I’m a believer that images from a night’s sleep can provide insight into daytime thoughts, so it’s always been interesting to me that so many teachers report having similar dreams — or, in many cases, similar nightmares.
With the help of my yellowed copy of Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary and conversations with a few colleagues, I’ve prepared a completely unscientific, non-research-based guide to images from common teacher nightmares. Don’t be surprised if you recognize some of the scenarios below.
You show up to work in a bathrobe/your pajamas/the clothes you went out in last night. Teachers usually report having this dream not only in August, but a few nights before the end of any break. According to the Dream Dictionary, being undressed in a dream represents vulnerability and the fear that one’s weaknesses are exposed. Ragged or inappropriate clothes can represent feelings of inadequacy. Both of these relate to the fear that you are unprepared. Whatever you are — or aren’t — wearing in this type of dream, it’s probably your inner teacher clock saying, “Hey, start thinking about whether you’re ready for your first day back!”
You are already running late. Then you get lost on your way to school.
The Dream Dictionary says dreams about being late can mean avoidance of responsibility, but there is a chance that this one can be taken literally: Maybe you are scared of being late on an important day of school. And of course you should be. Even if you’re sure everything is laid out as you want it, you want a head start so you can be there before your first early-bird student.
Your subject or grade level has been changed at the last minute. Teaching requires lots of advanced preparation, but also the flexibility to deal with last-minute changes. It can be tough to deal with this contradiction. After all that work setting up a hands-on science center for your 2nd graders, it’s natural to worry about a sudden change to your teaching assignment.
Students show up at your house. This dream is most likely to occur right after you hit the snooze button. It involves a group of students showing up at your house, sometimes coming inside to help themselves to bowls of cereal from your kitchen cabinets while you try to think of something to keep them busy. This dream is probably a sign that you’re worrying about your students even when you’re not at school. It’s also probably your subconscious telling you that when your alarm rings a second time, you better not hit snooze.
You are in a physical fight with a student, fellow teacher, or administrator. On a figurative level, fight dreams can express your desire to defend your honor, values, or personal space. Other interpretations are more straightforward: Violent dreams can show anger, frustration, or even a genuine desire to hurt the colleague who stole your lunch from the teachers’ lounge, the administrator who criticized you in front of your students, or the kid who WON’T STOP TAPPING HIS PEN WHILE YOU ARE TRYING TO GIVE DIRECTIONS. In fact, in some cases, teachers report that these “nightmares” can show up as daydreams.
Your classroom is in the cafeteria, an open field, or an irregularly shaped room where you can’t see all of your students, and they can’t hear anything you say.
This is unfortunate, because you often have about 250 students in this type of dream, including every bad kid you’ve ever seen, and even bullies from your own school days. Psychologists in a documentary called “What Are Dreams?” say that nightmares are our brain’s way of preparing for situations even worse than our worst-case scenario. This applies here: After spending the night imagining an L-shaped auditorium with hundreds of children, your rectangular class of 30 should seem a little less scary.
Even your worst nightmares are just your brain doing its thing to help you become a better teacher. That should be reason enough to get a full night’s sleep whenever possible. If not, remember that dealing with 30 kids on only a few hours of sleep really can be a nightmare.
Podcasts About Teacher Dreams
This post has led to a couple of great podcasts on the same subject. Here are descriptions of both so you know where to start.
Education Talk Radio – A 40-minute conversation about teacher dreams and a few other subjects with the very funny Larry Jacobs. (I call him the Marc Maron of education interviewing.)