Banishing the Imposter Syndrome!

Rachael Shaw

Headteacher at Branston Junior Academy, Lincolnshire.

Soooo…..I’m a nearly-50-year-old, and have spent 26 years as a teacher (primary age range), the last 10 as headteacher with a teaching commitment. I have a high role in my union, I have presented at conferences and taken part in various projects both in the UK and in other countries. I have completed my MEd and am currently studying for my PhD. I coach/mentor other headteachers and regularly write for small audiences. A successful, confident person, one might assume – particularly if one were to observe me standing in an assembly acting like a complete idiot in front of the children…(as you do!)…and yet, when asked if I would write an article for ‘Schools Improvement,’ back rushed all the usual feelings of uncertainty. Am I good enough? What would I write about? Have I got anything worth saying? Would anyone read what I have written?Ah yes! My old friend ‘The Imposter Syndrome’ has come back to visit! Only this time I am stronger than before and am able to see it for what it is and not get sucked into the swirling depths of self-doubt……


Not so long ago, I admitted to a highly competent colleague that the whole time I have been a teacher, I’d get to the end of each academic year and my first inner-thought would be I can’t believe I have got away with it for another year! Someone still hasn’t faced me, jabbed me with their finger and said: “you are a fraud, an imposter…and really shouldn’t be here!!”My highly competent colleague laughed and said she didn’t realise that other people had exactly the same thoughts as she did! 


So what is it, this ‘Imposter Syndrome’?


In her book ‘The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women’, Valerie Young describes it as referring 


            “…to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence,

            skills, or competence. They are convinced that other people’s praise

            and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up

            their achievements to chance, charm, connections, and other external

            factors. Unable to internalise or feel deserving of their success, they

            continually doubt their ability to repeat past successes. When they do 

            succeed they feel relief rather than joy.” (Young, 2011. p16).


Could it be that many other females also suffer from the ‘Imposter Syndrome’? Could this all-engulfing self-doubt be a reason why many females do not step-up to leadership roles in education? 


In the Times Educational Supplement (TES), Mullholland, (the NAHT’s head of policy),  highlights some worrying statistics; 


“although 74 per cent of all classroom teachers are female, only 66 

per cent of headteachers are female…and there’s an even greater 

difference in secondary schools: women make up 64 per cent of the 

teaching workforce but only 39 per cent of headteachers” (Mullholland, 2018). 


The article goes on to argue that this gender discrepancy may be due to the high number of hours worked by a headteacher and the fact that the role is rarely one that governing bodies will allow to organise flexible working, Mullholland argues that “combining this with the caring responsibilities that often fall to women, [this] can make school leadership an unattractive proposition.” (Mullholland, 2018). These reasons may be a contributing factor to the lower number of women venturing into leadership roles however, could it be that many women suffer from self-doubt and the many guises of ‘the Imposter Syndrome’ and therefore don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge into more senior roles?  In her book, Valerie Young argues that males are often braver than females – she says that men tend to ‘fake-it-till-they-make-it’ and that they are “more comfortable with this kind of winging it” (Young, 2011, p.206). Perhaps women need to start believing in themselves more and become just a little bit braver?!


#WomenEd ( certainly think so! Their mission is to “campaign and use its collective power to make improvements, so that there is a more equitable balance in terms of gender and ethnicity at leadership level across all sectors of education.” ( Indeed they have recently produced a book to inspire other females to consider leadership, entitled ‘10% Braver: Inspiring women to lead education’. Having recently attended one of their ‘unconferences’, I can certainly vouch for the passion, enthusiasm and experience that all the attendees demonstrated. Perhaps, with some help, these ladies can be that ‘10% braver’ and drown out the inner-voices of self-doubt?


So, for all you readers who may be suffering from self-doubt, here are my tips for banishing the ‘Imposter Syndrome’. 

1)   Acknowledge that ‘the Imposter Syndrome’ is ‘a thing’and you are not alone – read articles and books about it. 

2)   Identify your own personal triggers and try to recognise the physical signs that let you know that you are beginning to suffer from self-doubt.  

3)   Develop ways to combat the Imposter Syndrome, that work for you. (For example: positive self-talk, deep breathing, removing yourself from the situation and allowing thinking time, realising that you don’t have to be the expert on everything and can ask for help etc.)

Finally, talk to other women about your experiences of the imposter Syndrome – let them know that they are not alone and that you too have these feelings and worries; but that the self-doubt can be overcome!


So here I am…writing an article for ‘Schools Improvement’! It might be read by someone, it might not…readers might agree with me, they might not. But it’s ok! My article has just as much value as something written by someone else…indeed, I hope what I have written will resonate with a reader and help them to banish the ‘imposter syndrome’ too!


Every day at school, I now use various strategies when I can feel the panic rising and the negative inner-voice reappearing. I will always have times of self-doubt, but I now value those times – I know that as a headteacher I have a tremendous amount of power over many lives and careers; and therefore I believe that a moment or more of self-reflection and careful consideration of all possible actions, is not a bad behaviour trait to have. When I am faced with a tricky situation and the Imposter Syndrome raises it’s head, I don’t allow the one moment to drown out all my previous successes and achievements. I know that it’s one moment of difficulty and not a reflection of my whole existence.


Rachael Shaw

(Twitter: @res_ed)



Mullholland, V. (2018)  Why are there disproportionately few female school leaders and why are they paid less than their male colleagues?. The Times Educational Supplement. Retrieved from:


Porritt, V., & Featherstone, K. (2019). 10% Braver: Inspiring Women to Lead Education.London, Sage.


Young, V. (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. New York,Crown Business.

Leave a Reply

  1. Rachael Shaw Listing Owner

    Thankyou. You’re very kind.

  2. Dr Jill Berry

    I thought this was a great article, Rachael! Will tweet about it. Feel the fear and do it anyway! Best wishes.