“What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter which had haunted my midnight pillows.” – Mary Shelly, upon waking from the nightmare that would inspire Frankenstein
I cannot get the copier to work. I stand in the copy room where the thermostat registers: surface of the Sun. My dress dissolves. The copier jams again. The beeping, the jamming. The red arrows. And I have 250 kids (or more) in my class, standing on desks, chanting mayhem and anarchy. I race into the room and am screaming, hissing, and spitting, between 30 and 150 Hz, but to no avail. My throat bleeds. A brick slams into my head, and I lose consciousness.
They start right after July 4th or when Wal-Mart parks their Back-to-School display in the front of the store. At this moment, a teacher’s fear circuitry is activated, locked and loaded, and offers up a nightly terror. The patterns are similar: loss of control, running late, losing lesson plans, your classes, your mind.
According to Psychology Today, nightmares provide a way for our subconscious to deal with trauma. Other stressful vocations (ER nurses, EMTs, public defenders, air traffic controllers) may also have similar dreams, but since I’m a teacher, I’m very familiar with this annual nocturnal visitation. The stressors in teaching are relentless and myriad, which is why a staggering 30%-40% of teachers exit the profession within the first five years due to stress. Once you’ve experienced this stress in your waking life, the probability that your subconscious will try to warn you of the coming onslaught is high.
Here’s a sampling of nightmares from my teacher friends:
- I had an anxiety dream last week starring a middle schooler who would not let me help her learn how to do her combination lock on her locker, even though she was crying in frustration when I found her. She refused to listen and just walked away.
- The kids revolt on Day One. They hate me and they won’t cooperate in any way whatsoever. For some reason, it feels dangerous, like they’re saying, “Just try your techniques on us, Mrs. Classroom Management.”
- I’ve dreamt everything from teaching in a tube top to not having the syllabus copied to farting in front of my class to getting lost and teaching the wrong subject!
- I’ve dreamed there is only one copier working and I have to body check a colleague to get to it. Also, I have too many students and not enough seats or materials for them.
- I was away somewhere, enjoying one last mini vacation before school started back, and my teeth began to fall out — like, a few at a time. I was mortified, but not entirely, until my two front teeth disappeared. In my dream, my hope was that I would be able to get home from the trip and have my friend (who is an oral surgeon) help me find a solution for the next day, which was the first day of school.
- Our counselor kept showing up at my door with a new student every few minutes. I am sure this has to do with the large class sizes I have this year with no block scheduling.
- I get to school and they’ve moved my classroom, and I can’t find it and then get in trouble for leaving students unattended while I am desperately searching for my room.
- I’ve occasionally had the “horror movie in a school” dream, where I was having to either get myself or myself and students out of the building due to a threat. Those may be fueled by the “live shooter” training we’ve done a few times recently.
School starts on Wednesday for me, and even though I loop with my students for four years (no surprises), I recently had two teacher nightmares, featuring both loss of control of my classroom and getting to school three hours late while my students ran wild through the halls.
If you’re having back-to-school nightmares, take heart. It’s a profession-wide annual visitation. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher or that you’ll have a bad year. It only means that your subconscious is probably working out the back-to-school jitters. If you are seriously plagued with these nightly frights, there are ways to conquer them. In the meantime, practice self-care: exercise, eat right, hydrate, and treat yourself to a stress-reducing massage every month. Talk out your fears with colleagues who suffer similar anxieties, and practice leaving your school worries at school instead of taking them home with you and catastrophizing them into a daily reality.