What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come

The arc of my dream is always the same, no matter what: I am late to teach a class, and when I arrive there is chaos. Students are shouting, throwing balled-up pieces of paper at one another, laughing, and generally doing whatever they wish. I cannot get their attention. I try to raise my voice above theirs, but can’t make myself heard. I try to raise a hand to suggest I want to speak, but I am ignored. I feel panicked, near tears, and convinced I am the worst educator in the world.

A person sits with their head pressed against the notebook on the table in front of them. They have a pen in their hand, and their hair is in a messy bun.
by karolina graboska at pexels.com

It’s a dream I’ve had often, and I once told my therapist all about it. She looked at me and said, “Why do you assume you’re the teacher in this scenario?”

I was floored. It had never occurred to me that perhaps dream me needed to sit down and wait for a different teacher to arrive. When I considered all the many layers of personal experience and hopes and fears mixed up in my assuming I was in charge . . . Well. I had a lot to chew on.

Although I haven’t had this dream in a couple of years, it’s been on my mind a lot lately. So many of us have muddled through the past year feeling a disconnect between our expectations of our students and our students’ ability to meet those expectations. It’s not unlike dream me standing at the front of the class and wondering why I can’t get anyone’s attention–shouting, waving, and feeling like I suddenly know nothing about how to teach. And I’ve been wondering – what if the question we need to ask is the same one my therapist asked about dream me? Why do I assume I’m the teacher?

There are some pat answers to that, right? My title, salary, and work experience all suggest I’m a teacher. But teaching is not a unidirectional act. I can, of course, stand at the front of a classroom and I can tell people what I know without pausing for questions or comments, but that doesn’t mean I’m doing a great job at teaching, or creating the conditions under which my students can learn. The best teaching – regardless of whether it happens in a lab, on Zoom, in a brick-and-mortar classroom, or in a dance studio, to pick just some examples – is collaborative. The best teaching assumes that students have things to teach <i>us</i> about how to do our jobs. There are few of us who can say we haven’t learned anything from our students, whether the instruction they provided was positive or negative. We’re constantly revising, tweaking, editing, and recreating our syllabus and homework assignments, class activities and hands-on experimental work in relation to the feedback our students are providing. And so many of us are working so hard right now to try and adapt to a shifting classroom reality.

So I ask – why do we assume we’re the teacher?

Our students are trying – inexpertly, perhaps; they are newer to higher education than we are – to teach us what matters to them right now. They are communicating where they’re struggling and where they’re engaged, where they need encouragement, clarity, and greater communication, and where they feel they’re steady on their feet. They are being incredibly clear about seeking (and sometimes not finding) purpose in what they’re doing. Some of them need us to revisit what we mean when we say “read this” or “write that,” and all of them, I think, are telling us that life is often chaotic, humbling, frightening, and beyond their control.They are also teaching us what lifts them up, what enables them to push forward, what outfits them with optimism, and what fills them with delight.

I think we should consider that – just as with books – there’s a new edition of the text we’ve been working with in our careers so far. It’s been updated. There’s a new introduction. The bibliography has been revised. But the text is all the more useful for the changes –  if we can concede that we are in classrooms to learn, too.

None of this provides concrete answers to the questions so many of us have about attendance policies, late work, reading skills, writing prompts, equations, paint colors, and arpeggios. There’s a wealth of specificity with which each of us has to contend. But I think if we could shift our thinking a little, from “How baffling!” to “an updated text, you say?” we might find that there is something fantastic brewing in the mix of teaching and learning that our classrooms contain.

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