Loosely-Scientific Interpretations of “The Bathrobe Dream” and Other Common Teacher Nightmares

It’s always been interesting to me that so many teachers report having similar dreams—or, in many cases, similar nightmares. I’ve also always been interested in how our dreams can provide insight into our daytime thoughts; I own a yellowed copy of Tony Crisp’s Dream Dictionary, which I used as a high school student to look up images from my dreams. As an adult, I’ve continued to read articles and watch documentaries on this topic. All of which is to say, I’m not exactly talking to you as a trained psychotherapist over here, but I’d like to think this is more scientific and less woo-woo than it could be for those of you wondering why you have “The Bathrobe Dream” every August. You be the judge.

Dreams about showing up to teach in your bathrobe, or your pajamas, or the clothes you partied in the night before.

Teachers usually report having this dream near the end of summer vacation, or a few nights before the end of any school break. According to the Dream Dictionary, being undressed or under-dressed in a dream represents vulnerability and the fear that one’s weaknesses are exposed. Ragged or inappropriate clothes can represent feelings of inadequacy. All of these relate to the fear that you are unprepared. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are unprepared. It’s more like a subconscious teacher calendar calendar alert saying, “Hey, start thinking about whether you’re ready for your first day back at school!”

Dreams about sleeping through your alarm clock and then continually getting lost on the way to school.

The Dream Dictionary says dreams about being late can mean avoidance of responsibility, but there is also a chance this one can be taken literally: Maybe you really are worried about being late on an important day of school. And, of course, you should be. Even if everything is laid out and ready, you want a head start so you can arrive at school before your earliest student. So, if you wake up sweating from this type of dream, it can never hurt to double-check your alarm clock.

Dreams that the subject or grade level you’re teaching was 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 second graders, it’s natural to worry about any change that will create a new set of tasks and invalidate the effort you’ve put in.

Dreams about students showing 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 feeling responsible for 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.

Dreams about getting 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 instances, teachers report that these “nightmares” can show up as daydreams.

Dreams about having to teach in the school 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. And good luck projecting your voice loud enough for all those kids to hear you—our motor neurons switch off during sleep, including those that control our vocal cords.

Why you shouldn’t lose sleep over these nightmares

Psychologists in the PBS NOVA documentary called What Are Dreams? say that nightmares are our brain’s way of preparing for our imagined worst-case scenarios by showing us an even worse version of that scenario. This applies to many of the scenarios above—after a night of teaching in an L-shaped auditorium with hundreds of mean kids laughing at your bunny slippers, 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.

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Honesty, humor, practical advice, and occasional oversharing, always with the goal of making the week ahead more manageable.