By Peter Hill
Peter Hill was born in Vancouver and taught English for 30 years in the public system. Before teaching, he was a musician in Quebec, but got scared and came home to become a teacher. His Masters and PhD are from the University of British Columbia, and his dissertation is entitled, “Portrait of a Teacher: Stories that won’t go away.” He teaches part time in the Faculty of Education at UBC.
Actors often have dreams where they forget their lines on stage. University students sometimes dream of running around campus not knowing where the final exam is taking place. And, many teachers have “Out-of-control-classroom” dreams. I’ve had them. Many teachers I know have had them, too. Over the years, I’ve written some of these dreams down. Here’s one I wrote after waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
I am in front of a class of 30 students. It is early in the year and I’m trying to conduct a reading quiz. They are a younger group—perhaps Grade 9 or 10. They are mostly boys. They have the energy of Grade 9s and they clearly don’t want to listen to me. I tell them there will be a quiz and that they should take out a piece of paper to write down their answers. There is a wave of excitement as they look around to see who is going to challenge me first. They know each other. They know they have the reputation as a badass class.
I tell them to keep their eyes on their own papers, but, right away, one boy turns around and talks to another. I feel I must act. I go to the boy and crumple up his paper. I decide to make him an example. He is shocked and so are those around him. "I told you to keep your eyes on your own paper,” I say in a loud voice.
He won’t back down, "But you can’t do that. I was just asking for an eraser.”
“Yes I can,” I say. Other students start to join in the clamour and I tell them I’ll crumple their papers up too. The first boy continues to yell, and I tell him to get out of the classroom. He stands reluctantly and I tell him to sit outside until I have time to see him. The class is in an uproar. Students are talking everywhere.
I tell them the quiz will continue and that they should keep their eyes on their own papers. Another boy turns to talk to his friend and I go over and crumple up his paper. By now, all the students are yelling at me, “That’s not fair; you didn’t give us time.” I send the second boy outside.
As I open the door, I see the first boy’s parents are there and speaking to their son. How did they get here so fast?
He is crying and saying he’s been sent out of the class for no reason. Another teacher comes by and asks what the problem is . . . What business is it of hers? She is talking to the parents. I turn back to the class and start frantically grabbing papers and tearing them up.
I wake up, my heart beating fast. 2:35 a.m.
I’ve had dreams like this more times than I care to remember. I don't have them every night, but I’ve had them at least once a month. What do they mean? Why do they persist? It’s clear from the dream above that it has something to do with control and, whether we like it or not, control is an important part of teaching. If you don’t believe me, try standing in front of 30 grade nines for eighty minutes four times a day.
I wouldn’t say I was the most out-of-control teacher. I wanted my classes to have a kind of controlled freedom. I was able to get my students’ attention if I needed it, but I also liked my classes to be lively. I wanted my students to be active at some point in the lesson, either rehearsing scenes, or drawing maps or doing group work. But no scissors thrown across the room: no rehearsing Shakespeare in front of another teacher’s door.
It takes some control to ensure that a lively class doesn’t get out of hand. In my teacher-training days they used to say, “structure is freeing.” This implies that students can soar to the heights of academic freedom given the right structure. With this in mind, I tried to keep my students on a loose leash. So, although my classes rarely got out of hand in the real world, they could get wild in my dream world.
I’m sure there are teachers out there that don’t know what I’m talking about. Good for them; they are blessed. But I’ve heard enough out-of-control-classroom dreams from teachers to know they do exist. It’s an occupational hazard for some of us.
Here are a couple of stories from fellow teachers who prefer to remain anonymous for reasons that will soon become obvious.
Often the dream begins with me having difficulty finding my class. I've either forgotten where the classroom is or forgotten I'm slated to teach that class. When I arrive, I can't get their attention. I get increasingly agitated trying to get them to quiet down. Usually there is a ringleader, and I direct my anger at them. They oppose me, which sends me into a rage. I square off with that student, screaming in his face and threatening him. I kick him out and just generally lose my mind. I don't hit him, but I do cross the line screaming and carrying on. I have the biggest stress reaction during these dreams. I'll wake up upset and sweating.
Another teacher actually admits to becoming violent in her dreams.
I haven't had one like this in a few months, but whenever I do, it always ends with me pummeling a student in a blind rage. Immediately after the beating, I think, "Oh god, what have I done? I'm going to lose my career and end up on Global News and everyone will know!" Often there's a time afterward where I try unsuccessfully to convince the injured child not to go to the authorities. It's always the most intense feeling of relief when I wake up in my bed, not having slugged one of my students!
These are from two nice teachers in their mid- thirties. What is it about teaching that turns caring professionals by day into violent control freaks at night? I think it is the relentlessness of the job. On any given day a teacher is confronted with waves of students, parents, administrators and fellow teachers. But how does this turn into such angst? A theory put forward by one of the contributors above is that we operate under a thin veneer of authority. Teachers are like the aristocracy before the French Revolution began. Things are fine if the population is passive, but if they decide to revolt - look out! This precarious position plays on the teacher’s mind at night.
Another teacher used the “out-of-control-classroom” dream as her justification for taking the summer off. “You still have those dreams in the first two weeks of July; then they stop between mid-July to mid-August, and it’s heaven. Then the dreams start again in mid-August as you get ready for September and stay with you the rest of the year.”
One would think that the more experienced a teacher becomes, the less s/he needs to worry about control. Not necessarily so. The experienced teacher is more attuned to the irregularities that appear on any given day, like the drive-by parent or the lost digital essay. But in some ways, the more one anticipates curve balls, the tighter one’s practise becomes. The teacher becomes more proficient at putting out fires, but this comes at a cost; s/he also becomes hyper-vigilant.
And teachers aren’t the only ones that are more uptight these days. Students are more worried about their grades and will try almost anything to get a better mark. This means assessment has become more controlled, if not paranoid.
All these “things” lead to teachers who seem capable of handling problems by day incapable of dealing with them at night. In dreams, the world backs up on you and reappears in unsettling ways. The dreams don’t get better as you get older; in some cases, they get worse.
I kept a small diary of my last year of teaching and wrote down the following dream.
I’m in front of what seems to be 45 students. A student at the front of the class is trying to respond to a question I’ve asked, but I can't hear her for all the chatter at the back. So I move toward the middle of this enormous room and ask the student to speak up. Then I ask the other students to pipe down, but I still can't hear her. I have to prove my authority, my ability to control the classroom. I tell them I'm getting pissed off because no one is listening. The classroom itself seems to be getting bigger before my eyes. I move to the back of the room and raise my voice to try to take in all the students.
Suddenly, there's another teacher in the class with long white hair. He is teaching an art class in a corner of the room that seems almost like an alcove. I wonder why I’m telling my class to be quiet if another teacher is teaching other students in the same room. He smiles at me benignly as I tell my class I’m bothered by their chatter. I still can't hear the girl at the front. My heart is pounding. Then I wake up. Not in a classroom. In a bed. That classroom is gone. Those students are gone. That fear is gone. That need for control is gone.
I hoped these dreams would stop when I retired from high school. They haven’t. The dreams are less frequent - maybe once every two months, but they still trouble me. These days I teach part-time at the university. Surely, my need to control the classroom is gone. Not really. Here’s the dream I had last night.
I am starting the first class of the term with 30 education students. I look around the room and see a former high school student of mine who was busted in the Stanley Cup riots. What is he doing in my class? Oh well, I’ll impress him with my new professor-like erudition and sense of social justice. The class that finished before mine had an opening day party (who does that?) and there are marvelous baked goods still on the table. “Help yourself,” the professor from the previous class says.
There aren’t enough goodies for everyone, so I suggest we each take half. But some students don’t. I can see two young men picking up an entire Danish and laughing. My high school instincts kick in. I walk up to one, tell him to cut it in half and give me the other half. Then I do the same to the other student. I must make them realize they are no longer in high school, but are entering a profession that is based on fairness and social responsibility. Then I realize I have two halves. My students notice that I’m not following my own rules and they start griping. I imagine all this will go in the course evaluation…AHHHH!!! Then I wake up, my heart beating.
After reading these dreams, I accept that this might all be my fault and that I have a problem with control. My wife keeps telling me this is true. She says it stems from my Catholic upbringing where I was taught concepts like “right” and “wrong” and “equality;” and, it’s because of my belief in the veracity of these concepts that my dreams get hijacked by people that don’t seem to agree. She may be right. But that can’t be true for everyone plagued with these dreams; we can’t all be recovering Catholics.
Sometimes, real classrooms can be as chaotic as these dreams; eventually, things settle down in the classroom. But the dreams don’t. They go on and on. In the old days, if the dream were scary enough, I’d stay awake and plan what to teach later that day. Then I’d get up and go to work. The night and all its strange actors had faded and the sleeplessness of a new day would begin.