We've all met pupils who live in a dream world, but what about teachers? Ever slept on a problem and woken up with everything sorted? Or are your dreams populated by mutant members of staff and killer kids? Nicki Household examines the strange power of the subconscious
Music teacher Magda Croall could hear people talking about her. The voices belonged to her head of department and to her predecessor. They were criticising her teaching methods. Then she found herself being asked, at a moment's notice, to accompany an unknown hymn in assembly, which she astonished herself by refusing to do. The voices got louder... she was putting her job on the line, they were very disappointed in her. Then Magda woke up, feeling pretty miserable, and set off for school.
There was no need for searching analysis, as Magda (a pseudonym), a 23-year-old newly qualified teacher, was already well aware that she didn't fit in at her ultra-traditional girls' boarding school. "Actually, the school itself was all right, but my immediate colleagues made me feel very inadequate," she says. "No allowances were made for the fact that it was my first job, so I felt very unsupported. To make matters worse, my predecessor was still there and basically doing my job. She'd decided at the last minute to stay on part-time."
According to psychiatrist Dr Ian Medley, an occupational stress specialist in Nottingham, Magda's was a classic anxiety dream. "When a person is anxious or upset, their state of mind tends to be reflected in their dreams," he says. "The dreams don't always replicate real-life situations. They may create the same emotions in different situations, but there's nothing mysterious or mystical about them as they're only telling you something you already know - like you're unhappy in your job and need to leave it." The best way to avoid having bad dreams, he says, is to try to sort out the aspect of your life that is making you anxious.
The trouble with teaching is that certain anxieties come with the job, and so the dreams recur. That school play you're directing - will the cast remember their lines on the opening night? And the exam paper that proved so difficult last summer - will your class fare better in the retake that's looming? "I still dream about the examinations hall," says Mary Provost, aged 74, who retired from teaching 16 years ago. "I turn the paper and I can't answer a single question. It's my anxiety dream."
Mankind has been looking for significance in dreams since time immemorial, and of course they feature heavily in myth and legend. Freud and Jung saw them as pathways to the subconscious, and some psychotherapists still regard them as significant. According to G William Domhoff, who runs a dream research programme at California University, "75 to 100 dreams give us a very good psychological portrait of an individual. But give us 1,000 dreams over a couple of decades and we can give you a profile of that person's mind that is almost as individualised and accurate as his or her fingerprints."
Surprisingly, no one has satisfactorily explained why the imagination remains active when the conscious mind has been switched off, although the consensus is that dreams have no physical or emotional function - which is why we forget most of them. Nevertheless, many people are convinced they have dreamed of the future, or been warned in dreams about illnesses and accidents, and there are still those who believe that dreams are "sent" to us from on high.
"From the psychiatric point of view, dreams are not a reliable indicator of anything. For one thing the time factor is missing, so they randomly mix up events of 30 years ago with yesterday," says Dr Medley, who is dismissive of instant "dream dictionary" interpretations and barely more approving of "dream therapy" groups, which, he feels, encourage people to see themselves as sensitive and interesting when their real problem is quite prosaic. And dreams can be invented. "I had a very interesting dream about you last night" must be one of the oldest chat-up lines of all time. "It's not that dreams have no meaning," says Dr Medley, "but simply that their meanings are fairly obvious, especially to the dreamer."
However, thousands disagree with him, especially those who embrace the popular, new age view that dreams put us in touch with our higher, wiser selves. "Dreams speak with a different voice from the conscious mind because they come from a different place," says Maggie Peters, a dream therapist at the Dreamwork Centre in Stroud, Gloucestershire. "They contain a lot of wisdom and clarity because they bypass the ego, which tends to be well defended when we're awake."
People attending the Dreamwork Centre are encouraged to keep journals and to share "important" dreams with the rest of their group.
"Dreams speak through symbols and metaphors," says Ms Peters. "But there can be no instant interpretations because there are no universal meanings. The same symbols mean different things for different people, and the dreamer is the only person who can unravel the code. the group's function is simply to spark ideas and provide a safe setting for the exploration." This gentle process, she insists, enables people to "dream themselves awake" and make life-changing choices.
margaret Black is certain she owes her recent return to teaching to listening to her dreams. "I gave up in 1995 because I was under a lot of stress. At that stage my dreams were telling me I'd had enough. I used to get recurring ones about a particular boy who was giving me a lot of problems. In my dreams he was demonic and menacing." She also dreamed about getting lost in strange schools and of a dark-suited headmaster "who was not a nice man".
But, after a two-year break from teaching, her dreams began to show her in a more positive role, helping and counselling children, and it was sharing these dreams with her dreamwork group that made her realise she needed to get back to teaching. So she retrained as a dyslexia specialist and is now working at the Cheltenham Dyslexia Workshop.
"My friends and even my husband thought I was fairly batty doing dreamwork," she admits. "But for me it was a good way to explore my inner turmoil. Now people often ask me to explain what their dreams mean, but dreamwork is a serious business, not something you can do over a glass of wine. Basically the only person who knows what a dream means is the dreamer themselves."
Judy Quick, who recently retired from teaching at a Gloucestershire Steiner school, says a dream completely transformed her attitude to difficult pupils. "I was a very good girl at school, so I didn't understand why some children behaved so badly," she says. "Then I had this dream in which I was a very naughty pupil, and realised what terrific fun it was. I think it was a wish-fulfilment dream because from then on I was able to empathise much better with naughty children."
Cheltenham primary teacher Michael Grendon sometimes wakes from dreams with mysterious philosophical comments in his head. They're not usually about teaching, although he once awoke to the phrase: "Headmasters are good at finding work to do and then giving it to someone else".
"It was probably something I was thinking at the time but had never put so succinctly," he says. He also frequently dreams about dragons, although they're wise, benevolent creatures, not terrifying monsters. "That's what makes such a nonsense of popular dream interpretation," he says. "A dream dictionary would tell you that dragons represent your worst fears, but I have an interest in Chinese mythology, so my dragons are friendly."
Mr Grendon feels he has benefited enormously from dreamwork and uses his dreams as an aid to his creative writing. But he's wary of getting his Year 5s to talk or write about their dreams. "You'd need to treat the subject very gently, because you could be opening up a can of worms," he says.
But the subject intrigues older pupils, as Michael Buck, a former art teacher, discovered when he invited Maggie Peters to do a workshop with his sixth-form general studies group at St Edward's school in Oxford.
"After some initial embarrassment they became quite hooked on talking about their dreams," he recalls. "Getting kids to talk about their feelings is hard, but dreams make it easier because they are at one remove from reality."
One boy had dreamed he was getting married in the school chapel but felt anxious about whether he was dressed appropriately. A girl pupil described a surreal dream in which the sky was raining nails.
"I was delighted to be able to do something visionary with the group because that element is so often left out of education," says Mr Buck. He decided to leave teaching soon after he had a dream about trying to catch chickens in the quad with the second master.
The Dreamwork Centre, 27 Lansdown, Stroud, Gloucestershire GL5 1BG. Tel: 01453 765058