A while ago, a friend and I were talking about Imposter Syndrome: it involves a feeling of not belonging, of being a fraud- like you came to the party through the back door and at any minute, you’ll be rumbled and unceremoniously chucked out. We’ve both experienced this internal self doubt but luckily for us it’s been fleeting: for others the feeling of being on the outside looking in is more permanent.
It was when I returned to school after the six week break this year that I realised some of the students that I teach-and others up and down the country- are likely to experience something akin to Imposter Syndrome, everyday in the classroom.
These students are probably those whose summer break didn’t involve family meals or meal time conversation or books on the beach or country walks or journeys to places where no one speaks your language or galleries or new foods to try or sadly even three meals a day…. It’s not the first time I’ve reflected like this at the start of the school year. It won’t be the last.
And so it’s no wonder then is it, that when I’m wanging on about the theatre, books, poetry and art they feel I’m talking about something that has nothing to do with their lives. They can’t affiliate with the content or access the vocabulary I’m using to discuss such out of reach topics. This certainly feels like Imposter Syndrome territory.
Well sod that.
Although I don’t have the remedy for Imposter Syndrome, there are certainly a few things I can do to minimise triggers of it in the classroom.
Using careful methodology, I can ensure students don’t feel like they’re “too thick” to read a piece of topical non-fiction that requires them to have a basic understanding of some challenging vocabulary. I can explore more abstract ideas that I know we’re going to come across that they might sort of get,but not enough to enable them to comment on it with conviction.
I can but try.
Front Load: I’d like to give thanks to our gracious leader Andy Tharby for coining this phrase and making it a “thing” we should all do. Before you carry out reading with students, read it yourself and identify the words that they won’t know and in turn will switch them off. Teach them those four or five key words before you read the text with them and whether they say it or not, the fact that they recognise, understand and can reflect on the use of these words in the context of the reading material will give them a quiet confidence.
Picture it: have pictures of the definitions as well as the definition itself to help those who might need an alternative presentation of the information.
Before I ask them for their opinion- which is often met with the response: “I dunno” I front load by giving them the opinions of others. I give them stats, show them clips, play devil’s advocate and then start asking them to form their own: who do they agree with more? Can they see the other side’s point? Eventually, I’ll ask them again and if I’m lucky, I get to congratulate them on their newly informed opinion.
Explore an abstract concept before you ask them to do anything with it. Take protest for example: why do people do it? What historic examples of protest are worth considering? Is there just one type of protest? Why is it important? Why might it be considered controversial? Only after they have had the chance to work through this concept with finer brush strokes, will they think and write about it in an interesting, accurate way.
In my experience, these methods do improve the quality of the written outcomes produced by students. More importantly though, they give some young people a sense of inclusion in a conversation or during a reading activity that they wouldn’t have otherwise. These methods help reduce that sense of not belonging, of being on the outside looking in. And that’s the most important gap to close.
Think: children. Imposters in the classroom? They shouldn’t be.