Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Nightmares

I have had a couple of conversations with teachers lately about nightmares--those anxiety dreams that many teachers seem to experience around the beginning of the school year. Underdressed, underequipped, and certainly underprepared, the dreamer finds himself or herself "on" in a situation, often but not always school-like, from which there is no escape and in which the audience can deliver summary judgment.

Several cycles of these anxiety dreams had passed through my consciousness before a chance comment by a colleague taught me that they are nearly universal among teachers, young and old. I found this quite reassuring, and now that we are in an era when sharing at least some of our worries is allowed, I've decided to treat my own pre-school nightmares as old friends who reappear on cue each August and whom I share with fellow teachers around the world. In time they drift off, perhaps enjoying an eleven-month vacation before returning to work. (Or perhaps it's not that long, as I suppose that the school year must be starting somewhere almost every day.)

For some teachers, however, the anxieties don't diminish, and the nightmares haunt their working days. I'm in correspondence now with a veteran teacher in his first year at a new school who is finding every day to be just such an experience. Feeling un-oriented, un-noticed, and un-appreciated, this teacher lives in a world in which every word feels as though it might be the thing that "gets me fired." The students have discovered that they can go to the teacher's supervisor and complain about the teacher's manner, standards, words, and even choice of materials, and that the supervisor's response--or lack of one--can unsettle the teacher. "Every day is hell," says the teacher. I suspect, from our conversations, that the teacher has retreated to a place in which instead of teaching each class, he is play-acting the role of teacher in the hope of getting the lines right to please the audience.

It's no way to live, and we have probably all been there: that period when something real or not quite so real seems to loom over our work to the point that we feel like Emily Dickinson's poetic persona stepping "from plank to plank, a slow and cautious way" and not knowing whether "the next would be [our] final inch." We're good people, and we're trying our hardest, but someone has questioned our work, fairly or unfairly, and dread fills the pits of our well-meaning stomachs and eats at our well-intentioned souls. In time something happens to reassure us, and we return to more optimistic attitudes and cheerier ways.

The living nightmare is probably a combination of things, at least some of which stem from schools' willingness to permit rumor or innuendo to linger when clarity and support would ameliorate matters quickly and effectively. The teacher may be spinning within his own unhealthy response to anxieties, but anxiety is a product of uncertainty: What are the norms and expectations of this institution's culture, and will I ultimately be supported and helped or just left to twist in the wind?

Three things, I think, would help my friend. The first would be a more focused and intentional indoctrination as to the ways and mores of the school; it's late, perhaps, but not too late, for a friendly mentor--a mentor whose belief in the both teacher and in teaching itself is strong--to help the teacher through this period with some thoughtful listening, advice, and affection.

The second would be evidence that the school is listening not just to the students but working to help the teacher and the students alike to bring their expectations into alignment . It's likely the teacher, lacking much in the way of aims and materials for the course he has been handed, has goofed, and students sometimes take our goofs as evidence of incompetence or even apathy. It is someone's job to sort this out, redirect the teacher, and assure the students that the teacher is working hard on their behalf.

The third lies with the teacher. After finding myself frozen with fear during the first couple of weeks at a new school many years ago, I was finally brought back by a loved one's sharp reminder to "Be yourself!" Like my friend, I had been trying to channel every teacher or teacher character I had ever known, no doubt becoming more inauthentic and more untethered in my work every day. It's a wonder my students--who had been gentle and supportive from get-go--hadn't eaten me alive. In retrospect I hope they at least got some pleasure in imitating my "teacher voice."

So my friend, like all good teachers, must remember to remain true to the sources of strength and individuality in his character that have made him a great teacher and a great person. He needs to dig deep for the sources of confidence and self that have working for him for four decades already and to approach his students as trusted colleagues and his new colleagues as friends and supports. He needs to be himself, the person who is a teacher and not the person playing a teacher.

In time I hope his waking nightmares will end and that he will rejoin the rest of us in a world in which anxiety dreams come only at night as "nature's way" of reminding us annually to do our best--and to be ourselves.

1 comment:

Guerita said...

Rebecca here --
Great post and great advice. Schools would do well to take your advice, but when the individual teacher can only control his end of things, the "be yourself" part is well-taken. It's a great alternative to being paranoid about the implications of every little misstep when you don't have much to go on.

Nice blog. Much better than those that lure the reader in and give you crumbs!