Imposter Syndrome and Graceful Swans

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley3 Comments

Take a moment to place yourself in what is a familiar scenario: you are about to speak to a room full of our colleagues.

Few things prepare you to stand in front of a room full of your peers. I think it is a mark of sanity and not self-doubt to ask the question: who the hell are we to expect to be listened to by a room full of experts and professionals?

What is stopping us? Imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome most likely to strike given a new unfamiliar experience. First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.

Getting caught in the ‘imposter cycle‘ is completely natural. Even psychologists themselves are caught in the imposter trap. A 1984 study by Margaret Gibbs and colleagues of randomly selected American psychologists that found 69 per cent of them felt like impostors. It turns out no matter how expert we are we can easily feel like we are not expert enough.

We know a great deal about our psychological flaws that inhibit our self-confidence, but stopping them is another thing. Oliver Burkeman put it very effectively. He described it as “comparing your insides with other people’s outsides”. He went onto to say, “you have access only to your own self-doubt, so you mistakenly conclude it’s more justified than anyone else.

So what can we do? We need to normalize this state of self-doubt. The more neurotic we characterize these feelings, the more people will hide such emotions.

The creeping feeling of imposter syndrome that has attended my career has been matched by virtually every highly successful person I had the pleasure to get to know. I’ve had conversations with people considered the best school leaders in the country, as well as the top academics. One aspect of the conversation that was mimicked with all was that they were slightly embarrassed by the status others confer on them and that they had experienced elements of ‘imposter syndrome’.

Ok, so I have a solution. I have termed it ‘The Graceful Swan Effect‘. That is to say, you are harried and busy, struggling with feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’, but you act as graceful as a swan. It doesn’t deny that feelings of doubt are real. It doesn’t eliminate our stresses. Crucially, however, it is a reminder that masking our fears are necessary and that people want to have confidence in their colleagues and leaders.

The ‘Graceful Swan Effect’ works under the spotlight of the the boardroom, the staffroom and the classroom. It helps to manage our psychological demons


Further reading:

  • I have went and written a book about this stuff. If you want to know much more pick up on Amazon – ‘The Confident Teacher


  • Read a comprehensive summary of ‘imposter syndrome’ with this excellent Psychologist summary of ‘Feeling Fraud‘.



    1. Author

      I hadn’t seen that Ross. It is a really valid point. I also know a lot of great potential school leaders who are put off by assemblies and staff training etc. I reckon some targeted training and support, we could go a long way to mitigating the issue. Just knowing that such a feeling is ‘normal’ would be a start.

  1. Pingback: Newly Qualified Teachers And Impostor Syndrome | TeacherToolkit

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