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”.

References:

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.