D is for Dreams

13 02 2011

“I have a recurring ‘teaching dream’, usually on the night before a new teaching semester. I am required to teach a class, but arrive there to find that it is not a square classroom but an L-shaped one, so that I can’t see all the students. Those around the corner are of course doing something else and I am helpless to stop them”.

An article in the New York Times, about dreaming in different languages, reminded me of some data I collected a few years back on the nature of teachers’ dreams – particularly teachers in training. The example above (‘The L-shaped classroom’) is typical.  The (somewhat informal and never published) research was prompted by the following comment in a trainee teacher’s journal:

“Throughout the whole night I dreamt I was making lesson plans, teaching, practising etc. I don’t know if it’s normal, or if I’m going a bit nuts”.

Having had plenty of teaching dreams myself (these days I have conference dreams!), I decided to investigate, and collected a number of dreams, both from trainees on pre-service courses at IH Barcelona, and from the wider world, via online teachers discussion lists.

The study – if you can call it that – subscribed to an ethnographic research tradition that legitimates personal narratives as a means of accessing how student and novice teachers experience and cope with change. As Donald Freeman puts it, “The notion of teachers’ stories is useful and powerful in considerding what teachers know and how their knowledge develops over time” (Freeman 1996, p. 101).  It was also predicated on the belief that, in Kagan’s (1992) words, “the practice of classroom teaching remains forever rooted in personality and experience and that learning to teach requires a journey into the deepest recesses of one’s self-awareness, where failures, fears, and hopes are hidden” (p. 163). Teachers’ dreams seemed but one way of accessing these ‘deeper recesses’.

What I was particularly interested in was the extent to which teachers’ dreams reflected the concerns of both novice and experienced teachers as documented in the literature on teacher development.  Fuller and Bown (1975), for example, found that the concerns of preservice teachers are typically

early concerns about survival. … They are concerned about class control, their mastery of content to be taught, and evaluations by their supervisors. They wonder whether they will ever learn to teach at all. This is a period of great stress (p. 38).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my ‘dream corpus’ displayed similar anxieties. These I categorised as

1. Problem-setting dreams, as when the dreamer dreams incessantly about lesson planning;

2. Rule-breaking dreams, when the dreamer realises he/she is behaving delinquently;

3. Loss of control dreams, where the teacher is incapable of maintaining order; and

4. Role mis-match dreams, where the dreamer’s identity as a teacher is ambiguous or confused, as in this example:

“I dreamed that I was talking to this girl who I was in highschool with, I told her I was going to be a teacher and she just started laughing (What? You! A teacher?) and tried to talk me out of it”.

More experienced teachers also have loss-of-control dreams, but, more typically, dreams about not being prepared, as in this example:

“I suddenly remember that I will begin to teach a class in a few hours that I have totally forgotten about. I have done no preparation at all. I enter the classroom and see a roomful of hostile looking students. They glare at me and begin to chant ‘Teach me teach me’ over and over. I try to come up with an appropriate idea to explain. I explain it and then stare at them. I begin to sweat, and stutter. I can see that they are unimpressed by my ideas.  I usually awaken at this point”.

Other common dream types include dreams about institutional constraints, including getting to class on time:

“I discover that I’m one hour late for class and then I can’t remember which building it’s in, or I’m in the wrong building across campus, or I suddenly realize that classes started the day before and I missed a whole day”.

And, very occasionally, teachers’ dreams are not about their fears at all. Just as the principle underlying the invention of the sewing machine was reputed to have been conceived in a  dream, some dreams are actually creative, as in this example:

“One feedback session, [the teaching practice tutor] made a general suggestion that I incorporate mime into a warmer for a lesson I was preparing. The idea struck me as being interesting, and it burbled around in the back of my mind all that evening. I planned my lesson, and inserted a mime item in the warmer.  As I drifted off to sleep, mimers and mime ideas drifted along with me [and] I woke with the clearest vision of what to do with mime in the warmer. I followed these new ideas in my lesson, and that part of the lesson went like a dream”.


Freeman, D. 1996. ‘Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know’. In Bailey, K., & Nunan, D. (eds.) Voices from the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fuller, F.F., and Bown, O.H. 1975. ‘Becoming a teacher’. In Ryan (ed.) Teacher Education: The 75th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Part II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kagan, D. 1992.  ‘Professional growth among preservice and beginning teachers’. Review of Educational Research 62:2, 129-69.

Illustrations from Alexander, L. 1968. Look, Listen, Learn! London: Longman.



36 responses

13 02 2011

Hi Scott,

As I started reading, I immediately thought of one dream I’ve had several times over the years and wondered if it would be mentioned and, sure enough, dreaming about being late and in the wrong place was there! 🙂

In my dream, I usually wake up late or with little time to spare and then suffer a series of delays as I attempt to get to school. I usually then arrive to find the class is finished or I’m in the wrong place or I haven’t got the necessary materials with me (perhaps I should be trying a more unplugged approach ;)).

Thanks for the post – it’s good to know I’m not the only one!

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

You are definitely not the only one, Dave! It would be interesting to know if people who work in other ‘professions’ are as anxious about being late for — e.g. meetings or consultancies. Or is it something particularly endemic to teaching — the tyranny of the timetable?

13 02 2011
Karenne Sylvester

I’m more of the dream my way to a new way of creating something or teaching something… and sometimes those aren’t just in proper-bed-sleep-dreams but when I’m in the shower or out shopping or even sometimes when my students are chatting with each other then I go into a mini-trance thing where I get the answer on how to take this activity in another direction next… I think many people have already written a lot on the power of the unconscious on the conscious world though… teachers are just humans…

13 02 2011

LOL Been there! As a novice teacher, I used to have the I’m-late and I-haven’t-planned-but-I-have-to-teach-in-10-min dreams over and over again. I’d also have dreams in which I was teaching and nothing would go right. Nowadays, it’s a lot better, though I never sleep well before I take on a new class to teach because the thought of not waking up on time still haunts me.

I couldn’t have imagined these nightmares are a worldwide teacher’s life phenomenon! Thank you for writing this post. 🙂

13 02 2011
Peter Fenton

I’m not sure I should be sharing this with the world but I had quite a surreal dream about teaching recently which chimes with much of what is written above.

I was in a new job in a new school due to teach a group of 6-7 year olds (an age group I had never taught). Despite never having taught this age group before though, I was fairly relaxed in advance of the lesson. However, come the morning of the lesson I realised that I was completely unprepared for it and as the children started streaming into the classroom I started to panic.
I rushed downstairs to the staffroom and vainly searched the teacher’s book for inspiration but nothing was forthcoming. Knowing full well that the children were upstairs eagerly anticipating their first lesson with me and that other teachers were already teaching, I grew more and more anxious.

Then, the bizarre part of my dream happened.

Into the room came a gorilla, which proceeded to stroke me and vie for my attention. I was little bit scared at first but I then realised that the gorilla was in fact not real. It turned out, that it was some kind of robot gorilla with an inbuilt clock that was owned by the school. The gorilla’s function was to gently remind teachers when they were late for a lesson, as the gorilla had been doing to me. I wish I could finish the story and say what happened to the lesson but unfortunately I woke up at that point.

Not quite sure what this dream says about me as a teacher, perhaps it exposes my fear of teaching small children although I’m not sure where the robot gorilla comes into it!

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

The benign staffroom gorilla! This made me laugh out loud — there should be no school without one! Thanks, Peter, for this wonderful piece of self-revelation! 😉

13 02 2011
Karenne Sylvester

LOL… the gorilla, Peter, is you.

He was saying “it’s okay, you can handle anything – you just need to show up and on time, as we all know, 90% of the battle is just being there! Kids, schma-ha, you are SuperPeter!”

Am so pleased I came to see this, you’ve cheered me up on a super sunny Sunday when have to do some work instead of going out for a walk.

13 02 2011

I don’t recall having any dreams on my training, but I have had quite a few dreams since I started working. They tended to follow critique from students that had been brought to my attention. One dream involved the not being able to control the class and my class turned on me and I screamed at them to leave the class. Another one was when I had been told my classes needed more energy, and so succeeded a series of dreams about not having enough games or my class being really bored and I was panicking, thinking “I need to put a game in!” Then the other night I had a dream and I haven’t had any dreams for the last couple of months. It was a planning-related one, although I can’t remember the details. There was a phase where I was dreaming frequently about teaching and I thought I was cracking up.

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

There was a phase where I was dreaming frequently about teaching and I thought I was cracking up.

Which raises the question as to whether dreams simply reflect our ongoing concerns or act as an antidote to defuse them? If we didn’t dream, would we go completely round the twist?!

13 02 2011

Hi Scott and colleagues all,

Another great post Scott. You ought to charge me an entrance fee, coming here is for me like going to Disneyland must be for a 5-year-old. 🙂

I dream nowadays, of students in classrooms, all equipped with netbooks / laptops, interactive whiteboards, and taught by Albert Hubo – a robot. Me, the human teacher, is not even in the dream.

Maybe this dream of mine says I’ve dreamed the dreams of the pre-service teacher, enjoyed the magic musical moments of the expert teacher, and am now being assailed and assaulted by the nightmares of a futuristic, robotic, non-humanistic, humanoid robot named, quite appropriately, Alfred Hubo.

I awake from the nightmarish vision of the future, and ask myself, “Will this happen, here, in Chile, in the next 25 years, before I retire from teaching, at age 75? 🙂 Three-tenths of a second later, after vigorously shaking my head, “No”, and peacefully drifting off yet again to sleep – where two whispering willow trees – named aptly – Korea and Japan – gently blow in the breeze.

By the year 2020, Korea wants to have a robot – in every household.

My dreams would surely be hellish nightmares if I called either of those two competitive, technologically advanced, countries – Korea and Japan – home…


13 02 2011

Hi Scott,

Great post. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who dreams about teaching. I find I dream the most about teaching when I’m not actually teaching. When I am on holiday is when they occur the most.

I normally find myself teaching a lesson, something that’s always worked really well before, but this time it’s not going down well at all. The problem is I don’t stop, don’t change focus or try something better. Before this gets any worse I wake up and never see the end of the lesson. I’m sure it doesn’t end well though. Then I decide it’s time to sit down and come up with some new ideas.

Thomas – a non-humanistic humanoid worries me. I can’t imagine for instance being drilled by a robot. It would make teaching such a mechanical process.

13 02 2011
Graham Stanley

A very interesting post, Scott.

During my first year as a teacher, I had a recurring anxiety dream. It always started with me leaving the flat to go to teach at the railway station (don’t ask me why) and then arriving there and not being able to get in. After trying hard without much success, I would hear laughter and find a window looking down into the classroom. There, the students would all be sitting and learning together and it always puzzled me. I couldn’t see if there was anyone there teaching them, or whether they’d just decided to organise themselves. I then usually decided to sit there and observe or wander back home puzzled, depending on the day.

I’m guessing this was me questioning whether what I was doing was making a difference…something I’m sure every teacher wonders about from time to time.

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Graham — yes this strange displacement whereby a railway station, for example, becomes the classroom is not uncommon in dreams, is it? Or the classroom morphs into something else. I had a “conference dream” recently, when I was shown to my accommodation at the conference centre, and discovered that as well as being a bedroom there was a class going on in it — someone was giving a presentation while I tried to slip discreetly into bed!

14 02 2011
Dennis Newson

Here is a retirement dream. I went back to the university building that had contained my office to give a seminar. I couldn’t open the door. Eventually someone else arrived and opened the door and I followed them in. But I couldn’t find my office. Somehow I saw a secretary’s monitor and caught sight of the telephone. It was new and I hadn’t a clue how to operate it.

14 02 2011
English Raven

You’ve got me worried now, Scott…

I honestly can’t recall a dream about teaching (or classrooms, or anything else).

Does this indicate it doesn’t matter enough to me to enter my subconscious, or am I repressing them???

Find myself constantly thinking about teaching during waking hours, however (including some interesting daydreams). Perhaps I’ve used up all my thinking about it by the time I get to sleep, and/or perhaps I don’t sleep enough for the dreams to take hold…

Very interesting avenue of research and investigation, though!

– J

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi Jason, I’m not sure if you should feel lucky or unlucky not to have had teaching dreams — I don’t think you’re missing anything in terms of the anxiety they generate, but Peter’s “staffroom gorilla” is something I would like to have shared!

14 02 2011
Mr Darkbloom

The anxiety dreams seem to be very common indeed (no real surprise there, I reckon), but I remember dreaming that I actually did ‘the perfect lesson’… It was sublime; couldn’t get any better.

I think I understand that much less than the anxiety dreams, but, damn, it was nice!


15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, dreams of almost supernatural performance ability occur to language learners too – who hasn’t dreamt that they suddenly were speaking French/Spanish/Chinese with amazing fluidity, to the amazement and delight of their interlocutors? I certainly have – and am always terribly disappointed when I wake up!

15 02 2011

My anxiety teaching dreams when I’ve had them in the past tend to be about lack of resources. I’m in the classroom but don’t have what I need e.g. the right photocopies etc… so I’m rushing about trying desperately to get something copied so that I can teach…

I guess if I continue to try an unplugged approach that should hopefully mean that anxiety appears less and less in my dreams!! ;-p

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Haha, Anna – do dogme teachers dream about having too MANY materials? 😉

15 02 2011
Luke Meddings

Scott, I was wondering the same – would our nightmare be having to follow a lesson plan? I recognise much from the above in dreams before talks – and of course the nightmare is – I haven’t prepared! I try and bluff my way through.. desperately winging it.. Peter’s escape to the staffroom is familiar too – looking for something, hoping people are going to stay in class. But no gorilla.

I wonder if it relates to performance – however we actually teach, we are to some extent upfront. I had dreams for years of being in school plays and forgetting the lines. I even had one post-anxiety dream – I was playing the exact same gig, but instead of facing front I was playing right up in the corner with my back to the audience.

Last year I actually enacted an anxiety dream by getting lost on the Reading one-way system ahead of a talk. My sat-nav then malfunctioned, taking me to a Domino’s pizza outlet as the clock struck one. I raced back across Reading like Steve McQueen in Bullitt* and literally ran into the conference centre. Someone later said: ‘that was a great stunt, coming in as if you were late.’

*Ok, like a middle-aged man in a sweat

15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Had you been Peter, there would have been a man in a gorilla suit in the Domino’s pizza outlet, kindly pointing you in the right direction.

15 02 2011

Have to share this one – hadn’t thought about it in a while. I used to dream this when I was teaching three shifts a day- all totally different needs and demands. I would dream I was standing on a raised teacher’s rostrum. In front of me were hundreds of students all staring up at me, waiting. I looked out of the door on my left and saw a stream of students walking out of the classroom and way into the distance; I turned to my right and saw at the other door crowds and crowds pushing and shoving to get into the classroom; the line of people tailing away to the horizon. I looked at the book in my hands as it slowly started to fall apart and the pages drifted to the ground. I would wake profoundly sad.

15 02 2011

Hi, Scott! I think that you touch one of those hidden aspects of teaching that should be object of further study -teacher’s anxiety.

In my case, I have not got to the point of Gorilla-delusions, but somewhere quite near…: wild zombie-like students crawling up to eat my brains -or is this just the catch line of a short story I would like to write some day? 🙂

If I may share a tip here, one of the recurring daydreams or nightmares, or shower-trances as Karenne puts it, is that where, after I have been preparing a class or series of classes through the morning, I go completely blank once I’m in front of the students -and everything goes awry. To have my five seconds of back-to-zen state, at the beginning of the class I write an outline of what we will be doing on the right part of the WB. Thus, I tell Ss, they will be able to track our progress, and I have my 2 minutes to review my notes and the devised activities…

Thanks, again for bringing up such interesting aspects of the teaching practice, Scott.



15 02 2011
Robin Walker

The ‘losing control’ dreams that you describe, Scott, are so familiar. What depresses me a little, perhaps, is that I didn’t get them when I started teaching. I have no recollection of them in my first few years, and, as one post suggested, this begs the question as to how committed I was to ELT in those early years. I thought I was!

But now, with 30 years experience under my belt, these dreams are part and parcel of the more stressed moments of the year, such as right now. In fact, the longer I work in ELT the more aware of its complexity I have become. I was innocent at first, and it felt easy. Now I am supposedly wise and it usually feels a lot harder than it should. The satisfaction when it goes well, however, is inversely proportional to the complexity of the task.


15 02 2011
Thomas Ewens

Yes, I can identify with this. I often dream about classes going badly, and about being stuck with something to say in a class.

But what kind of dreams do those belonging to other occupations have I wonder? Do doctors, for example, dream about being stuck for something to say in front of a patient?

Might be a good Applied Psychology PhD research proposal here.

15 02 2011
Tefl Jobs

I think those sorts of dreams are perfectly natural for teachers. So many dreams are born out of anxiety so it makes sense that the sort of things that might be making teachers anxious subconsciously are appearing in their dreams. Being in front of a class can be nerve racking so its not surprising this manifests for teachers as anxiety ridden dreams.

Best regards,


15 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I agree, Jon, it’s not really surprising, although what I found interesting, initially, is how certain concerns (such as arriving on time, being prepared, maintaining control) seem to predominate over others (having subject knowledge, being comprehensible, achieving results), and how these might change as teachers gain more experience – and more confidence. Robin’s comment (above) that his anxiety seems to have increased in proportion to his understanding of the complexity of teaching/learning (or, perhaps, his own more rigorous standards) would seem to contradict the argument that we get less anxious as we get older!

15 02 2011

During my intensive DELTA I didn’t switch off, it was quite scary, I would be parsing sentences in my dreams and would wake up, scribble things down and then sleep again, wake up, tweak my lesson plan, then sleep again. Complete altered state of reality!

16 02 2011
Willy C Cardoso

really interesting dreams.

when I started teaching in Sao Paulo, I had to wake up at 5am to be at my client’s at 7am (yes, clients, not students or learners, but that’s another story). So, I would dream that I woke up and did all the morning routine and when leaving home I would wake up. Awful — you know, those dreams you dream you’re waking up but you’re still asleep. Very often I was late too in those dreams.

My favorite all time dream is actually the ones I am a student again, in these dreams I find out I didnt actually graduated high school, so I go back and have to face those mega-boring math classes again. The funny thing is that I’m always kinda doped and on underwear only. I still haven’t figured out completely the message behind it. Probably something to do with lobotomy and my school being a cuckoo’s nest.

16 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Willy, the “no pants” syndrome — or worse — has been reported to me by a number of my informants, and seems to be a graphic representation of the vulnerability we experience as teachers — and, it seems, in your case at least, as a learner. Literally exposed to the public eye!

One of my former students, and now a prominent EFL figure in her own right (but I’ll spare her the embarrassment by not outing her!), once told me she had had a dream that she was teaching, and also waiting tables in a restaurant at the same time. To top it all, she then realised that she had forgotten to get dressed. Analyse that!

17 02 2011
Valeria Franca

Hi Scott,

Wow, fascinating dream stories and what a good idea to bring this topic up. Yes, I would have to say I’ve also had loads of dream sequences featuring late arrivals in class, forgetting the topic being taught etc, especially in my first years teaching. But I still get these whenever I face a new teaching/ training situation. I actually think this is a good thing – it helps me keep on my toes and never get blasé about my teaching/training.

So, here is my latest teaching/training dream (this dream came when I started training state school teachers who work in difficult teaching contexts.) I think you´ll like it.

I went into a dark classroom (looked like a state school) full of desks, all lined up (probably about 10 desks per row – those old-fashioned wooden desks with lift-up lid). It was a huge classroom full of ten-year-olds, all facing me and looking distinctly bored. All I had as a teaching resource was a blackboard, quite worn out so that when you wrote on it the letters would look really odd and almost unreadable. And as for chalk, I had one tiny piece of chalk and I knew I wouldn´t have enough.

This irritated me and as the Headmaster walked in I went into a rant about there not being enough resources for the kids. So he told me: “Go and find the resources. Take the lift and get what you need.” So off I went and the lift operator asked me what floor I wanted. I looked at the panel, only odd numbers, so I chose the 3rd floor.

As I stepped out I noticed it was a chocolate factory. In every aisle people were busily wrapping chocolates in bronze-coloured paper. I asked an old man if I could take the chocolate wrapped in bronze shiny paper for the kids. He looked at me and asked, “Are they special?” “Yes, very and they have nothing”, said I. Well, he said, you´ll want the 7th floor then and off he went. Puzzled, I went back into the lift and decided to stop on the 5th floor. On this floor the chocolates were being put into silver boxes and this made me think, well, the 7th floor must then be for something with gold? That’ll do for the kids.

I went back to the lift and asked for the 7th floor. As the lift doors opened I could see the bright light and the shine coming from the gold covered chocolates. It all looked so wonderful and smelt so good. I just stood there taking it all in and as I was about to step out, the lift doors closed and the lift went back down. I remonstrated with the lift operator and all she said to me was, “But you already have all the gold you need, it’s right there in the classroom, you just need to tap into it.”

Now Scott, was this a dogme dream or what????

22 02 2011
Patricia Franco

Hi Scott,

it’s good to know one’s not alone… my recurrent dream is about losing control, well, i actually never have it.. i’m always in from of a group of learners who just ignore me, and there’s no way i can ge anyone’s attention. But I just started a distance TCL Diploma course three weeks ago, and my teaching dreams have gone to a whole new level. My favorite so far: i was stuck in Scrivener’s book (Learning Teaching) and couldn’t get out of it, i mean, i was literally walking through giant words and paper looking for information to start a new assigment and was trapped in the pages and ideas… not a nice dream… and still stuck with my observation assignment…

22 02 2011
Scott Thornbury

I had a trainee ona Diploma course who had a dream that she was playing the piano, and the sheet music that she was playing was called “Five Easy Pieces” – by Henry Widdowson!

Your stuck-inside-Jim Scrivener dream also reminds me of a short story by Woody Allen, in which this Woody Allen-like character invents a machine which transports him into novels, so that he plays a minor role in Madame Bovary, for example. By mistake, he ends up transporting himself into a Spanish grammar, where he spends the rest of his days being pursued by the irregular verb tener.

22 02 2011
Patricia Franco

and i thought my dream was original!… wow a piece by Henry Widdowson… now, that is a d-r-e-a-m…
would love to get a hold of Woody Allen’s story… do you happen to know the name?… i can’t stop laughing …

Anyway, thanks for sharing, and if everything goes as planned, i’ll see you online in March (my dip course is with Oxford Tefl, and according to plan, you’ll be guesting by the end of March), and my stress levels indicate i may have more neurotic-teacher-dreams soon

9 04 2011

Hi Scott,

If only it were just dreams! Before my second assessed lesson for the Delta qualification, my wife awoke to find me pacing around the bedroom and talking about “subskills”. I was sleepwalking – I have no memory of it whatsoever.
I probably need a break.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: