I begin teaching a quarter-long seminar in two weeks. I have been teaching youth and adults for nearly forty years. I am turning 78 next month. And I have had dreams of walking into class unprepared and discussions falling flat; of students walking out of my class. How can that be?
First, I am not the first nor last teacher to have anxiety-ridden dream. Artist and long-time teacher Eric Baylin wrote a song about teacher anxiety cresting at the end of the summer when students return to school. Here are two stanzas of that song:
I dream I can’t control my class. Oh, me! Oh, my!
They laugh; they jeer; and I’m about to cry, to cry.
I wake up with this awful fear
I might have chosen the wrong career.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.
They’re coming to my classroom to evaluate;
They’ll see through me and realize that I’m not so great.
I hear them whispering in the hall.
I see the writing on the wall.
Teachers have anxiety in the fall.
Or listen to teacher Peggy Woods:
It’s the first day of classes. I go to my class. The students are all there sitting quietly looking at me. I put my bag on top of the teacher’s desk and begin taking my stuff out. I take out my pen, my grade book, the class roster, and my lesson planning book. I look in my bag, but I don’t see the syllabus. I look again. I know I made copies of the syllabus. I’m supposed to give it out and go over it with the students. I look in my bag again. The copies I made aren’t there. I begin to panic. Did I leave the syllabus on my desk? Did I drop the copies in the hallway on my way to class? Did I leave the copies home? I look in my bag again. The syllabus still isn’t there. I look out at the students. They are all staring at me. What am I going to do??
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t have the syllabus.”
The students stand up.
“What are you doing?” I say. The students don’t say anything. They just stand there.
“Sit down,” I say beginning to panic. They don’t. “Please,” I plead. “Please sit down.”
“We don’t have to listen to you,” a student yells at me.
“We don’t have to do what you tell us to do,” another student shouts.
“Sit down,” I shout back. The students start moving towards the door. “Where are you going?” I shout. “What are you doing?” I shout louder. “Come back here….”
And then I wake up.
So common among teachers, these dreams keep many teachers sleepless especially in the days before school begins.
Second, teachers are not the only ones whose worries surface in dreams.
Doctors do also.
For me, however, it is puzzling. I am a grizzled veteran of the classroom not a new teacher struggling to manage a class and deliver lessons that engage my students. Nor am I working in a poverty-impacted school; I am fortunate to work in well-endowed surroundings with strong graduate students who elect to take my seminar. Finally, I do not work under district, state, and federal accountability pressures to have my students score well on high-stakes standardized tests.
So why does a seasoned professional, a veteran of decades in practicing the art and craft of teaching still gets nervous and dream of doing poorly in an upcoming seminar?
Part of an answer comes being in an helping profession. Teachers, psychotherapists, doctors, social workers, and nurses use their expertise to transform minds, develop skills, deepen insights, cope with feelings and mend bodily ills. In doing so, these helping professions share similar predicaments.
*Expertise is never enough. An experienced primary care physician facing a chain-smoking patient knows that this high risk behavior often leads to lung cancer—even the patient knows that—yet the doctor’s knowledge and skills are insufficient to get the private equity fund CEO to quit.
Some high school teachers of science with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics believe that lessons should be inquiry driven and filled with hands-on experiences while other colleagues, also with advanced degrees, differ. They argue that naïve and uninformed students must absorb the basic principles of biology, chemistry, and physics through rigorous study before they do any “real world” work in class.
In one case, there is insufficient know-how to stop a patient from smoking and, in the other instance, knowledgeable science teachers split over how students can best learn science. As important as expertise is to helping professionals, it falls short for not only the reasons stated above but also because these professionals depend upon their clients, patients, and students to learn and become knowledgeable, healthier people.
*Helping professionals are dependent upon their clients’ cooperation. While doctors can affect a patient’s motivation, if that patient is emotionally depressed, is resistant to recommended treatments, or uncommitted to getting healthy by ignoring prescribed medications the physician is stuck.
Teachers at all levels of schooling depend upon students to respond to lessons and learn. Some students, however, are unwilling to participate in lessons. Some defy the teacher’s authority or are uncommitted to learning what the teacher teaches. Teachers, then, have to figure out what to do in the face of students’ passivity or active resistance.
These predicaments facing even veteran teachers like me mean that all of my knowledge, all of my experience may be insufficient to strike gold in a lesson because I am dependent upon my students. I cannot predict what students will do when I teach. Every time I teach, I have to perform with the fore-knowledge that I may stumble and fall. And that may be why my worries show up in dreams even now.