Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

A collaboration: impostor syndrome (native vs non native edition)

Impostor syndrome, you’ve heard of it right? You must have done. It’s all people talk about these days. Instead of just feeling a little bit down, or worrying slightly, people have been suffering from impostor syndrome.

However, it’s not a new thing. Impostor syndrome has been around since the beginning but is becoming more understood, and more prominent, amongst teachers. Here, we’re going to share our experiences to give you a little more insight into how it can happen so easily.

Helene:

Obviously, it’s not about being the best teacher. It’s about this feeling of being a fraud, as an EFL teacher. Native and non native teachers tend to react completely differently towards the language, and teach it differently as well. We do have our favorite topics to teach, a specific detail of language we enjoy, and perhaps others we just loathe.

As a non-native teacher myself, I hate, with every cell of my body, teaching pronunciation. Not only did I have a hard time learning it by myself (I just don’t hear the difference, despite being able to pronounce perfectly), but explaining it to someone else, who already has trouble with it, seems an impossible challenge. I am not ashamed of my pronunciation, far from it, but explaining it is another matter. And every time a student asks for clarification, I always feel like the earth is going to swallow me whole.

While I was completing my CELTA, I realised that I felt particularly at ease teaching grammar, because of the way I learned it, as a non-native speaker. Every rule was carefully laid out and it was the opposite of a natural learning, which means that I can explain a single detail for hours . I enjoy teaching grammar, it just makes sense to me, and as a result, I have realised that my students feel quite relaxed towards grammar.

Claire here, on the other hand, I felt absolutely awful teaching grammar during my CELTA and I can clearly remember not being able to answer even the most simple of questions. Questions that I look back now and see how completely easy they were. Honestly, I think because I started off being so scared of grammar, that the feeling hasn’t changed at all. So, if anyone has any tips on overcoming a fear of grammar – send them my way!

It’s hard for a NNS to teach English: ads are requesting NS 99% of the time, schools prefer to hire NS for numerous reasons (number one being ‘having the good accent’ like there is only one good accent – the simple fact that someone wrote that sentence is driving me crazy), students tend to ask the infamous question “where are you from?” like it’s normal to question your teacher’s place of birth. Everything is made to make you feel like you shouldn’t be here. I have been teaching for three years now (three years and one week, to be precise) and every month, I have had this crushing feeling that I am not good enough for this. That I have no legitimacy. That I should forget about it and resume my old boring job in real estate.

Am I afraid to make mistakes while talking in English? Of course, but I know, and that’s not bragging, I swear, that my English is better than my French. I make TONS of mistakes in French, way more than in English. Everybody makes mistakes, and it’s perfectly healthy. Most learners are afraid to make mistakes because they tend to believe that English speakers are flawless and will never ever make mistakes. Spoiler alert: it’s just human. Making mistakes is a natural part of learning, and believing that Native Speakers are just immune to it is not helping. 

Do I feel offended when I see ads requesting native speakers? Yes, and I will never stop feeling that way. I have been fighting inequalities for years now, and I am nowhere near ready to stop. But will I stop teaching because of this? Nope, not a chance. It took me a while to realise what I was made of, and what I was good at. The industry might be crooked, but I want to believe it’s changing.

Me again! As someone who has worked alongside many non-native speakers, Helene being the absolute best, of course. I find these adverts ridiculous. I think governments should not be limiting work-visas to ‘native speakers’ only and neither should schools enforce it. I can understand that schools want the best teachers, but that certainly doesn’t mean that native speakers are the only people who are capable. In fact, I have met plenty of non native speakers who can teach far more effectively that native speakers because;

Firstly, they have the passion to have learned English so fluently and secondly, they have learned English to a far higher level than many English people have, as we don’t get taught grammar at school or even University – so how can we be the experts on something we’ve never been taught?! “That’s just the way it is” is not an appropriate answer when explaining a grammar rule to a language student, for the most part, anyway!

Do I feel good enough after three years? A little tiny bit, because well, it’s been three years, because of my students, mostly. I still feel like a fraud though, because the industry of EFL is making me this way, and because I probably need therapy to overcome my constant anxiety. I guess that I will always feel a bit lousy about pronunciation, mostly because I purely don’t like it, and it’s not about to change anytime soon.

Claire:

It’s become obvious in recent months that impostor syndrome can affect all of us, especially teachers, regardless of our first language, our teacher training routes and the type of students we have. As a native speaker, and a relatively new teacher, I feel the burden of impostor syndrome nearly every day, although admittedly not as strongly as I used to. I completed the CELTA at one of the top training centres in the country, I have now worked for 3 top-100 schools in the UK and this is something I’m immensely proud of. Through working at these schools I have been able to develop my teaching skills, my knowledge of the language, and my confidence levels. (Honestly, I don’t even want to know what my CELTA trainers and colleagues must have thought of me the first time I ‘taught’ a lesson. I cringe just remembering those first 15 minutes).

Even now, teaching up against teachers with 10+ years experience, published authors or experts in grammar always sends me into a frenzy because my knowledge in that area is weaker than in others. I worry that I’m not the right person to be teaching grammar, or that my students won’t believe in me, even though I’ve gained more knowledge, and confidence, as each month passes. This is still an area I need to strengthen. 

On the other hand, I love teaching vocabulary. I love introducing students to synonyms, alternative phrases and ways to improve their daily conversations. I thrive during these types of classes. I’m able to answer all sorts of vocabulary questions, rephrasing, paraphrasing and so on, but if someone throws in a grammar question I might end up feeling a little bit flustered. One thing I have mastered is the perfect tenses. And man, does that feel good!

Helene here! Vocabulary was so hard for me at the beginning, mostly because I am teaching monolingual speakers (French), who are virtually using me as a human translator. Being asked, all of the sudden, to translate a specific word is not a walk in the park, even if you have an amazing level of English. I used to be ashamed to check, but now, I am actually telling them that I have to check – even though I am sometimes just checking to reassure myself more than anything else: I am turning this moment into a teaching one. It’s incredibly important to show our students that we are NOT machines, that we don’t have superpowers, and that it’s okay not to remember every damn word in the dictionary.

So when did I get to the stage of feeling confident? I suppose after a month of teaching, I realised I could relate well to my students and make lessons enjoyable, even if I didn’t know everything! Three years on, I’m feeling more confident about teaching overall, and I believe that I am able to make a solid impact on my students. I’m able to admit when I don’t know something, and although doing so makes me feel awful, I’m able to do it because I know that I’m human. We cannot know everything.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been asked to take part in numerous research interviews, trial lessons, and other projects. Whilst I’m massively honoured and excited to be a part of all of these things, I am completely baffled that people have approached me. ME! Why me? I’m not a DELTA survivor, I’m not a CELTA trainer. I’m just me! During the two interviews I’ve been a part of this year, I knew exactly what the research was for and I knew what I wanted to say, but when I actually spoke my words came out as complete gibberish and I felt so stupid. I taught trial lessons on grammar I completely did not understand, yet somehow pulled it off. I’ve been asked to write pieces that I absolutely do not feel qualified to do.

Helene again! I was asked to participate at a conference in Qatar last year. The university flew me over, alongside my husband, and I had the opportunity to meet Claire Kramsch, who is literally my hero when it comes to EFL. When I grow up, I want to be Claire Kramsch.  You can imagine how thrilled I was to meet her, to sit next to her at a plenary, and to discuss  my research with her, which is based on her own. I mean, I tried to discuss my research, as it was mostly me stammering and her trying to follow what the hell I was trying to utter.

These kinds of projects make me undermine myself more than ever, and despite telling myself this was my ‘yes’ year, I feel as if I’m trying to take on more than I can handle.They are projects I would love to work on, but impostor syndrome is telling me that I’m under-qualified or not skilled enough to do them. Tempting me to reject the project. Why? Why can’t I say yes?

*Runs over to Twitter for support*.

Okay, I’ve got this.

So, why did we write this post together? Because, in case you don’t know us together, we are the best of friends! We met on our CELTA course 3 years ago and have barely stopped talking since. We’ve had sleepovers, days out, meet-ups, sent thousands of texts, spent hours and hours FaceTiming, Zoom-ing and any other possible way of keeping in touch. But we both teach, we both blog, and we both like to put the world to rights. So, we decided to collaborate on something we both experience and feel is important to share with the world. And, from two very different points of view.

I, as a native English speaker, haven’t faced much discrimination as a teacher, but I know that Helene, and many other non-natives have. I’m appalled by this, but as I haven’t experienced it I don’t feel as if it is my ‘duty’ to write about it. I can, however, write about the ways in which impostor syndrome has impacted me and hope that by reading this, some of you may not feel so alone.

How are we working to overcome some of these feelings?*

Self-talk – tell yourself that you are worthy of your job, that you were hired because you displayed certain qualities

Self- love – believe in yourself. Don’t be negative (being realistic is okay!), don’t put yourself down. Show yourself as much kindness and support as you would your best friend. 

‘Fake it til you make it’ – some people completely disagree with this way of combating impostor syndrome, but for others it works perfectly. If you keep telling yourself you can do something, maybe you will. Tell yourself you are brave and strong and intelligent. You will start to believe it, and the more you believe it the more you will act accordingly.

Be honest with yourself and those around you – we are not, unfortunately, super-humans, nor robots. We can’t do everything and we can’t not have feelings. Which is why impostor syndrome is such a big issue these days. We feel too much, we worry too much and we get scared easily.

Don’t do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. Worried? That’s okay. That’s you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Scared? Really uncomfortable? No. At that point you need to evaluate what you’re doing or being asked to do and seriously consider what’s at stake and why you’re uncomfortable with it. Because if it is something that you are genuinely unable to do, what’s the point in doing it? If you can do something with a little difficulty, that’s okay. The best lives don’t come easy to us!

*These tips may not work for you, or others, but we wanted to share what is working for us.

Claire wrote about impostor syndrome back in January, which you can read here and this blog also follows up on my latest blog post which you can read here.We hope you’ve enjoyed our collaboration and would love to know what you think – so please feel free to leave a comment or connect with us on Twitter – Claire and Helene.

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