The Impostor Syndrome in ESL Teaching

It’s an appealing option for many who hail from English speaking countries, to embark upon an incredible adventure, to board a plane to an unexplored land, and try their hand at teaching their native language of English. There may be many factors at play that motivate the decision; perhaps a desire to take a gap-year upon graduating and prior to entering the “real world” has brought you to the departure gate; perhaps you yearn for change, to traverse the vast expanses of unknown territory; perhaps you are interested in the profession, and want to hone your skills as an educator. Whatever the case may be, you’re stepping into a serious industry, and as with any profession, whether you’re crossing the threshold for the first time or are a seasoned teacher with years of classroom experience under your belt, there are various challenges that come with the territory, battles we face day-in, day-out.

Something I’m going to attempt to shed some light on based on my own experiences, is this profound feeling of self-doubt that we have to contend with; this peculiar sense of deception as we shuffle into the classroom; the imposter who lurks behind the desk.

The term impostor syndrome, which was first coined in 1978, is described as “a feeling of phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent enough, capable enough or creative enough despite evidence of high achievement.” It is a very real and debilitating phenomenon felt by many, and it is reported that for people who are thinking about embarking upon a new endeavour, or who have stepped outside of their comfort zone (sound familiar?), they may be even more susceptible to it.

So where does it stem from? It’s hard to pinpoint really, but I suspect the following question may be somewhat of a catalyst. It’s a question you may or may not have discussed- or at least contemplated- at length at some point in and around the staffroom, one of “What makes a good teacher?”

Answers vary, but you’d find it hard to argue with this one. “A good teacher should have an in-depth knowledge of their subject matter”. Uh. Ok, full disclosure. For those of you who are native speakers of English, you might be viewed by some schools and institutions around the globe as the ideal candidate to teach the language, but it’s simply not the case; it turns out that as native speakers, the majority of us actually have a horrendously mediocre grasp of the language. Technically speaking.

I soon found out, while swaying helplessly in front of a class of Korean high-school students in my first teaching job, facing down the barrel of questions regarding the form of the present perfect, and the differences between the 2nd and 3rd conditional, that I was severely out of my depth. I wouldn’t have been able to spot the 3rd conditional if it stood up and slapped me in the face!


And so, where do you go from there? Well, I guess you can either get on the next flight, or you can swallow your pride, and begin to learn about the many intricacies of your mother tongue. Language itself is a rabbit hole, consisting of an endless number of alleys and side streets, down which you may or may not want to venture depending upon the degree to which you wish to be enlightened- or frightened.

OK, so there’s that. But let’s not forget, that as a language learner yourself, you’re no shining beacon of light; you think back to your own language learning experience in school, of hating every single painful minute of it, and how you can’t so much as string 2 sentences together en français to this day. And so you may indeed say to yourself “Who the hell am I to be teaching a language?”, and truth be told, you would have a pretty solid argument.


It’s an endless battle; 5 years in, and I’m still questioning myself. Some lessons go well, some don’t. You will constantly find yourself questioning yourself and your abilities as an educator, your capacity to satisfy both the needs of your students and the standards you place upon yourself, and to above all, establish and maintain that all-important connection through which genuine learning takes place.

But all that being said, self-doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact that you are questioning yourself and your abilities shows that you actually care. Self-doubt keeps you sharp, always on the lookout for methods of improving your craft; it pushes you forward, deeper down the rabbit hole. So keep going. I did, thankfully. And I can tell you – without a shadow of doubt – that you won’t regret it.




Come see for yourself and teach English in China with EF


Post by Patrick Hyland, EF English First Shanghai

Patrick Hyland EF English FirstPatrick Hyland is an Irish native who now lays his hat in Shanghai. He looks to seek out new experiences, learning processes, and methods of progression- physically, mentally, and spiritually- in ways that bring happiness and joy. You can check out his blog, The Irish Introvert.

To learn more about Patrick click here