A problem I’ve always struggled with – first as a teacher of English, then as an educator in an independent, international school, and now as a headteacher – is imposter syndrome: the sense that I simply didn’t belong, that I was not, really, who people thought I was, and that sooner or later I’d be uncovered as a fraud and sent packing. It’s likely that there are people in all positions in schools who feel this way. But if they’ve got to where they are, which they clearly have, then they probably shouldn’t.
I felt, for years, like an imposter in education. But it perhaps no mystery why I suffered from imposter syndrome: I didn’t finish school the first time around. I gave up and dropped out. When I did eventually get a pair of A-levels from the local FE college and graduated from a third-rate university, it was with a 2:1 in Media and Cultural Studies, and more by luck than judgement.
I assumed that teachers needed to have been excellent students themselves in order to serve as good role models. In time, though, I came to realise that these experiences put me in a strong position to reflect on the problems that exist for some students in education and to serve as an example for others like me.
“I assumed that teachers needed to have been excellent students themselves in order to serve as good role models.”
I also assumed that a degree in a traditional subject was likely to be a prerequisite for a successful teacher. Yet on reflection, Media and Culture set me up perfectly for being an IB English teacher in an international context. I had learned how culture and identity are constructed, allowing me to navigate my own biases and teach students to do the same. I had learned how meaning is constructed in a wide variety of media, allowing me to work with students on critically reading the media of today and yesterday. And I had learned how to communicate complex ideas in effective ways, so that I might teach others to do the same.
Having spent my own formative years in UK state schools, I was, to begin with, an imposter in the private sector. I found myself teaching at an elite international school, in a world of debate teams, diplomats, and jet-setting, globe-trotting students with maids and drivers. My own upbringing and experiences had been much more humble, and so I felt like an outsider.
But that’s OK. In fact, it’s ideal, because I could look at these children, families, and institutions with a fresh set of eyes. I now understand the benefits privilege can bring, but also see what it can lack, and what it can cost, and that gives me a perspective of my own, to use and to share.
“Headteachers had deep voices, spoke the Queen’s English and gave great speeches.”
For a long time, I didn’t think I looked like a headteacher. Aside from the ones I’d worked with, I’d met plenty of them at conferences and in interviews. Yes, like me, the ones I’d met were almost uniformly male, straight, white, and English-speaking. But they also had a physical presence. They looked distinguished.
They had deep voices too, and spoke the Queen’s English, having gone to private school themselves. They gave great speeches.
I didn’t see myself fitting that mould at all. I didn’t consider myself commanding or charismatic. I’m an introvert. So I would wonder how someone like me could be in charge of a school. I could imagine myself as a head of year perhaps, but not as a head of school.
Then I stepped outside the world of British private education. In 2017 and 2018 I attended Principals’ Training Center events in London and Miami, and met aspiring educational leaders from all over the world who also happened to be young, or gay, or female, or black.
“I was welcomed, appreciated, and respected, and I realised that I wasn’t a fraud at all.”
They were all unashamedly themselves, and I was hugely reassured by the diversity. I found too that I had a voice, and that my voice counted. I was welcomed, appreciated, and respected, and I realised that I wasn’t a fraud at all, that the future was a different place, and that we all absolutely belonged there.
Perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve had to overcome, in terms of self-doubt, is the fact that I suffer from anxiety and clinical depression. I long believed that a person couldn’t possibly succeed in leading a school if they had a mental illness. Leaders, after all, circulate at school events, meet and greet visitors and guests, seek out connections inside and out of school, and build and nurture relationships, collaboration and community.
Suffering from imposter syndrome, I didn’t think I could do those things. I assumed that all leaders were inherently positive, reliable, and strong, because they must carry the weight of their school on their shoulders, and they must do so without ever allowing their own emotions to show through. I didn’t think I could maintain that kind of behaviour in the face of my own challenges.
“I believe that my imperative to serve and support others comes from my own experiences as a struggling student.”
But shaking hands, remaining calm in a crisis, communicating one’s values, listening to others, reaching out with gratitude and support, and bringing people together are behaviours, and behaviours can be learnt. Educational leadership literature abounds with descriptions of the behaviours of great leaders, and we can all learn them.
Our personality traits, however, come from our own experiences. I believe that my imperative to serve and support others comes from my own experiences as a struggling student. I think my background and my journey have helped me establish and maintain humility and an open mind.
I consider the acts of identifying, facing, and managing my conditions to be among my greatest strengths as a leader, having helped make me more empathetic, more reflective, and more resilient.
And I have come to realise that, for me, these personality traits are more important than upbringing, or education, or any of the other assumed prerequisites, when it comes to fitting in as an educator or leader.
This article originally appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine.
James Elliott is a pseudonym.