March 17th, 2014

What Can We Learn from Self Doubt?


I would like to be able say of my teaching: this is clearly good; this is clearly not good. I would like to be able to think: I always do things right. I would like to be certain.

I would like to watch exemplary teachers and think: I do that! That’s me! I know exactly what I’m doing! Look how great this class is—mine is just as engaging.

Certainty is comfortable, after all—a soft cushion to sink into and relax.

But I don’t think those things. Instead observation magnifies my self-doubt, self-questioning, constant anxiety. Is this right? Is this good enough? The feeling I get in my stomach immediately after the intense transaction of the class itself is over: I’m not sure.

Observing Exemplary Teachers
As part of my professional development, I observed two classes. They were great classes—the students were learning; the teachers clearly liked the students; the students were engaged; the teachers were prepared. I could see the correctness of the structure, methods, and atmosphere. First-year students worked together to understand a Browning poem and, despite its complexity, recognized and named pathetic fallacy, enjambment, and misogyny. I was impressed. I could see their learning; it was clear, concrete. And, it felt good to be in the classroom. Comfortable.

Except that …

It felt terrible. The more certain I was that these classes were good and right, the more doubtful I became about my own classes. This was not general anxiety. I could see myself in many of the positive things I observed, and was grateful and encouraged by that; but deep anxieties were invoked in me around a single aspect of each class—in the first, the teacher’s expertise, in the second, the teacher’s self-awareness.

Observation 1: Expertise
It seemed to me the teaching I witnessed in the first class was a realization of two metaphors, images that arose naturally from the class process:

The teacher’s expertise is a stone foundation on which the students’ knowledge and understanding is built.

The teacher’s expertise is a rope that weaves in and out of the learning to make a net that keeps everything together. It pulls back in the students who begin to drift away.

Both of these metaphors suggest security, but more importantly, its corollary, trust.

And here is my worry: Do my students trust me in this way?

And worse: Do I trust myself?

Observation 2: Self-Awareness
It is one thing to be aware of one’s own subjectivity, and the impossibility of perfect understanding of the other, of the impossibility of objectivity in a world, school, or classroom marked by a multitude of diversities.

It is another thing entirely to try to overcome the inevitability of subjectivity, to try and put one’s own feelings aside, and be open to multiple perspectives at once, without judging.

The second teacher I observed did that—except for a single moment in which she drew attention to her own bias, so that her students could recognize it for what it was, and not mistake it for an absolute and objective truth.

Am I as self-aware?

Am I fair? Am I truly empathetic? Do I always seek to understand and not impose my beliefs on my students?

These questions are frightening to me. Destabilizing.

I hope that I don’t impose my beliefs on my students; but I’m not sure.

And I’m not sure how it works. What about authenticity? What about modeling? What about morality?

That Creeping Self Doubt
All of this introspection and contemplation leads me to question further. To get to the real the heart of it all, the thing that bothers me most: What’s good about my self doubt?

Shouldn’t I believe in myself? Be confident? Shouldn’t I trust that I know what to do and how to do it? Don’t my students depend on it?


And no. (There it is again.)

Certainty is comfortable, restful, and stabilizing for my students and me. But it is also sleepy and sluggish. Sometimes worse: arrogant and inflexible.

And to be honest, for me, it is often an impossible state. I just don’t work that way. I’m just not certain about my teaching, even about myself—at least, not as often as people may think.

But here’s what I’ve learned: my self-doubt is sometimes painful and scary, but it is also a source of my energy, engagement, and growth because it leads me to questions I can try to answer and answers I can try to change.

Observing others gave me a deeper feeling of insecurity about my teaching, but I have also formulated clear questions that I can work toward answering: Do I have and demonstrate expertise? How will I increase it? How will I use it to support my students and engender their trust? Do I truly honor my students’ backgrounds and beliefs? How will I do that in a framework that is both ethical and authentic?

And the question I have begun to approach here: What’s good about my self doubt?

Nicola Winstanley is a full-time faculty member in the media studies and information technology department at Humber College, a polytechnic in Toronto, Ontario.

  • Ketsana

    Being Self-Aware and having Expertise-wow! How can anyone help but have some self-doubt sometimes.

    "But here’s what I’ve learned: my self-doubt is sometimes painful and scary, but it is also a source of my energy, engagement, and growth because it leads me to questions I can try to answer and answers I can try to change."

    I feel as you do that my self-doubt moves me to grow and change, to be and get better…on a personal and professional level.
    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • shahida parveen

      we will have to find out our doubts about teaching and then try to remove these doubts with self reflection and focus on individual differences then we can engage our stds in learning environment, so they can be motivated for more learning.when my students are enjoying learning then my energy level is very high,and I feel self satisfaction

  • Jane Brooks

    Thank you Nicola, for this honest and thoughtful post!

    What is good about your self-doubt? Because, if it is a reasonable dose, and not crippling, it IS good; actually more than that, it is essential! It gives you the room to inquire, to seek and to grow. Without self-doubt we would become complacent, stale — and stuck.

    Greetings, Jane

  • Phil

    Nicola, Excellent piece! I doubt myself often, but believe curiosity is a virtue not a curse. I have come to the realization curiosity leads to creativity, which is where I want to spend most of my time. I sometimes struggle to get out of the comfort zone and get more in to the uncertainty of doubting myself, but I push myself to do so.__Phil

  • Kim R. Marshall

    Thanks for all these great post, it feels good to know I'm not the only one doubting myself. I have gotten to the point of doubting myself so much until I asked God was it time for me to move on to another profession, I then realized that I am my own worst enemy and doubt is not so bad, not to mention it keeps you on your toes.


  • shahida parveen

    if we want to move forward then we have to walk with our doubts and these doubts are must to create something new these doubts are behind every theoraticle thinking. Nicola credit goes to u. that we start thinking on selfdoubts.and now no need to cover these doubts but highlight them to try to satisfy them

  • shahida parveen

    individual differences among stds are required to tackle them with carefully.these may be caused to create self doubts in teachers

  • William Leslie

    Self doubt is a two edged sword. We should always be open to the fact that our weaknesses permeate our behavior, including our job which, in my case, is teaching philosophy. But we wouldn't want self doubt to be so debilitating that we retreat or quit. I wonder if anyone not plagued by sel doubt could be on the cutting edge of their growth in anything that matters.

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