I dreamed a dream the inspectors stopped by.

20th February 2015 at 00:00
One moment you're drifting off to sleep, the next you're in front of an expectant class. Only you're not prepared and the students are all rabid wolves - oh, and where have your trousers got to? Loic Menzies asks what our night-time imaginings reveal about the profession

During my time as a teacher, I dreamed about work almost every night. Typically, I would be in the classroom and a pupil would kick off. Another would follow and chaos would ensue. Even now, more than five years after leaving teaching, I frequently revisit the classroom in my dreams.

If a series of recent conversations with teachers are anything to go by, I am not alone. Rachel, who works in further education, has "teaching dreams" every night before college; Gemma, a newly qualified teacher, dreams about teaching almost every time she goes to sleep. More experienced staff do the same: Daniel has been teaching religious education for eight years and expected his dreams to cease as he became more comfortable with the job. Yet they remain, and are just as vivid and anxious as before.

Almost universally, we greet these dreams as unwelcome guests. They appear to serve no purpose other than to taunt us with our own potential inadequacy. But perhaps we have got teaching dreams all wrong. Rather than a pointless dramatisation of our greatest occupational fears, could it be that they are preparing us for the classroom and making us better teachers?

Occupational hazard

Teachers are not alone in dreaming of work; other professionals suffer, too. Dr Kelly Bulkeley, senior editor of Dreaming, the journal of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, analysed the night-time imaginings of 2,252 adults in the US and found "occupational dreams" to be nearly universal. His research concludes that people dream about whatever makes them "feel powerless, overwhelmed or out of control" in their working lives and that "each job or profession has its own distinctive type of nightmare".

The "occupational dreams" of teachers most often relate to pupil behaviour. Even teachers who have very few classroom management problems face out-of-control behaviour at night. "For some reason, in my dreams I can no longer do it," Rachel says. "It's always the worst that could happen."

Meanwhile, Bart, a Department for Education civil servant turned teacher, often dreams about badly behaved students. "It's a bit of a magic trick, teaching," he says. "If you project this air of confidence - that you've got everything under control - the pupils sort of go along with it.

"But there's that knowledge, deep down, that if they did all decide to rebel or down tools in some sort of mutiny, there's not much you could do about it."

In Bart's view, dreams about teaching result from these underlying insecurities bubbling up. "Because it's normal, you don't really address it fully - you just get on with it," he says.

And behaviour problems are not the only thing to disempower teachers in their dreams. After a change of headteacher and an imminent round of lesson observations, Diana, who teaches in south-east London, started to dream about being observed.

"I was so tired at the time, I was dreading the headteacher coming," she admits.

Diana is not alone; amid a perceived culture of surveillance, teachers seem preoccupied by a fear of being caught "failing". Jackie, who works at a school in England that has been rated as "requires improvement", had a dream in which inspectorate Ofsted "came into my school, observed my lesson, and then the headteacher dismissed me that afternoon for being inadequate. I don't recall anything in particular going wrong during the lesson, but I recall the feedback from the inspector being very non-specific, referring to my `presence' and my `attitude'.

"Nothing has happened to demonstrate that I'm a terrible teacher, but I live with the constant feeling that I'm not doing enough and that what I am doing is insufficient."

Jackie's dreams have a recurring theme of "somebody finding out I am a terrible teacher and summarily dismissing me from a job I love".

Whether behaviour- or ability-related, teachers' dreams seem to be linked to anxious and emotional episodes. As Diana explains, "the more I'm stressed about something, the more I dream about it", while Bart concedes that dreams are at least useful "as a way of knowing what you're anxious about".

A dream described by Andrew emphasises the link to underlying classroom anxiety. He is unusual in rarely dreaming about teaching, but the night before we spoke was an exception.

"I've had a very difficult relationship with one pupil who has had a really challenging family background," he says. "For some reason, I remind this pupil of somebody he is very afraid of, so he is extremely scared and apprehensive of me.

"I set homework for that group using the school's virtual learning environment every week, so before going to bed last night I checked whether they'd done it and noticed that he'd tried it 12 times; I've never seen a pupil try anything more than three or four times. I thought, `Oh my God! Poor boy.' "

The pupil's struggles were clearly playing on Andrew's mind and resurfaced as soon as he went to bed: "I dreamed that I checked again today and he'd tried 35 times."

Andrew speculates that this dream resulted from him spending so much time and mental energy thinking about "how to handle" this boy. "It's very upsetting for me.because he hates me. He makes a much stronger impression on me than most of my students," Andrew says.

Losing sleep

This link between emotional anxiety and dreams has some academic backing. The issue has been extensively explored by Milton Kramer, clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the Sleep Disorders Consultation and Treatment Service at New York University, in his "selective mood regulatory theory of dreaming". Kramer's research suggests that during REM sleep, we experience surges of emotion, and that "good" dreams keep these surges contained by stating and resolving a problem. However, where the problem remains unresolved, a negative emotion results and a bad dream or nightmare takes place.

Yet not all teachers' dreams are so easily interpreted. Although many are humdrum - such as my own behaviour management nightmare - others can be surreal. They may juxtapose disparate or incompatible scenarios, with pupils turning up in unexpected places or the dreamer playing the role of both pupil and teacher.

Gemma began her career working with highly challenging special educational needs pupils and now teaches Year 1 children. In her dreams, the behaviour of former pupils is transferred to her current, much younger class. For example, one night she dreamed that a five-year-old smashed a window with a chair. Gemma takes a humorous view of these imagined incidents and laughs as she describes herself "trying to stop him while all the other five-year-olds tried to climb through the window".

Research by Professor J Allan Hobson, who was director of the laboratory of neurophysiology at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston for 35 years, argues that dreams have a distinctive ability to "integrate highly disparate images and themes into a seamless scenario" (bit.lyAllanHobson). Hobson believes this is the result of certain brain functions being enhanced and others suppressed during REM sleep. He suggests that painter Salvador Dal's "bizarrely discordant", "intense and vivid visual imagery" bound together by "emotional salience" is a perfect characterisation of dreams.

`Fight-or-flight simulator'

Whatever form teaching dreams take, it's fair to say that most are unwelcome. To reduce their power, we try to interpret them and give them meaning. It's easy to see the dreams that teachers recount as their way of processing or dealing with a stressful job. This is the perspective taken by "assimilative" theories of dreaming, in which dreams - whether recalled or not - translate difficult or traumatic scenes into less raw and painful images through metaphor and symbolism, leading to a change between our pre-sleep and post-sleep mood (Punamki, R L, 1999, Kramer, 2007). In this way, for example, dreams convert Gemma's potentially traumatic experience of extreme behaviour into a humorously absurd scenario that is no longer negative.

However, Finnish academic Antti Revonsuo, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvde, criticises the assimilative school of thought. He argues that dreams about stressful situations are more traumatic than reassuring. He believes dreams have a more "preparative" function - in other words, they help us to function better in our waking lives.

In a landmark paper (bit.lyRevonsuo), Revonsuo explains that he reached this view by asking himself "if dreaming is essentially a simulated perceptual world, what kind of simulations might be useful?" He then hypothesises that "if flight simulators are used in order to train pilots to handle dangerous events that might arise during a real flight, perhaps the brain trains its own survival skills in a fight-or-flight simulator, specialised for extremely dangerous events that might be encountered in nature".

Could it be that teachers are actually training themselves at night for confrontation? Although Revonsuo's theory focuses on primeval threats such as lions and bears, it could explain the prevalence of behaviour management scenarios and the sense of threat that dominates teachers' dreams.

Real-world lessons

Point this out to teachers and many will confirm that they do, in fact, learn from their dreams. When Diana wakes from a teaching dream, she tends to reflect on whether she would act in the same way in a real-world situation. Her experience is reminiscent of my own first year in teaching: having handled behaviour badly or "experimented" with a new approach in my sleep, I would wake keen to adapt my tactics. Draining though it was, I felt I was getting a few extra hours of teaching practice every night.

Perhaps, as Hobson and his colleagues put it, "dreaming tells waking what to expect" (bit.lyDreamingWaking). It might then improve our ability to predict what will happen in response to our actions.

Alternatively, it may be that our creativity is enhanced by our dreams. Neuropsychiatrist Dr Lampros Perogamvros of the University of Wisconsin-Madison gives extensive anecdotal evidence of ideas born from dreams - including the plots of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, the melody of the Beatles song Yesterday and key scientific discoveries (bit.lyPerogamvros). He then highlights neurological explanations for the relationship between dreams and creativity through the activation, during sleep, of the system that releases dopamine into the brain - which has been shown to contribute to creativity in activities such as jazz improvisation.

Dreams may therefore help teachers to develop new ideas and find creative solutions to pedagogical problems. This seems to be the case for Rachel. After planning her lessons in the evening, she finds them playing out in her mind overnight. "Sometimes in my dream the lesson doesn't work out, so then I plan it again," she says.

Daniel finds the same, explaining that during a dream "something can occur to you which you haven't thought about before".

The nature of the professional challenges that teachers explore in their dreams can change as their careers develop. Sarah is a head of sixth form with more than eight years' experience. Over time, her dreams have gradually evolved as her role has changed, but they are still "productive".

"In the early days it was often a nightmare about the whole class revolting and me not knowing what to do," she says. "Now I am more likely to have management-type dreams. The other night I dreamed the headteacher put me in charge of `travelling'. In my sleep I'd thought of an action plan and everything."

No rest for the busy

So should teaching dreams in fact be welcomed? Not according to Gemma. "You work long hours, then dream about it and go back to work again. You don't even have your dreams to yourself - it grinds you down even more," she says.

And indeed, Jackie finds her dreams profoundly counterproductive. In her first year of teaching, she would wake up "so nervous as a result of dreams that I would be physically sick".

Furthermore, although the creative potential of dreams has long been celebrated, not least by artists such as Dal, Revonsuo finds little evidence for the claim that dreams help with problem-solving. He reports one study (Dement, 1974) in which 500 undergraduates were given a problem before going to bed; the problem was solved during a dream in less than 1 per cent of cases. A later study (Blagrove, 1992) concludes that "whatever the function of dream experience is, it does not appear to be the finding of new and useful solutions to the problems we face in our waking reality".

Ultimately, rather than being a valuable tool, the teaching dream phenomenon is perhaps more likely to be yet another symptom of an overworked and highly stressed workforce. It may have some benefits but, as Bart concludes, the best we can probably hope for is that our dreams are so unpleasant that it's "reassuring" to wake up and find that things are "actually OK".

Loic Menzies is a director of thinktank LKMco and a tutor at Canterbury Christ Church University. Additional research by Eleanor Bernardes

References

Kramer, M (1991) "The nightmare: a failure in dream function", Dreaming, 14: 277-85

Kramer, M (1993) "The selective mood regulatory function of dreaming" pp.139-96 in Moffitt, A, Kramer, M and Hoffman, R, eds, The Functions of Dreaming (SUNY Press)

Punamki, R L (1999) "The relationship of dream content and changes in daytime mood in traumatized vs. non-traumatized children", Dreaming, 94: 213-33

Kramer, M (2007) The Dream Experience: a systematic exploration (Routledge)

Dement, W C (1974) Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep (W H Freeman)

Blagrove, M (1992) "Dreams as the reflection of our waking concerns and abilities: a critique of the problem-solving paradigm in dream research", Dreaming, 24: 205-20

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