Supporting every teacher: teaching advanced grammar – dealing with imposter syndrome

Share on Facebook Share on LinkedIn Share on Twitter

The vast majority of teachers at some stage in their career experience ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling of being unequipped to deliver what learners need, and frequently this happens in the context of teaching advanced level grammar.  This post explores why it’s okay to not know the answer. Why it can even be a positive thing for learners, and how to deal with those moments in the classroom when we have to admit that we don’t know.

In my early years of teaching I remember having mixed feelings about teaching advanced level learners.  On the one hand, there’s a far broader range of topics available and possibilities for discussion than with lower levels, but on the other hand, the idea of teaching grammar at advanced level was quite terrifying.  What if they asked me something I didn’t know the answer to?  Would I be exposed as a fraud? These are the common feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’.

At the time I worked in a school with two teachers for whom English was their second language (L2), and as a first language (L1) English speaker I felt at a distinct disadvantage.  My L2 speaker colleagues had themselves studied and learnt English grammar patterns, and no doubt had a better explicit knowledge than I did.  This example of ‘imposter syndrome’ is something all teachers feel from time to time, whether they’ve been teaching for three years or thirty: it comes with the territory.

Why do I feel like this?

How to tackle imposter syndrome

Outside the classroom, I feel no shame in looking up instructions if I need to change a fuse, or checking a recipe if I want to make pastry, for example. So why might I feel uneasy about needing to check a grammar point?  Well, I’m not an electrician, or a chef, but I am an English language teacher.  And not only do I teach, but I also train teachers and write and develop resources.  I should know my subject.  But the fact is that language teaching is about far more than just grammatical knowledge.  It’s about lexis; semantics; pragmatics; skills development; life competencies; exam preparation; teaching and learning methodologies; classroom management… the list goes on.

As teachers, we need an understanding of all of these things, but we’re not encyclopaedias!  And if, like me, you teach a variety of levels there’ll be times in a course or syllabus when you encounter a grammatical item that you haven’t taught for a while.  There is nothing wrong in refreshing one’s knowledge as needs require, and in fact it should be encouraged.  Even now with more years of experience I sometimes find myself revising a grammatical point before a lesson.

When I started teaching and was asked a question I didn’t know the answer to, I’d often respond with “That’s a good question, let’s come back to it tomorrow”, or “find out for homework”.  But in my classroom now, I take pleasure from not knowing something, because it gives me the opportunity to respond with “Ooh, I don’t know, let’s find out!”  For learners to realise that their teacher doesn’t know absolutely everything is an important lesson and can be incredibly empowering.  Learning isn’t something that ‘finishes’; learners won’t be in the classroom their whole lives and so need the confidence and resources to be able to find things out for themselves.

The best model of language we have is our own

A large element of teaching grammar at advanced levels is being confident in our own language use.  But confidence can waver, for all sorts of reasons.  My feeling that L2 English speaker teachers were at an advantage when it comes to explicit grammar knowledge may be founded. But many of the L2 English speaker teachers I’ve worked with on training courses feel at a disadvantage themselves, and lack confidence in their own proficiency in English.  Often this is because they’re working in contexts that view L1 English speakers as more appropriate teachers.  But in the modern world, speakers are using a variety of world English’s in international contexts. And so the distinction between L1 and L2 speaker teachers is redundant: what learners need is International English.

Regardless of whether we are L1 or L2 English speaker teachers, the best model of language that we have is our own English.  Often there’ll be students in our classrooms who find exceptions to rules, and we need to be ready to think how we as English language speakers use those exceptions, so that we can explain through examples from our own use of the language.

Your response matters

So how do we respond when an advanced level learner asks a grammar question we don’t know the answer to?  Well, if we don’t know the answer, we can’t just explain a rule.  This is where examples come in: examples are a teacher’s best friend.  Examples not only help us to figure out a grammatical pattern, but because they’re contextualised they are also more meaningful and lessen the cognitive load for the learner.

My approach is exploratory.  I begin by brainstorming with learners as many examples as possible and to work together to identify where the patterns are.  Going through this process together with learners encourages them to be inquisitive themselves and to become independent researchers in their own learning journeys. This helps to develop confidence.  Recognising that teachers don’t know everything gives learners permission not to know everything.  Working together in the classroom to explore language and look for patterns, equips learners with the skills to find things out independently.  And the fact that they’re advanced learners also often means they enjoy the nitty-gritty of language.

Resource and reference books such as Advanced Grammar in Use are also extremely useful for both teachers and learners.  If I want to check something before a lesson I’ll refer to resources like these.  If a student wants further practice of a particular grammatical point I’ll recommend practice from these books.  But I also find them useful in the classroom: after brainstorming examples and looking for patterns we might refer to Advanced Grammar in Use to confirm, clarify or extend our findings.

We are teachers!

So, while imposter syndrome exists, it’s largely unfounded: we’re not imposters, but neither are we encyclopaedias.  We’re teachers.  We know how we as speakers of English use the language, and we know how to teach it.  We don’t have to have all the answers in our heads, but we do have to know how and where to find out: how to explore and discover, and inspire our learners to do likewise.

We’ll be continuing to share advice, tips, experiences and tools to help you adapt to teaching in new environments. If you would like to read more blog articles from the Supporting Every Teacher series, click here