It took seven years before I felt like an actual REAL teacher. Seven years of planning lessons, meeting students, reading about teaching, making activities… basically seven years of teaching. During that time I taught in many different contexts – in company classes, private lessons, as a junior high school AET (assistant English teacher), in more private lessons (both one-on-one and small groups), in conversation school classes of various ages, as a high school English teacher, and as a junior college and university lecturer of English.
After seven years of teaching English in Japan I was teaching in the context (although not the same school) where I would stay until I left Japan 14 years later – the junior college and university classes.
But for much of that time I didn’t feel like a “real teacher.” Why not?
At the beginning of my career, a big part of it was because I didn’t have any formal training as an English language teacher. That’s right, I started teaching English without taking a single TESL training course or workshop. Not something that I would recommend doing, but the facts are the facts. The “on-the-job” training provided by my first job consisted of observing several classes before being thrown in front of my own class. And I struggled and taught and slowly figured things out.
When I applied for the MA-TESOL program at SIT, (now “SIT Graduate Institute”) I thought that getting my master’s degree in TESOL would help me feel like a real teacher. But it actually happened before I finished my thesis and was awarded my degree. And it happened in a way I didn’t expect.
Simply put, my professors treated everyone in the program as real teachers. They didn’t say things like, “once you’re finished the program and get that IPP (SIT-speak for “thesis”) written, then you’ll be a real teacher. Nothing like that. As participants in the program we were respected as real teachers from the very beginning. No matter what our experience or previous qualifications, everyone in the program was treated with respect. And I started to feel like a real teacher.
And then one day I didn’t again. I’m not even sure what happened – a hastily-written lesson plan that didn’t really work, an activity that flopped, or students who didn’t respond to the material. Whatever the trigger was, those familiar feelings of “I’m not a real teacher” came back. But it didn’t last for seven years this time. I had a tool to deal with those problems and challenges that threatened my confidence and identity. Reflective practice.
Using the reflective practice skills that I was developing helped me to examine the problem in the classroom as a puzzle or challenge and not as a threat to my very identity. It helped me to see my teaching in a different light. I believe it was the act of reflecting on my teaching and looking at the students and their learning that actually made me a real teacher. Or maybe it was simply that seeing my teaching in that reflective light made me see that I actually had been teaching all along. What I was doing was what real teachers do and that’s what makes teachers “real”. Not the degree or the training or the certificate, but the planning and the teaching and the focus on the learning.
I do still get that feeling from time to time. Especially when I take on a new challenge. But that’s a post for another day.
Do you ever feel like you’re not a “real teacher”? Are you an imposter like me?
Brookfield, S.D. 1995. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
The section on “The Imposter Syndrome” (pages 229-235) has helped me think through my own feelings and experiences in this area. He calls this feeling “the Imposter Syndrome” and writes: “teachers often feel like imposters.” And that the key to keep the feeling of impostership under control is “…to make the phenomenon public.”