Imposter syndrome

I wrote in an earlier post that I don’t often remember my dreams. When I do remember them, it’s generally because they are particularly memorable. Or, in the case of my most frequently recurring dream, particularly familiar.

During the 20ish years when I taught school, the back-to-school dream was an annual fixture. It generally happened in late August, just as I was starting to gear up my prep for the new school year. The dream took on different variations from year to year, but there were always predictable elements.

Typically the dream begins with me arriving at a new and unfamiliar school. I don’t know my way around, I’m late, and I can’t find my classroom. When I do eventually make my way to my assigned room, the students are already there and in a state of near riot. By the time I have restored order, I have also discovered that I have been assigned to teach a subject for which I singularly unqualified and thoroughly unprepared. Physics, typically, or some form of highly advanced mathematics.  Either that or it is a language course in a language about which I know absolutely nothing. Greek, perhaps. Or Mandarin Chinese.

Regardless of the specifics, the common element is that I am always inadequately prepared to take command of my class.

It’s a long time since my teaching activities have corresponded with the traditional school year, but I still engage in activities that can trigger the back-to-school dream. I’m coming to the end of a week of teaching an intensive summer course at my neighbourhood university  and, sure enough, the dream resurfaced last week as I was gearing up to start this course.

In this recent incarnation of my back-to-school dream I am team-teaching with a former English professor of mine—a fellow who I remember as being very intelligent, but verbosely full of himself. Although we are supposed to be jointly teaching this class, it appears that we have actually been assigned to teach two different courses simultaneously to the same unfortunate group of students. This time I arrive in good time, ahead of most of the students, and seat myself at one end of a large seminar table. I think to myself that he can sit at the other end, so we will be positioned as equals. When he arrives, however, the room rearranges itself in a manner that only happen in dreams and Harry Potter stories, and I find myself seated with the students in what has morphed into the upper tiers of a vast lecture theatre. My colleague finally arrives. Or rather, he makes an entrance. Dressed like Elvis at the height of the satin and sequins, he launches into a bizarre blend of lecture and concert that goes on forever. One of the students seated near me whispers a question to me about my course outline. Before I can respond, the other professor interrupts his performance just long enough to chastise us for not paying attention. I become acutely aware that we are nearing the end of the scheduled lesson time, and I have still not had an opportunity to even introduce myself. Suddenly, a door bursts open and in rolls a long buffet table decked out in vast quantities of expensive cheese.

That’s where the dream ends, with me feeling flabbergasted and frustrated.

None of this has anything remotely to do with my actual experience in a real-world classroom. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching the course I am engaged with this week. It fascinates me, therefore, that the anxiety and feelings of impostership that are clearly at the root of such dreams are so deep-seated that they still send up shoots at a point in my teaching career when, at a conscious level, I am really quite confident about what I am doing.

What I find especially interesting about the latest incarnation of the dream is the “Elvis” figure hogging the stage and preventing me from doing my thing. Teaching is, in many ways a form of performance. In the dream, I know I am prepared to teach my course, but I am prevented from “stepping on stage.”

No matter how confident and competent I am as a teacher, it seems there will always be that small voice whispering in my ear, “What if I bomb this time? What if they hate me? What if I can’t command their attention?”

And seriously, how come no one ever arrives spontaneously in my classroom with a cheese buffet?

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About Muddy River Muse

Writer. Reader Educator. Manager. Mother. Dreamer. And dedicated riverbank walker.
This entry was posted in Why I Teach and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Imposter syndrome

  1. You might consider some of the things Carl Young said about dreams. One, that our unconscious mind will often use a familiar setting for our dreams, even though the message itself may not be about that particular setting. The other is that each character in the dream represents an aspect of ourselves – the “Elvis” character, the students, etc. In essence, we are the author, director, and star of our dreams. Nothing happens in our dreams that is not a part of our message.

    • Good points. I was thinking that “Elvis” was also an aspect of myself– I can read the dream as my anxiety that my teaching will be “all style and no substance.” And to tell the truth, there is a real-world referent for the cheese!

  2. Pingback: Points of view | Muddy River Muse

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