Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

High (School) Anxiety

Bob Greenman is an award-winning educator who spent 30 years in Brooklyn, New York teaching English and journalism at the high school and college level, as well as advising student publications. Despite Bob's long and distinguished career, even he could experience anxiety dreams about teaching.

This is the dream. I've been invited to teach a lesson to a fifth-grade class in a Brooklyn elementary school with an entire population of African-American children. It's about a 15-minute drive from my home. Prior to the day of my lesson, I visit the school and sit in on a class  of pleasant kids and their male teacher, a black man in a suit and tie. Suddenly, the teaching day arrives, I'm driving my car, and I realize I have no lesson prepared.

The lesson I'd planned to teach included reading to the class from an African-American-oriented general audience magazine, like Ebony, and then discussing the article with them. But I hadn't bought a magazine and found something to teach from it, nor made copies of the article to distribute to the class, much less created a lesson based on it.

I discover my unpreparedness when I'm close to the school (a vague distance in the dream) and therefore have to still find the magazine article, go home and dress. (Why do I have to go home and dress, if I'm already driving to school? Because this is an anxiety dream, that's why.) I realize, though, that I can't get to the school unless I take a taxi from my house after I get dressed. Why a taxi and not the car I am now driving? Repeat after me, please: This is an anxiety dream, etc., etc.

Still, no magazine, no article, no lesson plan. And the class begins in 15 minutes.

And still, I'm on my way home. But now I'm walking, and from a different direction than I should be coming from. (Why no more taxi? Need you ask?) I turn right and into a triangular, dirt-filled empty lot, its apex pointing toward Bedford Avenue, where my house is. Although in the dream the empty lot's surface is bare dirt, in real life it's not empty at all but occupied by a gas station and a six-story apartment house.

I look at my watch. It's eight-thirty, the time the class begins. I'm on Bedford Avenue but I still have blocks to go before I reach my house. Then I must get dressed and find a taxi, a rare vehicle in my neighborhood. Then there's the drive to school. And I still have no magazine, no copies of the article to distribute and no lesson plan. Strange thing is, that although this is an anxiety dream, I feel little anxiety; it's a pretty emotionless dream, in fact, and not at all a nightmare; just a dream filled with frustration, in which I know I must accomplish the impossible.

I am not going to get to that classroom on time, and knowing at that moment in my dream that I am dreaming, I wake up.

It's 6:30 a.m. and I can't get back to sleep. Scattered on the desk in my apartment office are the pages of plans that I had been working on the night before as I prepared for the high school journalism workshop class I would teach the following week at Columbia University — six intensive days of reporting and editing assignments, discussions, readings — a total of 26 busy yet enjoyable classroom hours with bright, motivated kids; and about 12 evening hours by myself, marking their assignments. Obviously, this workshop spurred my anxiety dream. I left the proof of that right there on my desk. But why the dream? I've taught this weeklong class of 20 or so students for 28 years and feel no anxiety about it; well, not consciously, at least. I'm adding some new content, and, as always, updating previous material. But dreams reflect something.

On my computer, I write down the dream quickly, lest my wife knock on the door after awakening and put me in the company of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, after awakening one morning and writing 54 lines of a much longer poem he had just dreamt, was interrupted by a knock on his door from a visitor and lost the memory of any further lines of the poem that we now know as "Kubla Khan."  Of course, Coleridge dreamed his dream after smoking opium and I dreamed mine after a fudge brownie.

I've told you all I remember of this dream, but this wasn't my first. During my 30-year classroom teaching career, I've had many like it:

I enter a noisy classroom. In real life, the class usually quiets down. In the dream, the talking continues, as though I'm not there. I say, "May I have your attention, please?" as I do in my real classroom, but the talking goes on. In my real classroom, if I was already in the room as the class entered, and it was time to start the lesson, I'd stand, and without raising my voice but loud enough for everyone to hear, I'd say, "May I have your attention, please?" and I'd get it. Or, I'd gently tap my wedding-band finger against my desk — tap, tap, tap — and there'd be quiet,  followed by my "Good morning," or "Good afternoon." 

But not the dream kids. They don't stop. They don't look at me. They don't hear me. I don't exist. I raise my voice louder and louder. I begin shouting, then screaming in frustration and anger, but still nobody hears me. I wake myself up.

Another dream. It's my first day at a new school and I can't find my classroom. I'm not looking for a specific room number, just a room that I will know is the room I'm looking for — logical enough, in a dream. I walk down one hallway, then another, as students pass me on their way to classes. I ask for no help. I simply have a room to go to and can't find it. On and on and on. I wake myself up.

Or, I just brought my class down to an assembly program in the auditorium and directed them to their seats, but have now lost them. I walk down the aisle, searching row after row. As everyone stands for the "Pledge of Allegiance," I'm still looking for my class in the thousand-seat room. They must be here, I'm thinking, I just brought them here. But they're not.

Or, it's the first day of classes, and I stop at the bookroom to ask for a set of the novel my class will be reading. But I'm told there are none with the title I request. In fact, I'm told there is no such book.

Where does this come from? In my real-life teaching world, I never went to school without lessons prepared; and, fortunately, my department chairpeople never required that I hand in, for their approval, two-weeks of lesson plans in advance, as chairpeople did in many other schools, and in other departments in my own school. (In New York City's public schools, which may have as many as 200 teachers, classroom lessons are not only observed by the principal but by the departments' chairpeople. Former teachers of the subject they now supervise, they are licensed members of the school's administration. Each observation is followed a day or two later by a meeting to discuss the lesson, and a report describing and commenting on the lesson — which is rated "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" — is signed by the teacher and placed in the teacher's file.) 

I never had trouble quieting a class, always found my way to classrooms easily, and never lost a class in the auditorium — or anywhere else, for that matter. Yet these dreams occurred again and again throughout my teaching career.

Did they feed off of my insecurities? Were they — and are they still — messages from my unconscious reminding me to be conscientious? Is my dreamworld's maddeningly insensible classroom of non-stop talking kids telegraphing, "Greenman, if you don't want to be ignored, be prepared"? Does what I consider an ingrained sense of responsibility actually result from an ever-present unconscious prodding that rises occasionally to a conscious dream surface to remind me how close I am to irresponsible, unprofessional and cavalier behavior — "Hey kids, no lesson today, you can just talk. And you know what? No books, either. And if you don't mind, I'm going for a walk around the building and I just might not be back. See ya!"


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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday July 13th 2011, 10:17 AM
Comment by: Wightly (Frederick, MD)
Well put! How clearly you have laid out the disjointed thread of a dream. How true your conclusions feel. Possibilities—makes me think of how my toes tingle when I stand at the edge of a high drop-off—or the chill I have felt learning that someone I love just missed slamming into death. I often focus on how all the odd bits get into dreams. Thanks for reminding me that there is sometimes a thread running through.
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 11:08 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
I always read Mr. Greenman's writings with high interest and did this time also.
I'm so pleased and fascinated that I could not avoid writing this response.
Core message here is "preparation"-that always makes people's life easier and successful. It reminded me of my experiences of classroom teaching where I entered without the full sketch of how I will present my lessons in front of the students.
Thank you so much for this type of easy touching articles.
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 12:00 PM
Comment by: harvey B. (new york, NY)
Bob really catches that tooth-grinding, neck-tightening tension I often feel when dreaming the night before a big work presentation or event. My very scary 4th-grade teacher (Mrs. Kloure, whose name was universally pronounced by her 9 year-olds as "Claw")sometimes shows up in these nocturnal meanderings to reinforce my sense of helplessness. I suspect that her consistent expressions of disapproval, along with a total paucity of positive feedback for her young scholars, stays with me to this day.

Too bad we didn't have an elementary school version of Bob Greenman back in the Bronx in 1960!
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 2:15 PM
Comment by: Carolyn S. (Englewood, OH)
I've been retired from teaching high school English for 15 years and still occasoinally have very similar dreams. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one.
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 7:56 PM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
Interesting. I ask my teacher friends here (Wanganui, New Zealand) if they have bad dreams. Not many are prepared to comment, so to see this makes my day. as the run to the final art folios are in process I am constantly plagued by nightmares (I am an art teacher), as I try to fix the variety of problems my students have in their art work. Sometimes a solution appears, but often not. I wake at 2 to 3 pm and the rest of the evening is shot through. Opps, sorry I dont get back to sleep.
My answer is to get up and work, get a half hours shut eye during the day and carry on. It is good to see others love their work so much too.
Wednesday July 13th 2011, 10:45 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
So well-written, and so true to life!
Sunday July 17th 2011, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Tom C. (Marina, CA)
Well written and applied! Anxiety is similar to the weed killer, Round Up, which finds its way to the root of the plant and eventually kills it. Dreams can be weird but also revealing that which we fear most.
Monday July 18th 2011, 8:00 AM
Comment by: Hopping for Philology (MI)
As a veteran classroom teacher, I've never started a new school year without at least one whopping 'pre-school nightmare.' I would be hard pressed to find a colleague who hasn't suffered from this phenomenon. Perhaps suffered isn't the right word. Mo from New Zealand commented "It is good to see others love their work so much too." Perhaps the dreams are a sign of dedication to a job. I decided long ago that if I ever begin a school year without one of these weird anxiety dreams, that it would be my last - that somehow, without the dreams, the new year isn't important.

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