We all know that feeling. That feeling that you are somehow behind or you are missing something important. I get that all the time. And, of course, it usually manifests itself in a recurring dream. I think all of us have some version of this dream. We are back in high school or college and we discovered that we have not been to a class essential to our graduation all semester and if we do not pass the final, we won’t walk across the stage. For me it is always math. Be it Calculus or algebra, math is the thing I continually feel I am overlooking.
And we have all had these dreams. In a recent blog post for Psychology Today Dr. Peter Gray did an informal survey about school themed dreams and 70% of respondents recalled some version of this dream. As educators ourselves I would guess this number is even higher. Of course, the dream we have is commonly associated with stress and anxiety caused by an unrelated stimulus. Judy Provost, associate professor of graduate studies and counseling at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, mention in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel way back in 1994 that the source of these dreams is likely a feeling that the person is usually not fully prepared for a task or feels inadequate. And this is connected to school because it is an experience, we have all likely had.
School is an almost universal experience and virtually all of us have taken a test or course they were utterly unprepared for. For me it was my English grammar class in college. As soon as the class started, I fell behind. Each week went by and I sunk further and further into the soup and could not recover. Then came the final. I literally got the final, looked at it, put my name on it and turned it in blank. I was both frustrated and embarrassed. I was overall a very good student but for some reason this class got me. But all was not lost. As I turned in my blank test my professor asked me to step outside the classroom. He asked how I got so far behind. I had been attending class, and while this was a typical mid-term and final course I did okay on the mid-term. The only excuse I could give him was I fell behind and I froze. Nothing I was doing was helping me thaw out and it just piled up.
My professor was a good guy. He said, “you know Michael, I am going to give you an incomplete and the next four weeks you are going to come by my office Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and we will work from the min-term to the end of class and you are going to take this final.” He told me that I cannot get an A or a B in the course since I did not complete the course in the time allotted and the other students did but I will not get an F. I followed his guidance and I ended up with a C. It was the last C I would ever get in a class. From that class on I got an A or B in every course I took. That was my Junior Year in college.
But alas, I still have that recurring dream. And I do not think it’s going away. All of us have moments of anxiety and the dread of falling behind. Higher education is a place where we all take on more than we can handle from time to time because we like to do this work. The tasks seem interesting and many times we are judged on volume more than quality. How many students did we serve, how much is the grant, did we write five learning outcomes or six?
Here is what that dream, and the grammar class has taught me. When my brain is suffering from a level of anxiety that I have this dream it is time to do what I did not do when I was in college; follow the three A’s or project management that my professor taught me. He said that what I failed to do was; Assess, Arrange, and Ask.
Assess is the first A. As I met with my professor he said before taking any class it is important to assess what I will need to be successful. What do I need to know before beginning, am I prepared for the coursework based on my prior learning? When where there be periods of hard work and times where I can take a break. This works for a project too. What work is involved, how long will it take, how will we know we are making progress.
Arrange was the next A. How will I arrange the work into manageable mini-projects and stages? Instead of looking at a project as A to Z where if the pathway and did I place the work in the right order? My professor told me in his decades of teaching he found this was the hardest thing for students to do. We all tend to just move from one project to the next and not mind the direction or even if it is the bast way. But if there is one thing Google Maps has taught us its that we almost always have different routes to the same destination, we just have to decide to do we want to pay tolls, take the scenic route, or get there the fastest. If we are going to drive to Memphis we do not just start driving, we arrange the needs for the trip including a map and then go.
Finally, he said that pride got me for not doing the last A and ASK FOR HELP! He seemed really frustrated when he spoke with me. He said, I spent my life as a professor and I can count with two hands the number of students who really reached out and Asked for help. And I know that was my issue. So often we want to be competent and in control and that sometimes come at a cost of our time and energy. Humans are naturally communal and like to help each other. If you are overwhelmed, ask for help. And while I am not always good at this, I have gotten a lot better at it.
And that is how I combat that feeling. I find when I am following the three As then I am often less anxious, less worried, and I have that dream less often. Of course, there are times I am less good at this but when I do feel like the walls are closing in, I stop what I am doing, grab a diet Mtn. Dew and assess, arrange and ask.