As a teacher, I made these mistakes with my highest-performing students:
- I allowed them to work alone all of the time since they “didn’t need help”
- I gave general “good job” praise, rather than specific and useful feedback
- I was satisfied that they always turned in 100% work. This should have been a cause of concern!
In short, I let these kids sail past me off in the distance without engaging. I didn’t draw them close and give them real instruction. I didn’t give them useful feedback. And this happened year after year after year to these same students.
Imagine going to school everyday for five, six, TEN years and only hearing “Great job! Another A+!” You develop a reputation for perfection. You’re a “smart kid.”
You begin to develop a horrible fear. A knot in your stomach. You’re worried that, one day, you’ll be exposed as a fraud!
See, YOU know that you’ve been making mistakes along the way. YOU know that there have been struggles. But, somehow, your parents and teachers have missed it. They’ve called you “so smart!” and given you yet another award.
But the struggle has been growing. Each year it’s harder to maintain the illusion of perfection.
It’s just a matter of time before everyone sees you make a mistake. They’ll realize that, hey, it wasn’t so easy for you. Wait. You aren’t perfect!
You might start avoiding situations that are more likely to expose you. A high-achieving person with incredible potential is now taking the easy track, avoiding risky situations in order to continue to appear perfect.
Feeling Like An Impostor
Sound exaggerated? Maybe! But it’s pretty much what school was like for me. And the more I’ve told my own story, the more parents who have told me that’s exactly what happened to my now adult child!
They call this “Impostor Syndrome,” a situation in which high-performing people are vaguely praised for being perfect and then start avoiding situations where they might be “exposed” for being imperfect.
[Impostor syndrome is] a shared learned behaviour common to high achievers – people are left on their own, competition is intense, and there’s not much of a mentor system. From Feeling Like A Fraud (link broke)
This feeling was so intense that I avoided starting a real career because I thought the interview process would expose me as a fraud. Friends, I attended university on a full academic scholarship, was invited to the honors program, graduated with great grades in a tough computer science program, and was afraid I wasn’t deserving of my success!
What To Do?
A decade (plus!) later, I understand the situation better because of my experience as a student teacher. Yes, it took me until post-college before a teacher gave me what I needed:
- A mentor. For me, student teaching was the first time I was under close observation by a caring expert, my mentor teacher Nanci Cole.
- Feedback I could actually trust. Nanci’s feedback was based on my unedited (and sometimes terrible) performance, not an essay I spent hours getting just right. She was “in” on my secret and could give much better feedback than “You’re so great!“
- *Actual improvement: Over the course of eight weeks, I got way better at teaching. I felt improvement in a way that I didn’t experience in school, where I often “got it” quickly. There’s nothing like the feeling of getting better.
Finally, it helped to know that my feelings had a name. Impostor Syndrome is “a thing.” Simply knowing that others experienced the same thing somehow makes it more manageable.
So, teachers, stay close to your students. Don’t let the brightest kids just work on their own. This increases the feelings of being an impostor. Give useful feedback to your best students. Help them actually improve! Never give the impression that you think they’ve perfectly mastered a topic. They know they haven’t, and then they’ll stop trusting your praise.
Parents, connect your students with experts in their interests so they can get feedback and guidance from a master (whether that’s guitar playing, LEGO building, or acting). And don’t feel bad that your kids don’t trust your opinions! Encourage risk and accept mistakes. Don’t let the expectations of perfection cloud your students’ judgment.
Most of all, make your students aware of Impostor Syndrome, especially as they move along in their educational careers.