The Imposter Project

Ciara Reilly

Primary School Teacher

Ciara is a primary school teacher and author who is currently working as an advisor in digital technologies, meaning she’s out on the road working with teachers all across the country, helping them to advance their use of technology, and embed it a bit more into the curriculum. 

What do you like best about your work?

My favourite thing about my work is that what I do every day matters. I see the role of the teacher as someone with the ability to materially, if not symbolically, change lives. All of my teaching has been in schools which are designated as ‘disadvantaged’, and I face every working day knowing that even on the hardest days I do a job worth doing. I also love how teaching is so creative and community based, and I value how forgiving, simplistic and open children are. Every day is an adventure and it’s a privilege to work with families and community organisations with one goal: furthering and advancing the future of the young people in our care.

I also love that most of the important work I do has absolutely nothing to do with the curriculum: while I’m obviously motivated by the idea of students progressing academically, I’m far more interested in the life skills and the ‘hidden curriculum’ we teach them, both directly and inadvertently. I’ve always been especially aware that there are some kids for whom you’re not only someone who teaches, but also someone who feeds and cares for them.

I’m exceptionally proud to be a teacher and a public servant, and a significant part of my job is being mindful of the idea of ‘teacher agency’, and my ability to fight for my own rights and those of my students.

What was your career journey?

Initially after the Leaving Cert I studied Law in UCD, which I think was the most significant part of my development as a person. As many people will know, a Law degree isn’t so time-consuming in terms of weekly lectures, so I had plenty of chances to immerse myself in other aspects of student life. I did enjoy my degree – and fully intended on becoming a solicitor at the end of it – but that wasn’t to be the case. After I finished I began the FE1 solicitors’ exams, during which time I began to really assess what sort of work I wanted to do. I come from a family of teachers and I guess it was only when I had some space to consider the sort of life I wanted, that I realised how teaching was really the job for me. It certainly helped that I was preparing for those exams just as the economy collapsed, and it really dawned on me that I wouldn’t be fulfilled working in a corporate environment. It felt empty, unfulfilling and insignificant. Teaching seemed real, relevant and personal.

I ended up applying for a postgraduate course in teaching and was lucky enough to get accepted into Marino Institute of Education on my first try. Immediately I felt like all the parts of my world were beginning to come together again. I found Marino to be small, warm, inclusive, creative… it was a brilliant place to learn. In my class there were engineers, optometrists, lawyers – you name it! – and we all brought our own personal experiences to our teacher training. It was just a fantastic vibe and a great place to be. It changed my life, and I am lucky enough to still work out there with some students.  

I have a particular passion for digital technology because I feel it's a great leveller in education, and it can really transform the quality of someone’s learning. I took particular pride in sharing and championing my children’s work, especially though social media – it really gave a platform for their successes. I was an early advocate for coding, maker technology and gaming in education. It changed my approach as a teacher and (I hope!) my students loved learning in this way.

In terms of your Imposter Syndrome, how do you find it manifests?

In my case it tends to emerge after-the-fact – I tend to be fine at the time, and then get plagued by anxiety afterwards. I think I have a fairly good understanding of my strengths – I can be incredibly determined, and I’m fiercely loyal to myself, so if feel like I should be doing something, I’ll stand my ground and do it.

“It’s preposterous most of the time, and I tend to dwell on minutiae – which I know, deep down, haven’t been noticed at all by anyone else.”

It’s only afterwards that I bury myself in doubt – truthfully, I offload a lot on my husband, eulogise over things I’ve done, or hold post-mortems over contributions I’ve made at meetings, seminars, lectures. It’s preposterous most of the time, and I tend to dwell on minutiae – which I know, deep down, haven’t been noticed at all by anyone else. But I’ll feel like I’ve let myself down, in the context of the opportunities afforded to me.  

I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by people who don’t let me get bogged down in it, and they do help me to reset the dial afterwards. I pride myself in having a terrible memory, so by the time of the next meeting or lecture, I’ll go again! I guess there is a campaigning streak in me, and I just go back to the well again and again.  

One example is that when I was in UCD, after my degree and before I started the solicitors’ exams, I took a year out and served as a vice-president in the Students’ Union. Even though my time there was ‘successful’ (at least, as successful as you can be, in that fairly small field!) to this day I still cringe and am plagued with self-doubt about everything to do with that year. I doubted myself at every turn when I was in the role and to some extent, part of the reason I’m back there now volunteering at board level, is because I don’t want other women in similar roles to feel like they don’t deserve that kind of role if they’ve run for election and contributed in that way.

I also feel like an absolute fraud when it comes to the world of academia. Anyone who knows me well would know I’m a fairly confident speaker and I have trust in my ability to articulate myself, but I’m totally plagued by self-doubt when it comes to doing so on paper. I often run a tweet – even a really mundane one – past my husband, or a friend, to check the tone of what I’m trying to say, because I’ll be worrying about possible misinterpretations or reactions. I think that might be because not many teachers speak as openly about their commitments outside the classroom, but I’ve chosen to be quite active on social media, sharing elements of my work. I know a lot of people in the industry would look at me and think, ‘Oh, she’s that teacher who tweets’, and most of the time I don’t think or care about it. But when I’m at a conference or larger national event, I worry about how my forthright views on equality (inside and outside of the classroom), or trade union matters, and Department policies would be viewed by those around me. I also sometimes struggle when working with parents who are much older than me, or indeed with parents who are a bit younger. I worry that even when I’m trying to help someone, I might come across as patronising or judgemental. I guess my nature is to just do something and worry about it afterwards, which to the outside world probably looks super-confident or capable – that I never have any worries about my ability to perform – but I know that those closer to me would know I worry and care about how I’m perceived, and what my real motivation is.

Did you experience it very differently when in the classroom than say when consulting, or in spokesperson or author mode?

Absolutely. Working with children and working with adults is completely different. In my experience children are relaxed, completely non-judgemental, open and welcoming, and classrooms – especially primary classrooms – are really safe environments. When I’m in school I never worry what the children think of me; I pride myself on championing difference, equality and most importantly, every student in my classroom is taught the potential and the importance of making mistakes, and how that’s the first step in the learning process.

I don’t know why it happens, but it does: I forget all of my own lessons when I’m leading my own life outside the classroom. When I’m in ‘professional teacher’ mode outside the classroom I’m ashamed to say that irrational thoughts sometimes take hold, and the confidence I seem to exude isn’t backed up. While I might have absolute faith in something I’m doing, I’ll still struggle with the idea that other people might see my approach as ‘too much’.

“Whatever you’re doing in your life, is enough. We are enough. But yet I find too often, women in particular, have this drive to justify what we’re doing.”

For example, I feel like my professional self is as much defined by the ‘extra’ things – lecturing, writing, Teachmeet duties – as it is by my ‘day job’. Sometimes I get the usual response, ‘Why would you be bothered doing all of that?’, and most of the time I can shirk it off – but later when I’m knee-deep in my day to day obligations, and I’m struggling to maintain other commitments, I’m nearly in agreement with them. But then I’ll quickly snap myself out of it: I know I’m not the sort of person who can look on from afar – I have to get my hands dirty, I have to take a hands-on role in the kind of advancement I’d like to see, and that’s why I’m involved in the things I am.  

I sincerely mean this when I say: whatever you’re doing in your life, is enough. We are enough. But yet I find too often, women in particular, have this drive to justify what we’re doing. I know it’s ludicrous and yet I do it myself.

Is Imposter Syndrome something you see much among teachers?

Professionally, teachers can be very hard on each other – there can definitely be a sense of one-upmanship when teachers get together. Approaches and methodologies are compared, and it’s hard not to compare yourself in a very female-dominated profession. I’m also painfully aware that too many teachers don’t see themselves as being cut out for leadership roles – five out of every six teachers in Ireland are women, but only two out of every three school principals. To me that is shocking. Why, oh why, do women not see themselves as capable of stepping up? I worry that their rationale comes down to concerns about childrearing, and whether they can give the principalship everything it needs without compromising their home lives. Obviously, that’s not as much of a concern for many men.

Do you have any coping strategies for your own Imposter Syndrome?

My number one rule is to accept that mistakes are the first step in learning. I try to ingratiate myself in a scaffold of wisdom – even if I’m not always present to it, I always go back to it. I love repeating mantras, or quotes and I take half an hour first thing every morning to read/workout/meditate. I build myself up before the world can take me down. I started that about two years ago and it has made a world of difference to my mental health. I read everything from fluffy self-help books, listen to podcasts led by fierce and brilliant women and push my body to celebrate my health and wellbeing. It works and I breathe in that time before I have to give anything of my own to anyone else in the day. Vital for those who have to think of others first when fulfilling their professional obligations.  

I also remind myself that a mistake is an opportunity to learn, and sometimes you have to go down the wrong road to find the right path. I also think you have to look at having a growth mindset, and I’m passionate about teaching Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset concept to my students. On the hard days, you might have a ‘fixed mindset’, where you tell yourself you are only capable of so much and cannot go any further. But you have to pull yourself out and give yourself a growth, ‘learning mindset’. Mistakes are an opportunity for learning and are not evidence of some underlying failure.

I’m convinced that the only way to deal with Imposter Syndrome is to pride yourself on getting out of your comfort zone more and more
– which sounds strange, and contrary to what you ought to be doing, but you have to do it. My advice to anybody struggling with one thing they’re doing is to get out of your lane, and get out frequently. Wear different hats. Have a different, multifaceted understanding of what your contribution is. You are more than just one thing. You can be, and are many things. While you might hit a wall in one area, lean on the other areas to lift you up. Be your own cheerleader.  

“And guess what? Everyone’s just trying to get away with it.”

I’m notorious for writing down my goals and successes. Any of my friends know about my obsession with my list-making – I pretty much have shares in Bando at this stage! – and I definitely think that if you visualise and physically manifest something on paper that you want to happen, you’re much more likely to stand by your conviction and make it real.

Ultimately, I think you have to surround yourself with fantastic people who have your back, and I’m blessed in that category in my life. They are my mirror when I am blind and they are the measure of my worth. When all of the other stuff is pared back, they remain. That is all that really matters. You have them and can face everything with that army behind and beside you.  

And guess what? Everyone’s just trying to get away with it.
The real stuff, the real bread and butter of life, doesn’t come with any imposter element. That’s you: that’s what you are, and that’s what people love you for.

Since contributing to the Imposter Project, Ciara has assumed a new full-time role as a lecturer in digital technologies in primary education at Marino Institute of Education. She and her husband Gavan also welcomed their daughter Doireann – "my most worthwhile role to date!" – into the world in July 2019.

Find Ciara here:

photography - Nathalie Marquez Courtney, Clio Meldon
illustration - Clio Meldon

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