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Overcoming imposter syndrome: unexpected benefits of my National Teaching Fellowship application

11 Mar 2020 | Shan Wareing A National Teaching Fellow from 2011, Shân Wareing writes that the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme enables teachers to progress up the career ladder, and in some unexpected ways.

I love teaching. My first teaching experiences were as an undergraduate, and it has never stopped being a magical combination for me of exploring a subject, getting to know people and watching them grow and develop, and learning myself in the process. It was natural for me to want to teach, and then to want to get better at teaching, through professional development, scholarship, and experimentation, and finally to want to create institutional and national structures to support teaching. In other words, my career path followed the stages of tutoring, lecturing, being an education developer, and being a Dean of Learning and Teaching Development.

When I applied for my NTF in 2011, there was some debate in the educational development community about whether ‘people like us’ should apply for the Fellowship. Education developers had already had recognition as ‘excellent teachers’ by being appointed to our roles. Wasn’t it a bit needy to seek to be told again how good we were, and swipe a National Teaching Fellowship from someone who really needed it?

By 2009 I had reached the point in my career where I could see opportunities to improve teaching at university level beyond what was possible in my Dean’s role; I wanted a Pro Vice-Chancellor role. I applied for PVC positions a couple of times unsuccessfully, and then fell back to re-assess how to strengthen my applications, and decided that a professorship had to be my next step. University of the Arts London had a professorial route based on teaching, to which I applied, initially without success. I reviewed my plan; I decided that before I would succeed in either my professorial or PVC applications, I would need a high status indicator of peer esteem. I needed a National Teaching Fellowship.

It was much harder to write the NTF application than I had envisaged. I experienced it as challenging and high risk in several ways. The institutional selection process required me to prepare an indication of interest, so that my close colleagues could evaluate the relative merits of my case against others, with an attendant risk of failure and potentially (to my mind) being exposed as an imposter in my Dean’s role. What if they thought ‘blimey, she’s not an excellent teacher, she’s not even a very good teacher’? The potential to fail was professionally very uncomfortable.

Having overcome that hurdle, I had to prepare a logical narrative based on a career that I had experienced as ‘muddling through’, not as a coherent professional trajectory. It was unexpectedly painful to express very deeply and firmly held principles and values about teaching and learning that I would normally not talk about because it exposes something too personal, too private to share. I had to locate evidence for decisions which had been made intuitively, and the process exposed how relatively little time I spent formally reviewing and evaluating initiatives before moving on to the next. Basically, I hated doing it. I felt both arrogant for blowing my own trumpet, and terrified my peers would reject me. I got it done during dark spring evenings, sent it off, forgot about it.

Months later, the days had lengthened and there was sunshine again; an email with NTFS in the subject line popped into my inbox, and time stood still while I opened it. The elation of that moment of realising I had become an NTF has stayed with me ever since. 

I cannot overestimate the impact winning an NTF had on my career and life. The decision to apply for an NTF was a significant and deliberate element towards my next professorial application, which succeeded, followed by a successful application for a PVC role a year later. My plan delivered. It more than delivered - there were unanticipated benefits too, which have delighted me.

The first unexpected intrinsic benefit was the positive impact on my confidence which resulted from writing an evidence-led narrative about my career to that point. I now believe the sense that my career had all happened by accident and rather chaotically was a construct, based on not pausing to document my development systematically enough. Putting my NTF application together changed that forever. Nothing in the application was false but it made a narrative where none had existed before, supported by qualitative and quantitative evidence. This radically changed my perception of myself, and this increased self-awareness and confidence are now the prime benefits I refer to when I advocate applying for an NTF to colleagues.

An additional benefit, and perhaps the one I am most grateful for, has been the extent I have been able to support the development of other teachers via the NTF scheme. I have recommended colleagues apply, and been delighted to see them gain national recognition for their work. I also use the structure of the NTF – think about your impact on students, impact on peers, your own growth - to advise teachers at all stages about how to develop their careers. It is robust, effective and easy to understand.

I am profoundly indebted to the NTF scheme, and to all those colleagues who have developed and supported it. I am proud to be part of a community of people who love and value teaching in higher education.


Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Northampton and Professor of Teaching in Higher Education. She is a past Co-Chair of the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA), and is a Fellow of the Leadership Foundation, a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a National Teaching Fellow.

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Applications for a National Teaching Fellowship 2020 close on Wednesday 18 March 2020. Institutions can nominate up to three individuals for the award. Find out more.

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