The extra imposter

We’ve reached that point in the year.  January felt like it took about five months to pass, and for some reason, February feels like it is passing in an instant.  We are far enough into second semester that it doesn’t feel new anymore, but still so early in the semester that it feels like there is no relief in sight. It’s basically around the time of the year that I start to question everything I do.

After giving up coaching this year, I have found that I’m not really doing any less work, I’m just doing different work.  The teachers who I see sporadically have all asked me in the last few weeks, “what are you doing with all your free time?”  They knew that before this year I was a coaching lifer.  For 15 years, they knew I’d be working until at least 6’oclock every day from November through February. I really believed that when I took this year off there would be a change, but all I’ve realized is that I had just fashioned a makeshift system of prioritizing responsibilities, and basically never relaxed for four months.

This “time off” has just made me realize that I was running myself into the ground physically.  In some ways that was better than what has happened without basketball.  When I was just going non-stop, I never took a lot of time to question anything.  Most of my life was just about production, and not about reflection.  Now that I have this “extra time,” I am definitely doing a lot more reflecting, which for a teacher like me, may not always be a good thing.

A couple of months ago my wife and I were out to dinner with some friends and one of them used a term that I’m sure I had heard before, but never equated to myself.  This friend was relaying a story and used the term “imposter syndrome.”  For the last few months the phrase has been rattling around in my head.  Every time I speak to another teacher about what is going on in our respective classrooms, or look at how my previous activities are doing since I have given up the reins on them, I wonder to myself, was I actually helping these things when I was in charge?  Was I actually doing things the right way, or did my false sense of external bravado just push me through without having the actual skills that I needed to succeed?

My friend and former assistant coach came into my classroom the other day to tell me that it wasn’t me.  This was a running dialogue that we had the last few years when we worked together.  Every time something went wrong with the team, I would inevitably get back to the statement, “maybe it is just me.”  I know that I have a personality that fixates more on what is going wrong and how to fix it, rather than on what is going really well.  I tend to minimize the things that go well, and chalk them up to circumstance.  Maybe we won the game because we just had more talent than the other team, maybe my classroom was fully functional because all the kids were having good days and actually felt like participating that day.  It couldn’t possibly be that I game-planned and put all my kids in the best position to succeed, or that I lesson planned well and had good behavior management.  However, she wanted me to know that we dealt with our issues the exact right way, and the new coach is dealing with similar issues and addressing them in similar ways.  Maybe I’m not an imposter after all!

Teaching (and coaching and advising) are difficult jobs because success and failure is so subjective.  I know what you are thinking; how can something like coaching be subjective?  There are wins and losses, and if you win more than you lose, you are a good coach. There is some merit to that, but there are a lot of other factors.

The “worst” team I ever coached made me want to quit coaching forever.  I felt like I could not reach any of the kids, and I had to deal with conflict and drama all year.  We only won 3 games, but by the end of the year, those felt like the three best wins of my coaching career.  When it was all said and done, one of those kids eventually became a starter on a good varsity team, and another of those players became my newspaper editor-in-chief, so clearly I reached some of them.   However, it was my first year at a new school, and when we first started the season I was embarrassed to have our team take the court.  The game workers kept telling me how much better we looked than past teams at that level and gushed about my work with the student athletes.  At the time, I fell prey to that imposter syndrome and felt like they were just putting me on, but now that I have had more time to reflect, I know that what I was doing was exactly what needed to be done with that team, and that even though we did not have “basketball success,” it was a successful season.

Teaching seems like it has pretty specific goals too (progress, test results, etc.), but even those can be tricky. I might have what I considered one of my worst days as a teacher because it felt like nothing “worked” all day, but the next day a student will come up to me and tell me that something I said really resonated with them and helped them. However, sometimes you don’t have that moment of, for lack of a better word, redemption.  Sometimes I come home from work on those rough days and question everything I do.  Am I actually a good teacher?  Have I been wasting my time for the last 16 years as a teacher and coach?  Have all the students and athletes who have told me how much I meant to them just been putting me on?

Deep down, I know the answers to these questions, and I know the fact that I’m still asking them means I’m on the right track, but it is a hard path sometimes.  I know this “syndrome” exists across all spectrums of work, but it feels like it can really be exacerbated in a classroom.  For now, I’ll just continue to reflect and perfect, and try to focus on the successes just as much as the things that need to be fixed.

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