The great fear of Impostership

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October 10, 2011 by pmilleredu

The past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about the idea of impostership. I have been hearing these issues pop up for my RAs and it got me reflecting on my own experiences with it.

There are certain times in our careers where we feel like imposters. Whether this is during our first AP Class in High School, during a class in College, the first new weeks of a new position or even 25 years into our careers, we can all have feelings of Impostership.

Impostership, according to Stephen Brookfield (The Skillful Teacher, 2006), “is the sense learners report that at some deeply embedded level they possess neither the talent nor the right to become college students.” I myself have had feelings of impostership as early as High-School. I remember sitting in the front row during my freshmen year in Spanish 2. They had decided to have me skip Spanish 1 and jump right into Spanish 2. I sat there, having no idea what was going on and hoping for dear life that if I just smiled hard enough and nodded with enough vigor that I would avoid any attention and avoid being found out as having no clue what was going on. As students around me pulled out a piece of paper I did the same, scared that soon I would need to do something with it, when I didn’t even know to get it out in the first place. The feeling of not being smart enough to be there and that any moment I would be found out was terrifying. I did not want to ask for help and be ridiculed; after all I was chosen to be put in this class and I couldn’t let on that I might be an imposter.

This may seem extreme, but that feeling was very real albeit not nearly as well articulated as it is now. I agree with Brookfield that impostership is largely ignored and that “these emotions are silent killers of student engagement, a kind of pedagogic hypertension”. It is also interesting to note that based on Brookfield’s experience as a teacher and his research of student learning “not all share this feeling… but it does seem to cross lines of gender, class and ethnicity. It is also felt at all levels, from developmental, remedial learners to participants in doctorial seminars.”

These feelings are not always a negative thing; I believe that at times they propel us to greatness. The problem comes when these feelings isolate us from others and force us to put up this façade. The best way to deal with these concerns is to bring them into the light. Once students realize that we can all feel like imposters at one time or another and that those feelings are a part of learning and challenging oneself, Impostership begins to lose its destructive power.

During that first Spanish class, this happened early on when someone else asked (in English) “What are we supposed to be doing?” It was that moment when I realized that others were lost too. When we feel alone in our Impostership and fear being found out, we allow the destructive nature of these feelings to disengage us from our learning.

I see these feelings also arise in Resident Assistants (RAs). It is natural to struggle at times within the RA position, as well as any position in student affairs. For me, that is why I am in this field, to learn, to grow and to help others do the same. It is important to have moments where you unmask impostership and work to bring out its qualities that help us succeed. Once we acknowledge it and make it mutual knowledge that we all struggle at times and that we overcame those struggles, we will be better off as individuals and as a staff.

The best time to do this is early on, during training. Even if all of your RAs seem very confident, aren’t asking any questions and seem to have it all under control, keep telling yourself that there are feelings of impostership out there. If you don’t address it, not everyone will have that self-realization that I had in Spanish class and those feelings may continue.

Overall, impostership is a natural phenomenon that can either help us grow or undermine our ability and confidence as learners.  This is just as present if not more-so within RAs as it is in academic settings. The best way to deal with this issue is to make it public and discuss these feelings as a staff.

I started thinking about this idea of impostership, and finally had clear language for it, from reading “The Skillful Teacher” by Stephen Brookfield.

Brookfield, Stephen. The Skillful Teacher: on Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006. Print.


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