‘Finding my Lane’ – an imposter syndrome tale

 Alison Lister
 Alison Lister

Ali Lister is an Associate Assistant Principal at an inner city Leeds secondary academy serving an area of high deprivation. She leads English as well as Literacy Across the Curriculum. Ali is passionate about making education accessible for all through the empowering facets of literacy, especially reading and oracy. When not in the classroom, Ali can be found walking her dog or tending her allotment.

 To steal the stand first from John Tomsett’s blog, I have been a teacher for 27 years, an associate assistant principal for 2 terms and at the age of 56, this much I know about finding my lane. 

I began my teaching journey at age 30, having already had my daughter, at Leeds University, completing a PGCE in English with drama. I’d had a couple of tentative forays into teaching as part of my English Language and Linguistics degree, spending time in an EAL Language unit in Hounslow and a primary school which specialised in supporting SLCN (speaking, language and communication needs). My mother says I was born to be a teacher although I resisted this until the birth of my daughter and the realisation that her father wasn’t up to much, gave me my epiphanous moment.

When I was applying for my first post, I struggled to shine in the interview process, approaching them in an apologetic manner, ducking behind the extrovert confidence of the 22 year olds I was mostly up against. Finding myself as one of five or six most times, I pretty much gave up as soon as I entered the process. The defeatist attitude of feeling that I was never quite good enough probably stemmed from never being the best at anything when I was younger, that someone else was always better than me at whatever it was and that others always had the edge somehow. This was compounded by my A Level French teacher telling my dad at a parents’ evening that I wasn’t clever enough to apply for any university let alone York. Nevertheless, I did well at school academically and in my chosen extracurricular pursuits of music and sport and I DID get into York University!

Luckily, my PGCE mentor pointed me in the direction of the school where I secured my NQT post. Their interview process was different to others I had attended, in that there was an opportunity to join a teacher for a class rather than deliver a lesson. This was brilliant as I was able to do what I do best which was engage with the students, sit next to them, help them with their task and begin to build a rapport. The interview was also slightly different in atmosphere and felt much more like an intellectual conversation than a grilling. 

Even though I was already 30, I was still the youngest in the department and pursued all sorts of self-propelled CPD (although it wasn’t called that then!), researching boys’ progress in English, creating SPaG core resources and being recruited for exam marking. It was challenging to make my mark though in this rural, slightly underperforming comprehensive. So when the National Strategy emerged, I jumped on the Literacy element of it and secured my first responsibility. However, that itself was tinged with difficulty as I was restricted in what I knew were the right things to do by a controlling deputy head. The other deputy head gave me a brilliant motto which I still use: “There are other ways of making your mark that aren’t always moving up or out.” Move on a couple of years and some restructuring within school found me as the only possible candidate to take over the head of department reins with the remit to completely shake up our curriculum offer.

I wasn’t interviewed for this and definitely felt imposter syndrome, particularly as the team had not changed and the original subject leader was still delivering English. There was a degree of push back in how I planned to alter English teaching which was abated by the employment of a formidable NQT and cutting edge training for subject leaders from the local authority. Who else remembers those enormous framework folders with the minutiae of assessment foci and strands? I still have it and dip in from time to time! 

Eight years later, an internal assistant head position came up and I was one of three candidates to be interviewed. The remit was teaching and learning based whilst still retaining the subject lead role. One question was centred around priorities, essentially what would you choose if there was a whole school versus departmental conflict? I chose department, which was the wrong answer it turned out, as I did not get the position. What galled me the most was that the governor on the selection panel told me a couple of years later that if they were shortlisting based solely on the quality (and accuracy!) of the application letter, I would have been the only interviewee. Similarly, an interview I had soon after for a similar position in a different school was unsuccessful because I ONLY had experience in driving forward progress in English. Er, that’s my subject? Perhaps I was an imposter for a role beyond English.

Life changes. I met my second husband who wanted to move abroad. We did for a year (and in that year I improved the English IGCSE outcomes by 15%) and I could not secure a head of department role on our return. I ended up as a classroom teacher in a high performing academy Trust with high stakes accountability measures and an intense thrust for continuous improvement and innovation. This was amazing in many ways as it really sharpened up my teaching and lit up the academic embers of research and deliberate practice. I spent seven years there, in three different settings. In one of those settings, one senior member of staff once asked me if I was done with teaching yet. I cried. I was absolutely not “done with teaching” but I was made to feel like a ‘has been’ and unworthy of the accolade that came from working in that Trust. I was moved to a different school within the Trust, eventually securing the role of Trust Wide Literacy Co-ordinator which gave me a wide-ranging, exciting and privileged remit. We developed strategies for written accuracy, reading and oracy which are still having far-reaching impact. However, at 50+ I was unusual. Roles above that tended to be taken by (incredible) teachers earlier in their career. I wasn’t looking for anything more (bearing in mind that very kind deputy from my first school) but I did feel that I had more to offer. If I had stayed there, I would probably be retiring this year as the pace, expectation and intensity would have been too much.

Fast forward to 2019 and my wonderful friend, Jenny, (who I had worked with previously and stayed in constant touch) told me that there was a subject leader position at her school. Her school was the polar opposite of where I was and did make me baulk a little at first until I remembered a conversation with another colleague where I had said that I was perhaps better placed in a school which was not at the top of its game, in order to create sustained improvements. I had nothing to lose. I completely eschewed the person specification and wrote a letter which outlined my educational passions and vision. I approached the interview in a similar way and GOT THE JOB! 

Weirdly, I have not yet completed a full normal year here yet, but the changes I have made in the English curriculum (and exam board)  will put us in a strong position to sustain improvements beyond the next few years. Frustratingly, we were poised to make a significant percentage increase in grades 4 and above before the pandemic struck. A recent change in leadership at the school brought about some restructuring and I found myself promoted on the strength of my potential and vision to associate assistant principal. I am still the subject leader for English but this also includes whole school literacy plus a couple of other interesting responsibilities which will significantly improve the way the school is viewed in the community. I do still feel a little like an imposter but this role has fanned those embers into flames and I feel really invigorated, purposeful and valued. 

So, it doesn’t really matter how long it takes you or how many turns on the journey you make, once you have found where you fit and where you can make it count, that’s your lane. 

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