Breaking up with imposter syndrome: It’s not you, it’s not me, it’s the system
Loretta Smith Frankfurt International School

 


By Loretta Fernando-Smith, Pre-Primary Teacher & Team leader, Frankfurt International School

 

 

Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.

Toni Morrison, American novelist

 

Children have a knack for seeing things adults have long taken for granted. 

Their questions often reveal keen observations about the wonders and discrepancies of our physical and social world. Leaning into their curiosity can open up endless inquiries. 

So it was a few years ago, one morning, on our seven-minute car ride to school, that my youngest son’s question started a journey of reflection for me. 

‘What is wrong with the world?’ he piped up from the back seat of the car, that gray morning.

This innocent yet daunting question was an attempt to make sense of the scraps of news and conversations he had heard surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It pained me to say the words out loud. The world was not a fair place and the color of your skin matters. 

The exchange left me tangled and untethered. I had done so much to try and keep my children safe. 

I hoped that I had found a bubble in my international school, whose mission to be the ‘leading culturally diverse school’ and intention to be a place where everyone belonged, I thought, shielded us from the unfair, biased world. 

The conversation that morning, however, forced me to make some acknowledgements. 

I was the most melanated person in my school building and that bothered me sometimes. 

Questions and comments from adults such as:

’So you are the teacher? Not the assistant?’

’Wow! Your English is so good!’

’Where are you from? No, where are you really from?’

These really frustrated me. 

 

These were things that until that point I had never really acknowledged.   

 

From my colonial history to claiming my herstory

As a child, politeness was of utmost importance. 

 

Born in a former colony and growing up as a refugee and an immigrant, I gleaned early on that ‘western’ and ‘white’ held a certain reverence. 

My parents’ responses taught me that it was far more important to make others feel comfortable than to question their queries or to voice my own discomfort or truth. 

So regardless of how frustrated or lost I felt in these situations I always answered with a smile. 

I swallowed their comments and my feelings with explanations of good intentions, not knowing better and even with ‘perhaps they are right’ after all?  

 

It may seem strange but until that point the hurt, confusion, loneliness, and anger that these comments and questions elicited did not feel justifiable or even legitimate and so I never truly shared how I felt or what I experienced. 

That conversation with my son made me realize that I did not want this for my children. 

I could not control their experiences, I could not control what others might say or even how they felt, however, I wanted my children to have the courage to not only feel but to share those feelings with their family and friends, and with the people who caused them.  

 

 

Join us for an I-DEA workshop in May 2022

Inclusion Via Diversity, Equity & Anti-Racism Foundation Workshop | 17–19 May 2022 | Virtual

This three-day foundation workshop is designed to engage and challenge you to develop your awareness and understanding of the blockers and opportunities you may encounter as you strive to find the right entry point for this work in your community.

The sessions will be available on-demand in the weeks following so you can catch up or view again at your own convenience.

 

 

Finding community

In my attempt to help them do this and be a better role model, I sought out conferences and people with similar experiences. 

 

Two years ago in November, I stumbled into a conference held by the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Colour and Women of Colour (AIELOC and WOC). 

One of the sessions was on podcasting. I had no desire to start a podcast but the presenter started off the session talking about imposter syndrome and that she felt like an imposter presenting at this conference. 

Imposter syndrome is a constant self-doubt in one’s abilities. A fear of being exposed as a fraud. It has nothing to do with actual achievements or credentials.  

Something in the idea of being a fraud resonated with me so deeply that I stayed on, to support this stranger who was maybe feeling what I was feeling. 

Illustration of a black woman in leadership leading women up hill

At the end of the conference, I wrote to her privately to thank her for sharing her story and to assure her that she was definitely not an imposter. 

 

She wrote back and invited me to a virtual WomenEd event, an organization committed to helping aspiring female leaders and women in leadership. 

I was curious. I signed up. I went. After all, it was just one session and I would be an anonymous attendee on a screen ... but there on the screen, to my surprise, was a colleague from school. 

 

It turned out that this colleague was going to be setting up the local WomenEd chapter. She asked whether I would join as part of the network leadership team. 

I felt incredibly vulnerable and at the same time out of place even considering joining a group that was set up for women in leadership. 

I had all these perceptions of what it meant to be a leader. 

 

To me, a leader was someone in administration, someone older, someone who did not have young children, someone who grew up in an English speaking country, someone white, someone who was a lot pushier and didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the classroom—maybe even someone who wanted to get out of the classroom. 

Someone not like me.

WomenEd also sounded like social activism. 

I was raised to work really hard within the system, to do my best, study hard, get good grades, get a good job, support my husband and raise good kids . . . not to shake or question the system. 

 

I made excuses: the kids needed their mom at home as much as possible. I should not have career ambitions until the kids are older, and more independent. My role is as a supporter, an enabler, not a leader.  

My working mom guilt already manifested itself in the need to be super mom and an incessant obsession with perfectly trimmed fingernails. 

I had no time for WomenEd.

 

 

Flirting with leadership

Could I be a leader? Am I a leader? Should I even want to be a leader? 

Surely there are more suitable people out there. 

I wanted more representation. I wanted my classroom and biological children to see more people of color in the international school sector, but I had always hoped that someone else would do that work. 

The car ride conversation that gray morning made me realize that no matter how uncomfortable, vulnerable and out of place I felt, I too had to put myself out there. 

I could not support in silence. 

So I signed up to be a part of the local WomenEd leadership team.  

We women tend to think that we are not good enough. Even the data supports it. 

According to the Gender Insights Report published by LinkedIn, both men and women are equally enticed by new job opportunities. 

Women, however, feel the need to meet 100% of the requirements before applying for a job while men usually apply if they meet 60% of the criteria.    

Women are also 26% less likely than their male counterparts to ask for a referral.  Research shows that women have a ‘professional confidence gap.’ 

I was aware of my own bias. I had imposter syndrome, perhaps even low self-esteem and I knew that I had to talk myself out of it. 

When I started to look around, I could see examples of inspirational women leaders with young families, approachable leaders who served their community, who enjoyed spending time in the classrooms and chatting with kids. 

Leaders who challenged my biases were sprouting up. So why was it so hard for me to shake this imposter syndrome?

Lately, I have asked myself a different question: Why? 

 

Why do I even have this bias?

And where did this imposter syndrome come from? 

As I look around me, I realize that maybe it isn’t a syndrome after all. Maybe I am in fact an imposter.  

 

 

In more than 20 years as a teacher in international schools I have never had a woman of color as a head of school. 

I have never had a principal who was a woman of color. 

I have never had a team leader who was a woman of color, I have never even directly worked with a teacher of color in a team. 

Neither one of my children have ever had a homeroom teacher of color. 

Why are there so few of us in the international teaching sector when the students we teach are so diverse?

Our current systems were not made for diversity. Diversity in leadership styles, culture, linguistic backgrounds, accents, race, ethnicity, or gender identity.  

CIS have collected data for several years that illustrate the gender pay gap and more recently collected data related to the ethnicity gap in the salaries and benefits afforded to international school leaders.

If you’ve been told ’You’ve got imposter syndrome! Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back.

You’ve got to talk yourself out of it!’ or perhaps, like me, you’ve told yourself these very things, I want to share with you a new possibility. A new perspective, a new thought, that has started my liberation.

Perhaps, in fact, I don’t have imposter syndrome because it is impossible to be an imposter in an environment and a system that was not created for me. 

An imposter is a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others. 

I am different, yes, the marker in a box of crayons, but not an imposter. I never fooled anyone, I never tried to, I never could have.   

 

Marker and crayons

 

The system is the imposter

Perhaps the real imposter in this story is the system. 

A system which espoused tales with progressive, egalitarian missions and visions. 

A system that told me I belonged and yet failed to show me, whose physical, everyday reality upholds and perpetuates biases. 

A system which made me believe I was an imposter.  

And while the research says that women apply for 20% less jobs than their male counterparts, I wonder what that percentage is for women of color. 

How many applicants read the job advertisements specifically welcoming BIPOC, English as an additional language and marginalized educators and then abandon intention and hope, as they scroll through the school’s website failing to see themselves reflected in the faculty and leadership?  

 

A burden off my back

It is freeing to know where my thoughts are coming from, that they are legitimate. That this isn’t all just in my head.

This is one of my stories.

A story created from the intersectionality of my gender and race.

A story whose telling and writing brought me closer to who I am and has set in motion the writing of a new narrative. 

A tale where the marker in the box of crayons no longer thinks it needs to be a crayon. 

Where it shows up as a marker, where it invites, supports and advocates for other art materials to join because it knows that a beautiful picture can be created together. 

Beautiful precisely because of the diversity of materials now on the table.  

I acknowledge that I have had and continue to have many privileges in my life.  

You may resonate with some aspects of this story. Maybe your stories are completely different.

It is through the sharing of our stories that we can begin to understand each other, our world and the changes we need to effect. 

Whatever histories—more recent or steeped in the past—that created your narratives, I would like to extend an invitation to you to step out of the story that is holding you back and step into the story that you are hoping and willing to create.  

 

Step out of the history that is holding you back. Step into the new story you are willing to create.

Oprah Winfrey

 


Loretta is grateful to be a part of the Frankfurt International School community and for the joys of exploring the world with four and five-year-olds. She is part of the school’s Equity, Justice and Belonging steering committee and Leadership 4 Learning team. She is currently pursuing an MRes with a focus on young children’s perceptions of belonging in an international school setting. This blog is a version of her Breaking the Bias story which she shared on International Women’s Day 2022 as part of a WomenEdDE event. 

 

Further Reading 

Nance-Nash, S./BBC (2020) Why imposter syndrome hits women of colour harder. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200724-why-imposter-syndrome-hits-women-and-women-of-colour-harder

Tockey, D. and Ignatova, M. LinkedIn. Gender Insights Report: How Women Find Jobs Differently.

Tulshyan, R. and Burey, J.-A./ Harvard Business Review (2021) Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. Available at: https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome