Which teacher does not suffer a little preparation anxiety? We all over-prepare, take too much along with us, have stuff up our sleeves. Just in case.
In case of what? You would think that if nothing else we have a more or less bottomless pool of language to draw on. We could if we wished talk about anything, for ever. And everything that we say, or that our students say, illustrates some point of language. So perhaps a little leanness in the preparation would be no bad thing. But no. We carry in great stacks of photocopies and disperse them like confetti lest our students intuit that we have in any sense run out of ideas (as if that were possible!).
Or perhaps it is just me. Some people – and I am certainly one of them – seem to suffer from a sort of hyperpreparedness, a condition which compels us to have our keys in our hands fifty yards from our front doors, and all our shirts ironed for the week to come. The weekend, for those wrestling with this pathology, is nothing more than a doomed attempt to line everything up for the week to come.
But it is, of course, a form of displacement. Being prepared, like being tidy, is a way of not really doing whatever the difficult thing is. You tidy your desk before you do any work because it is less painful than actually doing the work; you iron piles of washing against the upcoming week because basking in a bit of unreconstructed here-and-now is for some inexplicable reason a recipe for anxiety and guilt; and you prepare your week's lessons on a Sunday afternoon because you cannot go to bed and sleep if the week is looming before you like an unmapped continent.
And there you have it. We enter on our lessons like Victorian explorers, with our elephant guns and our typewriters. Nothing can take us by surprise, barring the variety of life itself (and as Helmuth von Moltke said, no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy). Thus it is that the more you prepare, the less you end up teaching. The over-prepared teacher leaps from branch to branch, high up above his students’ heads, bewildering them with his balletic progress, and seducing them into a belief that they are somehow involved in the spectacle. When he should in fact just descend to the forest floor and act vaguely human.
And so if you see me wearing an unironed shirt this week, you will know I have confronted my demons and won a little victory of some sort.