If you’re a teacher, you know all about the dreaded back-to-school dreams. Even if you’re one of the rare teachers who doesn’t have them (I think I’ve talked to two of those), you’ve been in on conversations with colleagues sharing their nightmares.
Here’s how mine go. I’m standing in front of the first class of the year as the bell rings, and I’m flipping frantically through the textbook, trying to figure out what the class is. Or I’m rushing through a maze of halls and stairways in increasing bewilderment, unable to find the classroom. One memorable dream started out fine—I was in the right classroom, I knew what I was teaching, and the students were sitting attentively in their desks. But as I talked, the room began expanding. Students started murmuring, then talking, then standing up and walking around. I talked louder. Trees began sprouting between desks. By the end, we were outside, and the students were zooming around on ATVs, paying absolutely no attention to me.
Recently I had a brand new type of pandemic-induced back-to-school dream. At first, I was at my desk, unpacking (we really were getting ready to move into a new school building) and organizing for the new year. Then it was time to gather with other teachers for the first meeting. The principal stopped me and asked me to put on a mask. I was mortified to discover that I, indeed, was maskless. How did I not have a mask on? Here in Japan, mask-wearing is the social norm as well as school policy. I rifled through all my pockets—pants, jacket, backpack—and came up with handfuls of cloth masks, but not a single paper one, the only kind we’ve been wearing for the last three months.
Why are these dreams so common for teachers? Do lawyers dream of finding themselves in front of a courtroom to defend an unknown client? Do surgeons dream of being prepared and ready to begin a surgery no one’s told them about? Maybe so. Maybe it’s a human condition first documented when Adam and Eve hid from God in the Garden. We’ve been hiding our insecurities, fears, and failures ever since, and our dreams expose them.
Here’s how I think it goes for me. Teaching is a very public job. That’s sort of the point: It isn’t teaching without a roomful of students. On top of that, teachers tend to be idealists—it’s why we went into the profession, to make a difference. So we have high expectations of ourselves to be good, to be perfect, to not fail any of the people we’re trying to help. In the process, I’ve done a lot of comparing myself to veteran teachers—especially in my earlier years. (It’s one of the delights of aging for me—becoming more comfortable in my skin with my gifts.)
I’ve also found that getting comfortable with my own learning process helps. It starts with discovering and acknowledging the places I need to grow—whether that is knowledge (like Black American history or Ukraine), or new technology and strategies for online instruction, or new teaching areas (like English as a foreign language) or levels (like elementary). Then reading, studying, discussing in order to grow. Then trying experiments—some of which will work better than others. Finally, reflecting on those experiments, frequently in this blog.
But before, after, and around all those things is prayer. Prayer acknowledges that my core identity was never about who I am as a teacher, but who I am as a beloved child of God. This is what Holy Week reminds me of this year as it coincides with the start of the new academic year here in Japan. In his book With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen writes about prayer and how it opens us to the paradox Jesus talked about, that clinging to what seems to be life produces death, but abandoning oneself to death actually results in abundant life:
Praying means giving up a false security, no longer looking for arguments which will protect you if you get pushed into a corner, no longer setting your hope on a couple of lighter moments which your life might still offer. Praying means to stop expecting from God that same small-mindedness which you discover in yourself. To pray is to walk in the full light of God, and to say simply, without holding back, “I am human and you are God.” At that moment, conversion occurs, the restoration of the true relationship. Man is not the one who once in a while makes a mistake and God is not the one who now and then forgives. No, man is a sinner and God is love. Conversion makes this obvious with a stunning simplicity and a disarming clarity.
This conversion brings with it the relaxation which lets you breathe again and puts you at rest in the embrace of a forgiving God. The experience results in a calm and simple joy. For then, you can say: “I don’t know the answer, and I can’t do this thing, but I don’t have to know it, and I don’t have to be able to do it.” This new knowledge is the liberation which gives you access to everything in creation and leaves you free to play in the garden which lies before you.
The person who prays not only discovers himself and God, but in the same meeting discovers who his neighbor is. For in prayer, you not only profess that people are people andGod is God, but also, that your neighbor is your sister or brother living alongside you. For if your conversion has brought you down to the bottom of your human nature, you notice that you are not alone: Being human means being together. (58-59)
I read these paragraphs frequently, to remember that, whatever crazy start-of-school teacher dreams may come, I am forgiven and embraced by my Father God, along with my colleagues, and this is the joy and peace I have to offer my students.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Kim Essenburg's website, Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn on April 9, 2022.