I teach business English but know nothing about business. I feel like an impostor – is that normal?

“Impostor syndrome” refers to a feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt experienced by some teachers who feel that they are not qualified or capable enough to teach English to non-native speakers. This can manifest as a fear of being “found out” as a fraud or a lack of confidence in their own abilities. This syndrome particularly affects teachers in Business English, Academic English (EAP), and all the many areas of English for Special Purposes (ESP).

I personally have taught both Business English and EAP – I am not a business person, and nor am I an academic. I have a degree in English language and literature. At the start, I knew nothing about business, but it seemed my students didn’t know much more than me! We learned together. I learned so much in fact, that the skills I learned in the first company where I taught I was then able to apply in other companies. These included business skills such as how to be an effective participant in a meeting (face to face and online), what to say (and not to say) in a presentation, and how to write a technical document. I then started teaching EAP, where the students called me Doctor (as in Phd) or Professor – I was neither. But the skills learned in Business English seemed to transfer very well to academia. So my time spent feeling like an impostor was much shorter.

Essentially you have to get really into the specific area of your students. Learn about their job and their research. But you don’t need to become an expert. At the end of the day you are teaching them communication skills, and as an EFL teacher you are likely to have an abundance of such skills.

Interestingly, it’s not only teachers who suffer from impostor syndrome. Students do too. One of our collaborators, wrote to me saying:

Twice a week I try to help a particular older student to learn English. He is particular because he holds an important position in the university world. The problem is that he has great difficulty learning. He knows this but cannot really admit it to himself given his position. The work we do has to hover around this fact. If, at the end of the lesson, he goes away feeling that something has clicked positively, it’s not really a result, but as I say rather clumsily it’s more like a small healing of the soul. He feels better within himself, he feels less likely to be discovered as an imposter, hopefully he feels he can look the world more squarely in the eye. I imagine that we have students of all ages who feel the same. With other subjects you can hide and fudge your enormous inability to learn (mathematics for me, for example), but English as a spoken language doesn’t allow any hiding or fudging.

If you are experiencing impostor syndrome, you are not alone. Focus on your strengths as a teacher, seek out professional development opportunities, and take steps to boost your confidence and self-esteem. This can include seeking feedback from colleagues and students, practicing self-care, and reminding themselves of past successes in their teaching career.

Adrian Wallwork

Categories: Business