Dreaming of Failure

I’m not sure when I first started having them but it was fairly early in my career: at least twice a year, at the start of a new term, I could expect the arrival of what I soon began to call teaching-anxiety dreams.

At first, they were fairly mundane. I don’t recall any dreams in which I show up to class without any clothes, but perhaps I have suppressed the memory of them.

One of my all-time favorites was one I had when I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire, in which I had been scheduled to teach two classes on different topics at the same time, in adjacent rooms. I coped, in the dream, by scrambling back and forth between the rooms.

I began to look forward to those dreams, as they would help me to focus on the work of the coming term.

I also took them as something of a sign: I thought and I said that, if I ever stop having teaching-anxiety dreams, it would indicate that I should get out of the profession, as it would mean that I just didn’t care enough about my students or my work as a teacher to be anxious about them.

It would also mean that I was not taking enough risks in the design of my courses, that I was becoming too safely conventional.

Then, three or four years ago, I stopped having such dreams.The absence of teaching-anxiety dreams left me with a different kind of worry, a weight on my mind that was very likely a factor in my decision to carry out a radical revision of my approach to teaching over the summer of 2012.

Still, the dreams did not come back.

I’m up early this morning after a short and turbulent sleep, one that brought an unbroken string of dreams about my courses in the term that starts tomorrow. The dreams did not focus on scheduling snafus or wardrobe malfunctions, but on very specific ways in which my new course design could blow up or fall apart, ways in which I might fail to follow through on my resolve to do something new.

I can honestly say that I’m happy and relieved to have had bad dreams. Because of them, I am taking the start of my classes on Tuesday more seriously; because of them, I can anticipate and perhaps avoid some failure modes of my new design.

My relief goes deeper than this, though.

One dream of failure would suggest that I am, at long last, taking risks that are adequate to an endeavor about which I care deeply.

A whole night of constructive teaching-anxiety dreams suggests I may really be on to something.

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