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Leah Thomas

When I first started teaching, I did not feel like a teacher. Every time I stood in front of students I felt much like how I felt when I took part in high school acting competitions. This was a performance, and god help me, I had to embody it fully or collapse under the knowing stares of kids who could tell I had no idea what I was doing. Even after five years of schooling in a teaching program, and three semesters of placements, I felt this way. These days, these episodes occur less often, but there remain mornings when I wonder why any student should listen to a word I say.

How can I pretend to be responsible enough to manage a group of young people without being called out for the sham that I am? If we as adults can hardly keep our lives and sanity intact during these trying times, how can we possibly hope to teach students to do the same?

I was in college when I first heard about imposter syndrome, and reading the Wikipedia article almost brought me to tears in my dorm room. The syndrome is applied to “high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud” Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.” Apparently, imposter syndrome affects women a great deal more than men. I forwarded the article to my sister and soon she called me, tearful too. “This,” she told me, “this is how I feel every single day.”

Because the majority of teachers in public schools are still women, I have to wonder how this embedded sense of failure plays into school life. How often is finding self-confidence the first battle of the morning for modern educators? And are we also accidentally fostering this damaging mindset in children?

Research shows that there is still a gender bias in education. We could go on about dress codes or the hateful “boys will be boys” aspect of socialization. We could go on about girls being praised for neat handwriting while boys are praised for speaking up. But I’m not here to point fingers. Yet if we know our girls are nurturing within them the idea that they are lesser somehow, or that their successes are due to luck rather than skill, we need to tell them otherwise. Instead of saying “nice job!” or “that’s beautiful!” it falls upon us to say, “I can see the work you put in here, and the thought that it took, and look how it paid off. You did it. YOU.” It falls upon us to call on girls first, if we can.

If we can’t fix this, at least we can be aware that it happens. That is the first step towards undoing these knots inside us. Even if we never feel like real teachers, we can feel like real, empathetic people.