Fake it ’til you make it: the power of visualization

During my graduate program at Temple University, many fellow students became adjunct professors for the extra income. Temple offered a great onboarding and coaching program for the new teachers which we supplemented with the experience we had gained from our prior careers.

Before the first winter break, my colleague shared that he “kept getting all the bad kids”. I was surprised to hear that because I had found my freshmen students respectful. Admittedly, some were more successful than others in the crossing between high school and college and even though I was not quite thirty years old, eighteen seemed awfully young.

My friend was coming from a highly prestigious university in California, where tenured professors regularly taught in flip slops and shorts. I, on the other hand, came from banking and strategy consulting in New York, where interns wore suits. I grew to understand that it was how we were showing up that directly impacted how our students received us.

I had no intention of being their friend, whereas my friend sought to make his classes more accessible by meeting them at their level. He wore shorts and sandals whereas I wore modified suits (because that was most of my wardrobe and I didn’t have money to buy more clothes!). I laid out the rules upfront and gave out very few concessions, he tried to be flexible and understanding of the various issues that affected the students (including, it had to be said, frequent hangovers).

Neither of us came in with a persona – we were just trying to do our best in unfamiliar and nerve-wracking circumstances. Even with set lesson plans and a teaching coach, I walked into my classes every day feeling the way I did when I started a new job. Excited, prepared, under-experienced, a little nervous and intent on doing a good job.

In order to do that, I pictured what a great teacher looked like, how they walked, talked and engaged with the class. When they jumped in to facilitate a discussion and when they let the silence linger. My body didn’t quite know what to do but my brain did so I fashioned a professor’s “suit”. Not her clothes, but her persona. And every morning I taught, I reviewed my lesson plan, got ready and stepped into the “suit”.

Without realizing it, I was visualizing what good looked like. Putting a lot of detail into those suits, adapting them based on what I was learning every day from my students and colleagues and tailoring them to the course itself. I was still “me” but the teacher version of me and it was working. In fact, I won best new teacher of the year, as voted in by the students. This was both unexpected and an honor. But what really impacted me is the look in one student’s eyes when I complimented his unorthodox approach to an assignment. He came to my office hours to tell me he had never been “seen” like that by a teacher before and it changed him. I’ll never forget that.

So maybe “fake it ’til you make it” feels cheap or cliché. What it actually is though is a powerful form of visualization made manifest. You visualize, then you step into the suit and be the thought, then learn and adapt and repeat.

And one day, and before you know it, you become that which you imagined.

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