Navigating the rough waters of teaching

It has always bothered me that I have nightmares about teaching. Always. Just before I have to go into the classroom, I have them…Full color, noise filled nightmares.

I'm working with second graders last week at Vacation Bible School at church and last Sunday night I had another one of those dreams. It really bothered me, so I thought about it and these were my conclusions.

This was a nightmare for me. My son and I went down
the Nantahala Falls the total WRONG way this time.
We didn't go under because we didn't stop padddling.
I righted us and we sailed on through but it was scary.
Teaching can be scary, especially if you don't respect
the power of the classroom and if you stop
rowing your own boat, you're in trouble.

Why do we have teaching nightmares?

I've talked with other teachers on my Facebook page about this and we all seem to have nightmares, but why?

Why should we dream about failing as a teacher when it is something we just do?

Shouldn't we be confident masters knowing we can navigate any waters?

Navigating an understanding of common teacher nightmares

I hit on the answer as I asked myself this yesterday morning. My thoughts turned to white water rafting pros. These people are always dealing with water. They guide people down rivers and they enjoy the river themselves. Yet, even these pros come up against situations – often unexpectedly – that scare them.

This is the scariest of all. My son sucked out in the
worst rapid. He had slowed down because
he was too close to another boat
and the raft was sucked out from underneat
him. But he went back in again with the
knowledge of what NOT to do.
When we mess up in the classroom one day,
we have to go back in and do it again and learn.
A mistake is only permanent if you don't learn from it.

The respect for something that comes with being a professional

Last year were were on the Nantahala River in our duckies (1 or 2 man inflatable self bailing rafts – kind of like a canoe) and there was a strainer in the river. A strainer is a tree across the river. It is very dangerous and life threatening.

While some of those unwitting (unexperienced) dummies in the rafts said “let's just go over it” – the guides responded with a some what paling face:

“No, we have to wait until they cut it out.” 

They know that strainers are very dangerous. Period. End of story. Stay away.

We teachers are like those guides. When people from the local town come to speak in our classrooms, they don't realize that they are on a guided tour. They might think they are dipping their oar into teaching, and certainly, they are somewhat, but they aren't experiencing the wild rapids that teaching is – nothing near it. They are being guided by a professional.

Surely river guides also have their own nightmares. The unexpected tree or rock – the river that shifted in the night.

One rafting pro this summer said it to me like this

“when you're a professional, you don't know the river, you respect the river.” 

He acknowledged that he learned to navigate the river and that he was not its master. He could navigate and do it well, but he would not dare to think he was master of that river.

Another trip down. My kids know how to row their
own boat. This is important to me and a life lesson that
they learn from rafting.

The only people not afraid of just how quickly a class can be “lost” are those who are not professionals. The only people unafraid of rivers are those who aren't professionals. 

Professionals who have “seen it all” know that the unexpected, unforeseen can happen to them too and things can go terribly wrong in a heartbeat.

The truly unnavigable rapids

When in South Africa, I met a woman who said she taught a class of 500 high school, inner city kids. She was their “teacher.” I cannot begin to comprehend this sort of rapid – for, to me, it would be a 500 foot waterfall – fatal to my life, psyche and all I am.

This was actually a perfect run. It looks like my
son and I are going under. We are not. We are paddling
like crazy and going through the hole at the bottom
of this fall. Sometimes it looks like we're going under
in the classroom when we're navigating an especially
challenging unit and are doing PBL or inquiry based
unit. This is why it is hard to evaluate teacher
classrooms at a glance. If you looked at this picture without
the before and after, you'd think I was in trouble.
In fact, I was probably right between the “Ya” and “hoo!”

So, this is what we teachers have nightmares about. We have nightmares about the unexpected. We have nightmares about the little situation that suddenly gets out of hand. Sometimes we have nightmares that we just aren't ready.

1. We can be taken by surprise

Just as master river guides can suddenly be taken by surprise if they aren't paying attention – so can we. We, as teachers, know our position is precarious.

We respect our classroom but we don't think that we own the kids in it or are their master. We know our place – an important one, for sure – is riding something far bigger than we are.

2. We cannot ever afford to stop pushing ahead

Like a river guide, we know that it is fatal to stop paddling. If you stop paddling, the river takes you. If you put your feet up on your desk. If you stop teaching or stop trying – you're gone.

Swept over the rapids, your room will descend into chaos — unless you have methods and systems still in place and the students know what they are to do — in which case, you didn't really stop paddling. You just have a system for the calm waters.

3. If a great guide is truly great, their presence seems almost unnecessary

Like a river guide,we teachers love it when we see people who need us less and less. This year as we took the duckies down the river, the guides said they enjoyed the trip so much because we were good at what we did. No incidents because we all handled our own boats.

We knew we needed the guide and followed him (like “duckies” thus the name) but we took care of our business. This is what happens when we have students who are following and rowing their own boat of learning in the direction we head. It is a fantastic experience.

It might look like the teacher is doing nothing, but in truth, like the guide, the teacher is still everything.

We would have gotten out of that river if our guide wasn't there. We knew if we followed him, we'd be safe.

Like white water, the more challenging the work and the more independent each learner is expected to be, the more they need a good teacher.

4. The healthy fear that comes from experience

Like a river guide, we fear because we know what it is like to be afraid. I'm not physically afraid of my students but I have had a class that “got away from me.” I made a false move and somehow I'm somewhere I don't want to be with this class — either disorder, off track, or just not focused on the task at hand. T

his is a horrible, awful feeling when you know it is has happened. It is an unspoken – most teachers pretend like they've never lost a class but most of us have.

If you love teaching and want to do a good job, it is the worst feeling you'll ever have.

Some teachers allow this to happen the last few weeks or God forbid – month of school. You can see them, feeding movie after movie to a class of kids who went on vacation months before.

I don't want that. I always want to know I'm doing my job. I always want to be teaching and helping kids move ahead – sometimes it might be showing a movie with a purpose.

You'll hear veteran teachers talk about this quietly —

“so and so can't ‘hold a classroom'”

 — it simply means, that if they get in their boat, they drown and give up. Sometimes it shows because these teachers leave their classroom — a lot.

I was talking this with my nephew today and he said, “Aunt Vicki, I can't remember you ever leaving our class this year.” I really try not to, although, when there is a network problem, sometimes it is unavoidable.

Principals, I promise if you ask a veteran teacher who can't “hold a classroom” – they'll tell you exactly who they are. It is often the teachers who have kids in your office the most. Teachers who can't hold a classroom often look to external sources — often times the principal – to do it for them.

Front office discipline is no substitute for an undisciplined classroom where the teacher is completely irrelevant. I have to be careful not to “butt in” in these classrooms when I'm on the side fixing a computer but sometimes it is more than I can bear.

So, why do I have nightmares?

Quite simply, it is because teaching depends on a lot more than me but it also depends a great deal on my tenacious determination to keep going. I must be there: knowledgeable, persistently paddling, teaching. But even if I am there, there are circumstances and things beyond me.

I have no idea when a real boulder of a behavior problem will rear its open mouth trying to drag me down. I have no idea when the river may just be more than I can navigate. I sometimes don't spot undercurrents of a problem between students before we're right there in the midst of a mess.

The classroom river is wild. It can be directed but often cannot be truly tamed. It can be guided but it cannot be controlled any more than a raging river.

Insight into the mind of why teachers quit

In fact, many teachers are getting out, not because they are bad teachers, but because the waters of teaching in their classroom environment have become simply unnavigable. Experts won't go in the water, if they are afraid and feel it is impossible. They avoid the strainers at all costs.

Our mind and attitude is vital to our success and ability to keep going on

Our attitude about our classrooms is the most important thing here. As expert teachers, if we feel that the classroom is unnavigable – it might be – and it can lead to mistakes as well as stress and fear that we're going under. It might even lead to the teacher quitting and no longer rowing her boat – which will lead to further failure.

Yes, whitewater raft guides are one of the closest things to teaching I can think of. The nightmares are real.

Plus, you have everyone who has ever gone down the river in a guided tour raft trip thinking that they can easily do it.

I've heard that teaching is the most impossible job everyone thinks they can do.

Get out there and paddle. Realize that the nightmares are just a normal part of teaching. If all the teachers conversing on my fanpage are to believed, we all have these nightmares. Accept and understand what these nightmares say about your feeling and our profession. I'll be having more of these dreams soon – I tend to have them the week before school starts. I think this illustration will help me deal with it and not psych myself out that I've had another nightmare.

Heading into the rapids of another day with these beautiful second graders. It is going to be a great day – I'm ready to paddle!

I would love if you'd share your insight into your own dreams and “nightmares” about teaching so that other teachers can realize that it is OK to have these.

Paddle on, professionals. Paddle on.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere