[Today’s guest post on what it takes to teach is from Jeannie Prinsen, one of my favorite people to read on the internet. She’s taught writing and English for a long time now but here she reveals how it all began by catching her unawares, and how she became the right teacher at the right time.]
“Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for.”
(Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints.)
When I graduated from university in 1985 with a B.A. in English, I was 21 years old. I had no real career plan, but I did get a part-time job as a research assistant for one of my former English professors. This job was perfect for me: holed up in a tiny office in the university library, I read articles from literary journals and wrote summaries of them.
Then one day I got a phone call from another former professor, who was also the English Department head. The person who had been teaching the weekly evening course in Composition had just quit in mid-semester. Would I take over the course for the rest of the term? I said yes.
This was in the days before you could go online and find free lesson plans, worksheets, or writing exercises. I didn’t even have a typewriter, let alone a computer. I went back to my notes and textbook from the same course (which I’d taken four years earlier), and by the time the first class rolled around I had some tentative plans.
I walked in that first evening feeling anxious. I was greeted by a class of about 20 people, most of them older part-time students. When I asked them what they had learned so far in the course, I got snorts of derision in response. “NOTHING!” they said – and then they spent the next fifteen minutes venting about their previous instructor. His long, incoherent monologues and in-class smoking figured largely among the complaints.
Then we got to work, starting from scratch with basic concepts like the funnel-shaped introductory paragraph and other old standbys. I don’t remember much of the actual content I taught over those few weeks, but I remember the experience: how glad the students were to see me every Wednesday, how keen they were to learn how to write essays and improve their style, and how kind and appreciative they were when the term ended.
I briefly mentioned this episode in a comment here on Tim’s blog recently, and he asked me to turn it into a blog post. When he did, the first thing that came to my mind was the concept of impostor syndrome: that sense that we’re really not qualified or competent to do the thing we’re doing – and that sooner or later someone else (possibly the entire world) is going to realize it and we’ll be “outed.”
I felt some of that when I was teaching the course.
I had an extremely, uh, fresh BA in English. I had pretty much zero life experience. Many of the people in the class were two or three times my age. I really shouldn’t have been doing this job – should I? But that didn’t matter to the students: they seemed to prefer a naïve 21-year-old over a jaded smoker (and possibly drinker) who thought he was too good to be a first-year composition teacher.
I had a few other classroom-teaching experiences after that one. Some went well; others did not. In every case, there were times when I felt that nagging sense that I was doing something I wasn’t qualified to do. But I think being young actually helped me: when you’re 21, you feel optimistic and able to tackle anything, but you lose some of that attitude when you get older – at least I have. I’ve become happier and more comfortable in my own skin than I was when I was 21; that’s indisputable. But if I got a phone call today asking me take over a course halfway through the term (“Oh, and can you start next Wednesday?”), I’m not sure I’d say yes – at least not as quickly as I did then.
Another thing age teaches, I think, is that most of our significant life challenges aren’t things that someone phones us up and asks us to do. They just happen to us. And that sense of being unqualified and incapable can be even stronger in those instances. I didn’t sign up to be a special needs parent, for example – and notwithstanding kind, well-meant comments like “Special kids are always given special parents,” most of the time I don’t feel at all capable of the task. Yet time after time, I see other people gracefully facing their un-asked for challenges: they may have their impostor-syndrome moments, but they don’t let that deter them from what they know, deep down, they’re called to do. Observing such people makes me think it might be possible for me to do the impossible, too.
Impostor syndrome is an especially unhelpful concept when it comes to faith. The Bible is loaded with examples of people who didn’t feel qualified or adequate for the tasks they were called to do:
- Moses thought he didn’t speak well enough to lead the Israelites (Exodus 6:30)
- David, youngest of his family, didn’t impress anyone as future king material (1 Samuel 16)
- Abraham and Sarah were 90+ and childless – not ideal candidates to parent a “great nation” of people (Genesis 17)
- Mary was a teenager who could hardly comprehend the news that she would give birth to the Messiah (Luke 1:26-38)
And there are many others: Esther, Paul, Samuel, pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples … actually, we would be hard pressed to find many Bible heroes who were fully qualified for their roles before they stepped into them. They were called; they responded; and God gave them what they needed to fulfill the task. The saying “God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called” may be a cliché – but as with most clichés, there’s a profound truth behind the familiar words.
Have you been asked to do something you feel unqualified to do? Are you facing a challenge that you didn’t sign up for, that overwhelms you, and that you don’t feel one bit capable of fulfilling? Take heart. How prepared, qualified, or competent you feel may have nothing to do with how well you can do the task. Don’t let fear of being outed as an impostor hold you back; trust God to enable you. And remember, as Hebrews 12:1 says, there’s a whole cloud of witnesses – many of whom probably felt like impostors too – cheering you on.
The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
(1 Samuel 16:7.)