles and succeed.  There’s a lot relating to Growth or Positive mindsets here and how to climb out of Learning Pit, but that’s for discussion another time

As I said to some Year 11s going into an exam last week, “it’s okay to feel nervous, it means you want to do well and that’s worth at least one grade extra”.    

Now shall I post this online or not? Is it a good enough first article? ? ?

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