Imposter Syndrome or a Humility Check?

Sandy Merz Education, Life in the Classroom, National Board Certification, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership, Uncategorized

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Are teacher leaders wizards or masons?

The mason throws the mortar and trowels it smooth, lays the brick and taps it level. Each brick contributes incrementally to the wall, which defines the room, and room-by-room the house is built. The mason stands back and admires a job well done. A novice driving through the neighborhood marvels at the talent it took to build the house.

But the mason’s and the novice’s admiration aren’t the same. The mind of the novice skips from an empty lot to the completed structure and sees its creation as some kind of magic. But the mason knows that the whole deserves respect because of the inspiration and discipline that each step required.

Edison described the steps as the perspiration that makes up 90% of genius. Woody Allen said something, it’s disputed exactly what, about how most of success comes from showing up – taking the steps, if you will.

As the mason builds a house, the teacher builds a career. At any point one teacher may look back and say, “So far, so good. What does my next step require?” But another looks back and says, “This can’t be right.”

My friend Megan Allen’s accomplishments include being a National Board Certified Teacher, a Florida State Teacher of the Year, and a Center for Teacher Quality Teacherpreneur. She currently works as the developer and director of the masters program in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Clearly, if Megan Allen looks at the career she’s built and says this can’t be right, something’s going on. And she recently published two articles in EDweek to explain that what’s going on is called Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter syndrome manifests itself as feelings of being a fake, in spite of numerous successes and accomplishments.

Megan dedicates The Big Bad Wolf of Leadership: Imposter Syndrome to research on imposter syndrome. Her Tips to Conquer the Big Bad Wolf of Imposter Syndrome include focusing on the work at hand, owning your accomplishments, and (my favorite) acting early in new situations to break your internal ice. She concludes that tackling Imposter Syndrome head on can lead to courage – the mastery of fear, not the absence of fear (to paraphrase her Mark Twain quote, emphasis added).

But I don’t see Imposter Syndrome as the Big Bad Wolf. Rather, it’s a welcome humility check that takes two forms. First, it shifts one’s understanding of an accomplishment from that held by the novice to that held by the mason. For example, I often get invited into teacher leader networks by people I’ve worked with in other settings. Whenever that happens I feel like I’ll be exposed as the mere mortal among a wand of wizards. But after joining the network and getting a peek behind the curtain, I see that masons outnumber wizards by a large margin. And I realize I wasn’t invited for my magic but for the mortar I’ll throw and the bricks I’ll lay.

(A related and happy result of this kind of thinking is that I’m rarely afraid of anyone anymore, in spite of their titles or status, because I know they’re not wizards, either. At best they’ve just laid a few more bricks, or perhaps some different bricks, than I have.)

The second form of humility comes when I’m explicitly recognized for an accomplishment, like being named a Leader in Education by Raytheon Missile Systems. Although honored, happy, and thankful, I felt like neither a fake nor a god. And moments after receiving the news, I thought of others who deserve recognition as much as I do. And that results in me seeing the recognition as a call to raise the bar on what I expect from myself, not as an award for a job well done.

And far from being a burden, having a reason to raise the bar is a welcome tool because every day when I face an ordinary choice I’m motivated to ask an extraordinary question: What would a Leader In Education do?

The answer to which is – lay the next brick at tap it level.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 4

  1. Angelia Ebner

    AMAZING Sandy! Once again your words inspire and encourage me to dig deeper. Thank you for asking us to examine our practice in a fundamental way. It is so crucial that we continue to check in with ourselves and “tap it level” as we go.

  2. Bill Ivey

    I love this piece, and I especially love the metaphor of being a mason. I also enjoyed your description of how this way of thinking has led to that conquering of fear, toward which Megan has also offered some great tips. And I like to think I bring aspects of that kind of thinking to my life – certainly the concepts of always trying to give it one’s best effort, to take it one thing at a time, to raise the bar and continually improve.

    That all plays out differently in my life than in yours, however. For one very direct comparison, when I won a teaching award a few years ago, I certainly had no illusions of being a god, but the “fake” part was very much present. Indeed, my very first thought was, “Seriously? After the year I’ve had?” and my second, similar to and yet profoundly different from yours, “There are so many people who deserve this award more than me.” I squelched all that and smiled and said
    “Thank you,” because that’s what you do. But the whole experience left
    me feeling deeply unsettled.

    My fear is less that I’ll be discovered as no wizard, but rather that the strength of the wall I’m constructing is illusory and that it may come tumbling down any day now in a moment of ignominy.

    I’ll happily take humility checks. We all need them from time to time. But for me, at any rate, Imposter Syndrome is very much the Big Bad Wolf and far more than a simple humility check. It means a constant struggle to believe I belong in the classroom no matter what anyone says.

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