September 21

The imposter phenomenon

It’s been a busy few months – doing webinars for Active Language, tutoring on the OxfordTEFL DipTESOL course, setting up an online Young Learners course for Active and prepping my mini-plenary for the Innovate ELT conference which took place this weekend. As it took me ages to prepare, I’m putting it on the blog for posterity!


I’d like to start by explaining a little about where this talk and the title came from. I was originally going to give a mini-plenary at a TEFL del Sur conference in March. TEFL del Sur is a teachers’ organisation which I’m very proud to have cofounded (I’ll come back to that later). As a small, local organisation, we tend to get local speakers – people like Ceri Jones, Dan Barber, Chris Roland and Michelle Worgan…and me, and it tends to be the same people who often speak at our events and so we wanted to try and encourage more people to get involved and so I was going to do this mini-plenary at our event in March to try to boost our speaker pool. I was going to start with a little survey type thing using Mentimeter with sentences such as “I currently teach Cambridge prep classes” or “I currently teach VYLs” and so on, to lead on to reveal that I actually currently did none of that but often do practical sessions with tips for these various different classes.

And the fact is, I’m a bit of a conference junkie and I do love speaking and attending events, but recently, I’ve definitely been feeling like a lot of the practical ideas I’ve been sharing are more based in theory (as in, I believe this would work) rather than actual practice.

And this is one aspect of the imposter phenomenon – this feeling that you’re a bit of a fraud and at some point somebody’s going to turn around and call you out on it. For me, that fear manifests itself in dreams of being heckled by the audience during a talk when someone says, “You haven’t actually tried this with your own students though, have you?”

My anxiety dreams around this mini-plenary have largely been about turning up without my notes and a weird, socially-distanced hybrid event where I had to deliver my talk to you whilst a room full of people in front of me watched, wearing masks. However as well, when I started to research more about the topic of the imposter phenomenon, I even began to question whether I was an imposter, as I don’t suffer from the debilitating effects which others can experience and I started to feel like a bit of a fraud for deciding to talk about it. But one thing I read is that it’s more frequently called the imposter phenomenon or imposterism than the imposter syndrome for that reason. Organisational psychologist Rob Yeung wrote:

…syndrome implies that people either have it or not, whereas the reality is that such thoughts and feelings of imposterism tend to affect people on a spectrum.

And there is more to it than just this feeling of being found out. Dr Valerie Young who’s an expert on the topic, has identified five types of ‘imposter’. Have a listen and see if you can relate to any (or all) of them.

Firstly, the expert. This is someone who doesn’t feel content until they know everything about a subject. They’re also the type of person who won’t go for a new job if they don’t meet ALL the criteria listed, which is something which can hold people back in their professional trajectories.

Secondly, the perfectionist. This is the person who focuses more on their flaws when completing a project than their successes to the point that they may not even be able to see the success of a project because of a minimal flaw in it. They can also veer between over-preparation and intense procrastination – putting off completing a task as they fear they won’t complete it to the highest standard.

Next up, the soloist – a person who prefers to work alone so they can show they don’t need the help of others for fear that asking for assistance will be seen as incompetence.

The natural genius is the fourth type – someone who has always been naturally good at things and so feels frustrated when they can’t do something well immediately, rather than identifying that we all build on our skills throughout life.

And finally, the superhero, who tries to juggle everything and excel in every role: as a worker, friend, parent, volunteer. They are likely to be a workaholic who will experience burnout as they push themselves too hard professionally, whilst simultaneously trying to succeed in every other area of life.

I was chatting to a friend about the imposterism we can all feel in this globalized world: the feeling that we’re not doing enough to combat the various social, economic and environmental injustices that are occurring around us, the feeling that now we have access to news and information from around the world that we should know more about them all, know everything about them all, and take action. Also, the feeling that each and every one of our decisions should be environmentally sustainable and the terrible guilt we feel when we buy something in plastic packaging with the realisation that we’re contributing to the problem. It’s great that there are so many talks this weekend to help us become a part of the solution but I’d like to hope you go away with a sense of ‘I could do that’ rather than feelings of ‘I should be doing so much more!’ and an anxiety-fuelled determination to single-handedly change the world.

Worrier Girl, by Gemma Correll

We aren’t superheroes and in fact, (geek alert), many of our favourites in the Marvel and DC Universes suffer from feelings of imposterism, including Spiderman and Captain Marvel.

Incredibly though, it’s thought that about 70% of people will experience a feeling of imposterism at some point in their lives. Whilst it was originally identified in the late 1970s by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes as a syndrome affecting high-achieving women, over the years, research has shown that it affects men as much as women, high-achievers as much as average Joes and, listening to those five types of imposter, I’d be very surprised if you couldn’t identify with at least one of them at some point in your life.

One more point to add is that I think in the world of ELT, we’re particularly likely to get a sense of imposterism because – ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ – we are so often thrown into a new environment: the teacher who has years of experience with Cambridge exams may feel hesitant when they start teaching a Trinity ISE class; the early-years teacher might feel nervous when they suddenly face a class of adults for their DipTESOL teaching practice; teachers who have worked in mainstream education in their own country for years often get that self-doubt when they step into an ELT classroom for the first time and, of course, it would be an oversight not to mention the concerns many competent, experienced teachers faced when they were thrown into the world of online teaching earlier this year.

So, what can we do about it?

Firstly, identify if you are suffering from the imposter phenomenon and, if you think it’s influencing you negatively – stopping you from going for new opportunities, having an impact on your work-life balance or affecting your mental health – seek help. Talk to a trusted friend or colleague, or look at professional help. However, unfortunately, admitting you feel like an imposter won’t stop you from feeling like an imposter. Dealing with imposterism starts with you because, as psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden says:

To attain ‘success’ without attaining positive self-esteem is to be condemned to feeling like an imposter anxiously awaiting exposure.

So something more concrete you can do is identify and catalogue your successes. We are our own worst enemy and we all know that for the twenty, fifty, one hundred positive comments we get, that one bad comment will keep us awake. Tip the scales in your favour and force yourself to outweigh the negative with the positive by documenting all your achievements.

Thirdly, as I said before, we learn through experience and we all work hard to improve our skills, albeit with the phrase ‘fake it til you make it’ ringing loudly in our ears. So, step out of your comfort zone every once in a while: take on an IELTS class, write a guest blogpost, lead a CPD session at your school, submit a proposal for a conference (another plug there for TEFL del Sur – we’re a very welcoming bunch!). You could even start your own local organisation – as any good imposter knows, “If I can do it, anyone can!”

But seriously, the last piece of advice? Own your successes. Now, this can be tricky as you don’t want to sound boastful and many of us don’t like to feel like we’re in the spotlight so, as Dr Young says, we will often “diminish or discount obvious evidence of our abilities”. So, although it has less impact during an online conference, I’d like you to take ten seconds to complete the sentence I’m proud… and when I count to three, say what you’re proud of.

1, 2, 3… I’m proud of cofounding TEFL del Sur.

Big yourself up this weekend – hopefully everyone you talk to in the Zoom Garden will have listened to this talk and will know that you aren’t bragging! You’re surrounded by people with a passion for ELT who will be happy to share in your successes.

March 15

Fortnightly Focus #13 – #ELTwhiteboard

Ooops, my Fortnightly Focus skipped a week there!   My plan had been to get involved in #ELTwhiteboard on twitter which is (more than) a hashtag originally started by Matthew Noble (@tesolmatthew).  For more information on what it is, I really recommend checking out Matthew’s blogpost following on from a talk he presented on #ELTwhiteboard – he shares his slides from the session which are full of #ELTwhiteboard images to get you thinking about how you use and could use your board.

And that’s what I’ve done in the end.  I haven’t actually taken any photos of my whiteboard over the past three weeks as I had originally intended, but even just thinking about taking photos has made me reflect on my use of the whiteboard.

For example, I know I predominantly use the black pen in my teen and adult classes: green for me is always phonology and I find it weird to use it for anything else, blue is trickier to rub off for some reason and so I tend to use it sparingly to save my arm a workout and red is a bit fierce to over-use.  Incredibly though, there are other colours available!  I gave a session at a school a couple of weeks ago and there was a yellow pen and then last week on our part-time CertTESOL course, one of the trainees had a purple pen – and because I was so amazed by it (little things and all), he gave it to me!!!  Quick aside, does anyone else get so incredibly excited by board pens or should I get checked out?!

I’m generally happy with my board organisation – the left-hand side tends to be kept free for emergent language and the right-hand side for me to write up discussion questions…that’s purely because I think that the learners can more easily see things written on that side of the board and so can start chatting about the first question whilst I’m writing up the others.  And, going back to phonology, I’m quite happy writing up words phonetically, but I think maybe I need to change the way I mark stress – I’ve got into the habit of doing it as a dictionary does, but I think it might be more effective to use circles as I’ve seen others do as that not only shows more clearly which syllable is stressed, but also the number of syllables which will be useful for my Spanish learners who often add in extra syllables (for example in comfortable).  Also, I think I use the board more for emergent language with my adults than my teens as they are all so keen to write new language down.  However, I feel I should write up more emergent language with my teen group too as I know a couple of them would write it down and make an effort to use it.

Interestingly, the topic of how we use the whiteboard came up during the CertTESOL observations last week and we talked about when it’s necessary to write on the board as I noticed a couple of trainees were unnecessarily writing on the board – for example, writing up the answers to an exercise which they shouldn’t need to do if oral feedback was clear.  I rarely use the board to write up answers, unless I think that learners may have made mistakes – perhaps because they may mishear an answer due to features of connected speech or they may misspell a difficult word or a tricky cognate.  With my very younger learners, I tend to use it more to model the task rather than post-task but I think this can be due to the way which VYLs are used to being corrected as well.

One thing which I think could be useful is a laser pointer!  Do you ever have moments when you’re monitoring and a learner asks a query and you’re trying to point out where the answer is on the board without walking all the way to the board?  That makes me think that sometimes my boardwork needs to be a little clearer for my weaker YL group – although it doesn’t help that one of them seems to be as blind as a bat even with his glasses on and sitting directly in front of the board (audible sigh of exasperation).  But as well quite a few members of that group struggle to link the written and spoken word, so being able to point things out would save a lot of frustration…oooh, quick to trip to amazon!


We’ve got peer observations coming up this month and so I’d like to think again about routines for my Fortnightly Focus – it’s getting to that point in the year where the learners are bored of the same games, songs and activities so I’d like to mix up my repetoire a little.  Watching a colleague and being watched by another will give me some fresh ideas.

February 11

Fortnightly Focus #11 – that group again

Busy week here, so my Wednesday post has turned into a Saturday post!

I’ve been trying a new behaviourial (points) system with this group which is having a positive effect on a number of them.  I found I was constantly juggling giving points for participation with rewarding the weaker learners when they did something well and trying not to unfair to the strong learners who would be streaks ahead in points at the end of the lesson.  Each time I needed to award points, my focus was away from the learners and I was feeling a lack of control.  Now, everyone starts the lesson on maximum points and the idea is not to lose any points during the lesson – they’re divided into sections for things so that as well I can see why people are losing points – not sitting properly, annoying classmates, chatting in Spanish and so on.  As I say, this means it’s now clearer for the class why an individual is losing points, although it does mean there’s perhaps less incentive to participate as points aren’t awarded for taking part or getting answers correct.

The fabulous Jill also re-introduced me to a fun activity which she does with YLs to keep them engaged and listening – each day there’s a magic word and if the teacher says the word, the learners have to stand up, turn around and sit down.  I’ve tried it a few times and I’ve found it works well with high-frequency, easy-to-spot content words.

I used “what” the other day which was highly amusing as I was asking lots of questions during the lesson…which leads me on nicely to my next Fortnightly Focus – I’m going to be thinking about questions: questions I ask my learners, questions I ask myself, questions learners ask me…

November 17

10 years ago…

I had this wonderful idea(l) that when I gave up my role of academic coordinator and devoted my time and energy to being a full-time teacher, I would have ‘perfect’ classes – I’d be on top of everything, the learners would be engaged all the time, it would be fun, there’d be no classroom management issues…life would be a breeze.

Reality hits hard.

So, why is life different now?  What’s changed in my edu-sphere?

10 years ago…(in no particular order!)

I wasn’t a particularly good teacher.  I was less aware (read as ‘ignorant’) of the big questions in ELT.  I had lower expectations (mainly because I don’t think I really knew what my expectations were).  I didn’t blog or read blogs.  I didn’t use Twitter or Facebook.  I had only just started attending conferences and certainly wasn’t a speaker.  I wasn’t a teacher trainer.  I only had one job.  I worked a solid block of hours and didn’t have to commute.  I had less people to compare myself with.  I didn’t have the passion for ELT which I have now.

In conclusion, it’s on me to change – to become the teacher I want to be.  And I wanted to end with an inspiring quote, but I don’t really go in for soppy, sentimental cr*p, so here’s one I found on Pinterest:


October 19

Fortnightly Focus #4 – Dealing with energy levels in YLs

To be honest, this is still very much an ongoing focus, as I try to deal with a tricky group of six-year-olds.  But I’ll share some thoughts now and no doubt come back to it again at another point.

Steps I’m taking to resolve some of the issues within the classroom:

  • I had a points system in place, but it was very limited (maximum of three smiley faces).  A colleague suggested flooding the class with points as this would give more space to take away points when needed.  This is having more of an effect, as I can often move closer to the points charts when I can see some learners becoming a little antsy and, in fact, it’s had quite a positive effect on one of the learners who’s very responsive to the new system
  • Spending more time around the table seems to make the lesson start in a better way.  I think previously, when they were in the smaller space at the front of the class, they became a little touchy-feely towards each other, whereas now they have more personal space
  • Turning off the air conditioning unit which unfortunately makes the classroom hotter, which probably in some ways makes the learners more antsy, but it means that I’m not constantly asking them to move away from it – to be honest, I was genuinely concerned that they would get ill sitting directly in front of it, I’m sure a blast of cold air right across your head/neck can’t be healthy.  However, temperatures are dropping slowly here in the south of Spain, though I can see my classroom being one of the warmest year-round
  • Working on making my routines more varied and dynamic – I’m trying to introduce a new song each week so that we have plenty to sing about as songs and chants can be great moments to refocus them.  Also, I know there are certain activities which they do enjoy so I’m trying to include them without relying too much on them (partly because they need more varied input and also they might then get bored of their favourites!)

Tough as the class is, I’m glad that it’s the first lesson of the afternoon as I do have the feeling of “getting it out the way first” and while it is draining to be faced with a difficult group, I’m trying to stay positive about it – there’s nothing worse than having the sinking feeling in October that you’ll be working with a group for the next nine months and it feels like it’s reached the point of no-return already.  So I’ll keep trying new things and getting advice from colleagues on what’s worked for them in the past 🙂

My focus for the next two weeks will be working on listening skills in the classroom as I’m giving a talk on the topic at ACEIA next month and want to try out some of my ideas before the session.