In my last entry, I wrote about the importance of our humanity in professional development and, specifically, its role in reflective teaching and connection to building our own practical theories. While critical, our humanity — a complex web of our personal experiences, beliefs, and attitudes — is only part of what constitutes reflective teaching. The other key element includes our understanding of and sensitivity to the contexts where we work as educators. Zeichner and Liston provide a clear summary of these two elements:
The reflective teacher recognizes that a central source of his or her teaching practice is his or her practical theories, but is also sensitive to the way in which the contexts in which he or she works influence his or her actions. Reflective teaching entails a recognition, examination, and rumination over the implications of one’s beliefs, experiences, attitudes, knowledge, and values as well as the opportunities and constraints provided by the social conditions in which the teacher works. (Zeichner, K. M. & Liston, D. P., 1996).
In short, reflective teaching is about who I am (and what I know and believe) and where I work.
Through my work with teachers around the world, I learned that teaching metaphors can be very effective at helping us connect these key elements of who I am, where I work, and how I teach. It’s an approach that I’ve used myself and recommended to hundreds of teachers. It can help us reflect on, re-evaluate, and reframe our classroom practice. It’s a self-study tool for consistent inquiry.
Metaphors, selected after careful analysis of our practice and context and revised/updated based on ongoing re-evaluation of our work, are uniquely our own, connected to our understanding of our work and self. They are lenses that allow for imaginative expression of our professional and personal selves while also ensuring a connection to and a critical examination of our teaching practice. Of critical importance here is that they are not imposed on us by outside forces but grow from within, based on our own understanding of who (and where, and how) we are.
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to use this approach in the context of a teacher professional development program with new teachers. After a series of reflections and cooperative learning activities, the participants started the process of developing their metaphors and then embraced them for the remainder of the program, viewing everything through the new lens afforded by the chosen metaphor.
Below are some of the metaphors developed that day:
1. As a teacher, I am … a bridge
2. As a teacher, I am … a gardener
3. As a teacher, I am … a watering can
4. As a teacher, I am … an explorer
5. As a teacher, I am … an architect
6. As a teacher, I am … a compass
7. As a teacher, I am … an extension cord
8. As a teacher, I am … a weaver
9. As a teacher, I am … a glue stick
10. As a teacher, I am … a bulletin board
As you can see, some of the metaphors were very traditional, even predictable (gardener, explorer), but they still had meaning and value for the teachers who selected them. In fact, we spent quite a bit of time as a group talking about the importance of not shying away from metaphors that seem overused and unoriginal. The point of this approach is to embrace a metaphor that makes sense given who we are, where we are, and how we are. Just because it seems cliche to others does not mean that it cannot be exceptionally valuable to our own professional development. The participants were also encouraged to explore ideas that may at first seem very unusual. If the point of developing and embracing a metaphor is to capture one’s humanity and one’s classroom practice, then remaining open to all ideas — no matter how unusual they may first appear to be (teacher as extension cord) — is of paramount importance.
Watching the participants engage in the process of developing their own teaching metaphors was a very valuable experience. It reminded me of the first time I chose a metaphor for my own practice and the challenging process of giving it up for a new one a few years later when I realized that my practice no longer conformed to that very first metaphor. The first metaphor I embraced as an educator was that of a tree, followed by sun, guide, river, trellis, and a few others, until I arrived at the present one: rhizoid … and, to be perfectly frank, I’m beginning to see the need for an update.
The teachers who participated in the workshop on developing their own teaching metaphors confirmed my belief that the approach is of great benefit to our professional development as teachers. As I walked around the room and spoke with individual teachers and small groups that they formed to brainstorm, get feedback, and discuss their choices, I heard a lot of very critical, focused questions about classroom practice and the intersection of one’s personal and professional selves and professional contexts.
While the process of selecting/developing the metaphors was truly insightful (it always is, whether you’re engaging in it yourself or observing your colleagues), one of the most interesting parts of the workshop, once the participants chose their metaphors, involved conversations about the choices and the revisions made upon careful analysis of those initial choices.
The transcript excerpts below don’t do justice to the richness of these conversations, but I hope they show the value of both selecting one’s teaching metaphor and then subjecting it to careful scrutiny, with a supportive colleague.
The conversation below (recorded during the workshop) took place between teachers who selected the following metaphors: Teacher as Bridge, Teacher as Extension Cord, Teacher as Watering Can.
Teacher as Bridge
I love this metaphor because I see myself as someone who connects my students to all kinds of opportunities … and helps them see the potential outcome of what they’re doing now … that outcome is on the other side, and they have to cross the bridge to get there. That’s where I come in … it’s my job to get them there.
Teacher as Extension Cord
… that’s kind of how I see myself. I chose extension cord because I see my students as full of energy, and I channel that and also connect them to other places where they can expend it. I help them plug into opportunities … activities.
Teacher as Watering Can
I’ve thought about that idea of connecting students to things that matter or channeling their energy … I teach many students with a lot of energy! [laughs]. But I see that as removing their sense of agency because we’re doing the bridging or connecting or channeling for them, and this is why I chose the metaphor of a watering can […]
I think I focus more on nurturing what’s already there, kind of dormant, and supporting it however it chooses to grow … so I see myself as providing the perfect conditions for growth, in a very organic sense, and not interfering in the direction.
[…] now that I think about it, though, it also seems to be a bit irresponsible … this metaphor seems to be about freedom, a lot of it … and I’m not sure how it connects to my beliefs in education as providing structure or guidance.
Teacher as Bridge
Actually, I think all of our choices in this group seem to be … I think I want to use the word “passive”. We’re all focusing on connecting and channeling, but being a bridge or an extension cord or a watering can means … and maybe that’s just me … that we want to provide the conditions for success but are not that focused on guiding, shaping and moulding young people. I don’t think I’m expressing that well … to me our metaphors are about being a conduit or a provider of the right environment, but not about active guidance or support … am I wrong?
Teacher as Watering Can
Yup, I see where you’re going … I’m looking at my metaphor also as a parent, and I think if my child’s teacher chose that metaphor, I’d be asking about being a role model and helping tell right from wrong … helping guide them, too …
Every time I re-read the transcripts I’m always astonished by the amount of reflection and critical thinking about what we do as teachers and how we do it that informs these conversations. By the end of this three-day session, all three participants above modified their initial choices based on self-reflection and a number of conversations with colleagues. They certainly struggled to adopt the metaphor that accurately captured who they are, how they are, and where they are. That struggle and the ongoing need to re-assess the accuracy and relevance of one’s choice is what makes the process so valuable – it’s an ongoing opportunity to reflect, re-evaluate, and, if necessary, re-frame our own understanding of who we are as educators. It engages us in an ongoing process of questioning and learning and critiquing.
That struggle is also the reason why I personally continue to engage in the process of metaphor selection/adjustment. It prevents me from being complacent and encourages to think critically about my work. The reason why I continue to promote this approach as an effective component of self-driven teacher development is exactly the same: it helps teachers address the key issues of teacher identity, classroom practice, their own humanity, and the context where they work. It provides a self-generated blueprint for how to be in our professional contexts and roles and a way to self-check how accurately we’re following that blueprint. It’s a self-study tool for consistent inquiry and therefore much more valuable than any traditional drive-by professional development done to teachers.
Zeichner, K. M., and Liston, D. P. (1996). Reflective teaching. An introduction. New York: Routledge.