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Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as an Online Technical Instructor

Despite their skills and credentials, many instructors can feel a sense of inadequacy throughout their careers. Here are 3 ways to appear more confident than you actually feel — and help students learn at the same time. 

frustrated man working at computer

The most important comprehensive exam I took for my doctoral program was the one I failed. It only had two questions.

I was sitting in the parlor of my courtly and somewhat Victorian doctoral adviser (age 75 or so), having just fixed his broken-down personal computer again — gratis, as usual. We were sipping the 90-proof lemon cordial that he made in his basement from an old family recipe going back to Italy, and musing about where I'd best fit after graduation. He asked me what I thought was the most important skill I would need for success in the corporate world, and also what skill would serve me best as a professor. My fumbling responses were politely dismissed, and then he answered his own questions. He told me that the only indispensable skill in industry was to somehow create more measurable value for your employer than you cost to keep — including salary, benefits and investment of the boss's time. And the core skill for a professor was to be able to learn something interesting from a book or journal at 10:00 in the morning and then present it with eloquence and enthusiasm to a class of 30 held in rapt attention at 3:00 that very afternoon, as if you have known about it for your entire life.

Since so many public and private universities conceive of themselves largely as businesses today, perhaps both skills are now equally valuable in academic life. The second skill, however, comes with a nagging and persistent emotional problem that can haunt one throughout a career, and which is particularly troublesome for instructors of technical topics. It is imposter syndrome, the recurring sense of being a transparent faker with insufficient technical depth and, despite one's credentials, living in eternal fear of being found out.

To some extent, imposter syndrome is intentionally built into the system. If you look at most job descriptions for technical staff positions, you will notice that modest entry-level salaries are often paired with a truly impossible list of "required competencies" and an even more fanciful list of "preferred competencies." This is partially because the Human Resources personnel who write these things don't know technology from brussels sprouts. With the philosophy of "more is always better," they add everything that anyone they happen to know in the IT department might suggest to the laundry list of requirements. A darker reason is that they are intentionally trying to get the job candidate on the back foot, to assure that person's flexibility when salary negotiations begin. After all, if they can convince you they are doing you a favor by hiring you in spite of your blatant inadequacies, it will be much easier to bring you in at a lower number.

Aside from these antics, there are some very real contributors to the continued sense of inadequacy many technical instructors feel throughout the careers. You are expected to be an acknowledged expert in the skill sets of multiple career paths. From management's point of view, you are the "computer guy" (or gal) and should be on top of all that "computer stuff." Administration often thinks it entirely reasonable that you be a world-class responsive Web Designer, Graphic Artist, Animation Specialist, Database Administrator, Videographer, Statistical Analyst, Secretarial Skills Guru and, of course, compassionate teacher of complete beginners who understands what it means to be just starting out. The truth is that to be at the top end of any one of these fast-changing fields would be a full-time job for just about anybody. Anyone who is a recognized beacon of excellence and innovation in any one of these would command a far higher salary in the open market then a modest regional institution like my own has any interest in paying.

The students have generally thought through none of this, and tend to place you on an even higher (and more precarious) pedestal than the administration. Still, it is in the interest of both your peace of mind and employment stability to be as close to your employers' and students' image of you as you can reasonably manage. The first steps should be obvious. If you want to survive in the technical instructor business (online or classroom-based), you need to constantly renew and expand what skills you actually possess. You should never claim any skills that you don't really have. Nothing is as exhausting as pretending to be someone you are not.

That being said, it's time for the good news. The online teaching environment makes it much easier for you to look better and more confident than you actually feel at any given moment. This gives you precious time to get deeper on many technical fronts, as you address the gap between what you can do and the expectations of those around you. Here are some ways to play the part while you learn the art of being a top-gun online technical instructor.

1) Edit your way to stardom.

The primary value-add in my graduate courses is the set of instructional movies that I make, mostly in Camtasia. A typical class, such as "Making Motion Learning Objects with Adobe Animate," will have 14 to 16 hours of lecture/demonstration movies. My reputation with my students, most of whom I will never meet, rests largely on the quality of these movies.

In addition to my modest technical skills, I have an additional challenge in building these videos. I am approaching my 66th birthday and, frankly, the synapses don't fire quite as quickly as they used to in my days on the undergraduate debate team. It can take a few seconds before I think of the word I am looking for, even while the camera is rolling.

The answer is ruthless editing. When I am documenting computer procedures on video, I typically shoot two or three times as many minutes as I actually use. I budget five hours of editing time to create one hour of finished product. By the time I am done, I have eliminated every excessive pause, every filler word ("uugh" or "duugh"), every misspoken phrase, every typing error, every wrong turn, every cough or sneeze — literally everything that is not perfect. While the raw product might have sounded like a bumbling klutz not in full command of the material, the final product sound likes a consummate professional in a business suit who always has the next step on the tip of his tongue. I push the action along at a sprightly clip and I sound at least 15 years younger than I actually am.

As you can imagine, a lot of the editing time is spent rerecording rough spots. Camtasia is wonderful about allowing you to easily replace a few seconds of unsatisfactory audio, or even insert a patch of both video and audio to re-explain a point when the first try was verbal mud. Of course, I make generous use of highlight annotations such as animated boxes, arrows and labels. Sometimes I will rerecord a section not for any technical deficiency, but simply because, to my own ear, I sounded unsure of myself in the first recording.

I am also extremely careful about production values. Fumbling one's lines will appear Bush League, but so will a sudden increase or decrease in volume between one section of a recording and another, or using red emphasis arrows throughout and then inexplicably throwing in a blue one. I want the entire product to say that I know my stuff at a high level and care about putting it across effectively.

If this seems somehow dishonest or manipulative to the reader, I can assure you it does not appear so to my students. Part of the reason is that I invite them inside the "boiler room" to see how the movie-making process works. I am totally open about discussing the type and amount of editing I do in my learning products and suggesting that they edit their learning products this deeply as well. I have been even known to share a minute of raw footage on occasion so they can see the difference.

All they really care about (or remember) is the quality of the end product they learn from. Just like I remember how cute Reese Witherspoon was in Sweet Home Alabama. Of course, I know she doesn't look like that all the time and I couldn't care less. Nor do my students care what I had to look up at the last minute on to solidify my understanding of some obscure procedure, so I could present it clearly to them in a movie.

2) Offer pathways to answers, rather than answers themselves.

A major component of imposter syndrome is the sense of vulnerability you may feel when students contact you for technical assistance with knotty questions. Your sense of not being up to the task can be particularly acute when you are teaching a relatively advanced course on some software application that you only make minimal use of outside of class. You often have to reteach yourself aspects of the application that you have forgotten since the last time you used the product, which can be very time-consuming. Still, having a plan in place for processing technical questions can be immensely helpful if that plan has been clearly articulated to your students. A solid step-wise protocol of expectations will minimize the number of tech support requests that have to be handled — leaving you with more time to do the research and respond satisfactorily to those questions that remain.

Students need to be persuaded to buy in to the importance of having technical independence as a personal goal. I always tell my students that, at the end of their Master's program, they will not be the one asking for technical assistance from others. Instead, they will hopefully be in the position where others are seeking technical assistance from them. Our tech support plan helps them build the troubleshooting skills they need and, as a secondary benefit, limits the number of problems in which I need to get directly involved.

I ask each student to wait at least one day before requesting support on any issue that comes up. I do this because I have discovered that on days when I don't get to my e-mail queue until late afternoon, I almost never get just one tech support request e-mail from a given student. I normally get two from the same student, if I get any at all. The first is the one was sent at 3:00 in the morning, saying he or she is totally overwhelmed by a certain problem and is giving up on it until I offer suggestions. The second usually comes in about 1:00 in the afternoon and says, "Forget it. I went back later with a clear head and figured it out." Clearly this is the best outcome for the student, since it produces both a solution and confidence to tackle the next problem.

Having disposed of over half the support requests by simply requiring the students to live with them for one full day, I now want to whittle the pile down even more. I ask a few standard questions. First: "Have you tried the exercise again from the beginning?" Many students will do the failing step 10 times in exactly the same way, but will never consider that the problem they are having with Step 12 is actually the result of an error they made back on Step 4. They think it's less painful to throw the problem back over the wall to me than to invest the half-hour it would take to really start from scratch. When forced to go back to square one, they often discover their original error.

We are now down to perhaps a quarter of the original volume of tech support requests I would otherwise be dealing with. The next step takes care of most of the remaining ones. I ask, "Did you look online for answers to your question? Did you check with the vendor-sponsored online community that supports this product? If you received an error message, did you Google it?"

If they say, "Yes, I did all that," then I will do a Google search myself based on their problem description and/or error message. I find a useful reference most of the time. Then I get back to the student and say, "You might want to rethink your search terms, since I found this spot-on reference on Google which addresses your exact problem." This usually yields a somewhat embarrassed, "Yes, I didn't think of searching for it that way." I rarely have to do this dance more than once with any student. After that, they find whatever online solutions may be available to address their technical issues. They are learning how to learn.

If a student has stepped away from a problem to address it again with a fresh mind, genuinely redone the work from the beginning looking for an error, and made maximum use of online communities and resources, all to no avail — then it's time to step in and try to untangle the skein. Since I have to do this for fairly few problems, I typically have the time to address each thoroughly and will usually find an answer. I even have time to reteach myself some skills that may have rusted away through lack of use. Even then, I try not to give the answer to the student. Rather, I ask myself the question, "What chain of action or reasoning could have led this student to a solution for this problem on their own?" Then I try to nudge them toward finding that solution on their own where possible.

This way of handling tech support questions sets up an expectation on the part of the student that the exercises are doable, that many students have succeeded with them in the past, and that with slow, careful work, they too will be able to succeed with them. This leaves me with the bandwidth to go full tilt on the really advanced questions where instructor support is really needed. With enough research time, I can hit about anything they can pitch, thus burnishing my local reputation as a pretty sharp technician.

The downside of taking this approach to student problems is that there will always be a few students who discover that technical work involves independent troubleshooting, and independent troubleshooting is just not what they like to do. In these few cases, my job is to gently and non-judgmentally counsel them into another line of work, but not too quickly. Some can still come around and "get with the program." Every little victory they have brings the next little victory a little closer.

3) Your weakness is your strength.

As a Communications major with a minor in Music on the downward slope of a 25-year career as a technical instructor and instructional designer, I have abundant personal evidence that the fact that I am not God's gift to technology is a critical component of my success. Web programming did not come naturally to me. HTML and CSS took some time, while the finer points of Bootstrap and JavaScript are hardly under control. Node, Angular, .NET and whatever they are going to invent to amuse us tomorrow are simply outside my strike zone at present. This gives me tremendous compassion for my students, whose angst in learning this stuff brings back very recent memories. I have parlayed my own limitations into an ability to predict where they will stumble and need more help, since I often stumbled in exactly the same spots and not that long ago.

There are probably Olympian technical instructors out there who are true masters of the technologies I offer in my courses and also have a deep insight into the beginner's mind that, along with boundless compassion, makes them great teachers. May they enjoy the rose petals tossed under their feet. But this combination is very rare. My guess is that Beethoven was a lousy and impatient piano teacher, but that Beethoven's teachers were somewhat less skilled at touching the keyboard and somewhat more skilled at touching their student's heart and soul.

One final thought is immensely helpful when dealing with imposter syndrome: Know that presumption of quality is the force that is with you. Our relationships with our dentists suggest what I mean. I know for a fact that my dentist has a busy, attractive office and an engaging way of relating to me as a patient. I don't know if he is really a great dentist who has chosen the best possible treatment options for me over the years. How would I? But I'm invested in my decision to work with him, so I assume that the work he has done was truly needed and that a tooth that could not be saved was lost in spite of his expertise, not because of a lack of it.

The same thing goes for you as an online technical instructor. Students have invested time, money and psychic energy in choosing your program and you as their teacher. They want to think of you as a fine person who is great at what you do. You don't need to be the next Grace Hopper. You just need to be compassionate, diligent and as good as the circumstances of your role and working environment permit you to be. Remember that if you really had everything on that job description completely under control, your school wouldn't be able to pay you enough to keep you.

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