Even if you’ve never heard the term “impostor syndrome,” chances are that you’ve experienced it before, especially if you worked or studied in a high-achieving environment such as a college or university. It basically sums up in psychological terms the phenomenon that takes place when you transition from being a “big fish in a small pond” to being a “small fish in a big sea.”
Little did I know during my college years that I wasn’t the only one who felt like an imposter. It turns out that “up to 70 per cent of people experience the syndrome at least once in their lifetime,” according to Becky Ponting, a registered psychologist with the University of Alberta’s Counselling and Clinical Services.
As teachers, it’s our job not only to teach our students material but also to create an environment that builds confidence and fosters healthy learning. Well, what is a healthy learning community? Below are three tips you as a teacher can use to help your students overcome the hurdle of impostor syndrome as well as build a community of intrinsically motivated learners.
Firstly, it is important to highlight your student’s strengths. Whenever they do something right, be sure to praise them and encourage them to continue their good performance. But don’t overpraise them and don’t just single them out. Overpraising can result in an overreliance on praise and repetition of the same mistakes. Singling students out for good performance can make their peers feel lonely and excluded. Using behavior-specific praise with every student will make sure that everyone feels that they, too, can be a champion in their own right.
The second tip is to allow your students to make mistakes. As I said in my previous article titled “Resilience is Only the Beginning: 3 Ways to Build Antifragile Students,” schools that focus “more on utilizing students’ talents and less on correcting their errors and mistakes” allow students to be more authentic and original and even creatively contribute to the betterment of their respective communities. In addition, the freedom to make mistakes removes or greatly reduces the desire to be “perfect,” which is common among high achievers. Rather than aim for perfection, people should strive for excellence, which means being the best they can be and doing the best they can do.
My final tip is to create a community that fosters a strong sense of belonging. Teachers shouldn’t be the only ones praising their students, and you also don’t want your students relying too heavily on teacher praise; after all, you don’t want to single anyone out and you want them to be more intrinsically than extrinsically motivated. That being said, since human beings are hardwired for connection, peers can play a big role in the way students learn in class. Teachers must create a classroom environment in which students actively praise and acknowledge one another. This goes a long way when it comes to building confidence and self-esteem.
Although impostor syndrome is widespread, it doesn’t have to be debilitating. If you or your students are experiencing it, if anything, it probably means you’re in a community of ambitious, goal-focused, self-disciplined individuals. That is a good thing, and you must use that to your advantage. In other words, instead of using these qualities to promote rivalry and exclusion, you can use them to create a community of encouragement and support.