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The Poetry of Burnout: Metaphors of Teaching in Urban Schools

by Alyssa Hadley Dunn - August 30, 2013

This commentary discusses what teachers' metaphors reveal about current struggles in urban schools. The author argues for a reconceptualization of metaphors of teaching and a better understanding of teachers' challenges stemming from contemporary policies and politics.

 “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” –William Butler Yeats

“I’m burned out. There’s no fire left in me.” –Urban high school teacher

As a new school year begins around the country, it is easy to focus on the excitement that comes with the first weeks of school. Yet, in many places, there are still scars from last year and an ongoing assault on teachers and their profession. Hundreds of teachers in Chicago were fired, and thousands of children (predominantly students of color and those from low-income families) in Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia will be sent to different schools after their neighborhood schools were closed last May (National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, 2013).

Teachers in at least twelve states will see their evaluations tied (again) to students’ test scores as a result of Race to the Top, and hundreds of thousands of children will have their health, instructional time, and self-confidence put in jeopardy by an onslaught of testing (Ravitch, 2010). Teachers will be given scripted curricula and forced to reduce their instruction to test prep pedagogy (e.g., Au, 2007). Further, scapegoating of teachers has reached epic proportions (Kumashiro, 2011) and, in the words of one participant in my recent research study, teachers are “blamed for everything that ever has, is, or will be wrong with society.”

What happens to teachers amidst such a climate, in which nearly 50% of new teachers leave within five years, turnover costs at least $7.3 billion per year, and job satisfaction is lower than it has ever been (Ingersoll, 2003; MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 2012)? Researchers argue that these challenges are even more acute in urban schools, where multi-level top-down bureaucracies, lack of funding and resources, and systemic racism infiltrate every aspect of teaching and learning (e.g., Stairs, Donnell, & Dunn, 2011). In a stifling and unsettling context like this, teachers—novice and veteran—may be “burned out” at the beginning of the year, as well as the end. Indeed, the teacher quoted above who said she had “no fire left” in her said that after only one month of school. It is time that the public, policymakers, and teacher educators fully understand the damaging effects of current schooling conditions, so all stakeholders can better support practicing and future teachers and their students. As far back as 1932, scholars were asking, “what does teaching do to teachers?” (Waller, 1932, p. 275), yet still we wonder, “what mark does the job leave on them?” (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012, p. 30).

My recent research sought to investigate urban teachers’ morale, to see what “mark” teaching leaves on them. In analyzing my data, I was struck by the language that teachers used to describe their challenges and their overwhelming feelings of demoralization. Teachers overwhelmingly chose to express themselves in metaphorical terms, as though speaking literally was too difficult to handle. Listening to and reading their commentary demonstrated both the power of metaphors and the dire situations in which we have left our urban teachers and thus, our urban students. Though there is some research on metaphors and teaching, these existing metaphors nearly always decontexualize the educative process. That is, the predominant metaphors about teaching do not often describe the settings in which learning occurs, but rather paint an optimistic, individualistic picture of singular teachers and their impact. However, discernible in the metaphors that urban educators use to describe the environments in which they endeavor to teach well despite the policies that hinder them is a poetry of burnout. In the following sections, I first explore the idea of metaphor and then present teachers’ metaphors for burnout and offer my interpretations. I also consider what metaphors mean for the transformation of teaching and learning.


In their influential work, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action” and that metaphorical concepts “structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people” (p. 3). Thus, metaphor is not merely a poetic device or a rhetorical strategy; it “plays a central role in defining our everyday realities” (p. 3). Metaphors and meaning making are an iterative process: using metaphors helps us make meaning of ourselves and the world around us, and in turn, the world around us helps us shape new metaphors for understanding our place in it. As Geary (2012) writes, “there is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. Once you twig to metaphor’s modus operandi, you’ll find its fingerprints on absolutely everything” (p. 3).

There is extensive research on metaphors about teachers and teaching, both for preservice teachers (Bullough, 1991; Gurney, 1995; Mahlios & Maxon, 1998; Martinez et. al, 2001; Shawn et al., 2008; Zoss et al., in press) and in-service teachers (Alger, 2009; de Guerrero & Villamil, 2002; Martinez et. al, 2001; Munby, 1987; Oxford et. al, 1998; Patchen & Crawford, 2011; Stofflett, 1996; Tobin & Tippins, 1996), as well as about if and how these metaphors change over time (Alger, 2009; Patchen & Crawford, 2011). We see these metaphors reified in the media and in popular culture. For example, teachers are gardeners, who nurture the seeds of students’ ideas and/or nurture the seeds of the curriculum into a flourishing and bountiful harvest. Teachers are artists, who help sculpt the impressionable clay of children into stunning statues of intellect and critical thinking. Teachers are architects, who build bridges of understanding between students and the curriculum or the world. Alger (2009) juxtaposes teacher-centered and student-centered metaphors of teaching and helpfully categorizes a vast list of existing metaphors into themes of guiding, nurturing, molding, transmitting, providing tools, and engaging in community.

These metaphors reveal the ways that teachers (and others) conceptualize the role of instructors in the learning process. In many ways, they show us a lot about the hope and possibility of teaching. At the same time, they appear to counter the scapegoating of teachers with a grandiose and idealized version of educators’ goals and abilities. What they seem to forget or neglect, however, are the very real contexts in which teachers will be gardening, building, and sculpting.


What happens, then, if the teacher-guides are told to take the wrong path? Or what if the teacher-artists are never given enough paint or clay to create a masterpiece? What if the teachergardeners are measured by how well their plants grow, yet they are never given the tools needed to successfully garden? When teachers express their feelings about challenging experiences like these—a lack of direction, resources, and support—very different metaphors emerge. The following teachers’ descriptions about their profession are from my ongoing research on teacher morale, in which I studied an urban secondary school in a major metropolitan area in the southeastern United States. Yet the systems about which the teachers speak are not relegated to one locale. Rather, the socially unjust and oppressive working conditions they describe are a nationwide—indeed a global—concern for teachers and students.

Teachers overwhelming stated they had low morale and listed a variety of factors that influenced their morale (Dunn, under review). When describing what it felt like to (1) have an increased workload for less compensation, (2) deal with a lack of autonomy in their curriculum and pedagogy, and (3) be subject to increased pressures from high-stakes testing new “value-added” evaluation measures, teachers spoke in two metaphorical tropes. They depicted a sense of being trapped and a sense of being dehumanized.


Many metaphors revealed how teachers felt trapped in or by their contexts. For example, one said, “I’m feeling under a pile I can’t get through… in a rut” when describing the difficulty of balancing her regular classroom duties with overwhelming paperwork from benchmark tests and other district-required assessments. Another worried that, “I don’t want to be the last one on a sinking ship. Everyone is discouraged, so everyone is leaving. What reasons do we have to stay? We can’t control what’s happening to us or the kids. Can we?” In reference to the number of instructional days that were absorbed by testing, a veteran teacher mused, “This is a web of destruction [that is] ensnaring good teachers and students and preying on our hearts and minds.”

One teacher referenced the complexity of working in an urban school system with a hierarchical structure. Speaking of the “top” of the system—including the superintendent, school board, and other district-level administrators—as a mountain, he reflected, “This is a way-donebeen-broke system at the top…Up top, it's an avalanche. Here at the bottom of the mountain, we just keep ducking and hoping there aren't boulders coming down after the pebbles smack us in the head.” Metaphors of entrapment revealed how “stuck” the teachers felt—they had a lack of autonomy, a lack of options, and a lack of security. Instead of feeling that their profession allowed them to be creative, autonomous, and purposeful, they more often used metaphors that illustrated the stifling and overpowering nature of their current contexts.


Teachers also invoked images of dehumanization. An educator argued that, “Cutbacks and idiotic decisions by state and [district] officials are creeping into our little school, too, [and] are, like a leech, sucking the life-blood right out of us who are unlucky enough to be in the water.” To imagine one’s school or classroom as leech-infested water is a troubling and forceful metaphor, yet it chiefly dehumanizes top-level officials, not the teachers themselves. Other metaphors, however, revealed how teachers had out-of-body experiences. One veteran teacher compared district policies (and the stakeholders who enforced them) as akin to aliens: “We’ve been taken over by aliens and we don’t know what we need to do to stop them. Every time we think we have it figured out, their powers become greater and more terrifying.” For this teacher, “figuring it out” meant creating ways to effectively subvert mandates that she believed were counter to a mission of social justice and equity.

A final striking metaphor illustrated the enormous impact of state policies. In reference to new measures where teachers will be partially evaluated by students’ test scores, one teacher spoke compellingly about how she and her colleagues were afraid to question the guidelines and, as a result, had become complicit in a broken system. She wrote, “It’s like watching a bunch of lemmings jump off a cliff. At first, we watched them all jump and thought, ‘Wow, it’s amazing they can’t see they’re falling to their death.’ And now, we are the lemmings. We are following these procedures, these policies, these tests and measures, and more tests and more policies—and we’re following them right off the cliff, right to our death and the death of our students.”

The striking difference between the metaphors that teachers use to describe challenging situations and the metaphors of hope found in existing literature reveals the dangerous nature of and the hostile climate created by contemporary educational policies and practices that continue to isolate, demean, and demoralize teachers. This is not to say that these same teachers may not still describe themselves, at times, as artists or architects. In fact, some of these teachers quoted above are heralded as the school’s best; so despite their frustration and sadness, negativity may not creep as often into their classrooms as one might expect. But this is an almost superhuman feat—to distance oneself from the stressors of national, state, and local contexts and not let them “influence” your teaching—that we should not expect from teachers. We teach who we are, after all (Palmer, 2007), and it is clear that these teachers are upset. Such evocative metaphors show the true depths of their concern, sadness, despondence, isolation, frustration, and confusion.


Yeats tells us that education is the “lighting of a fire,” but, for many teachers, that fire has burned out. The embers are cold, and there is no more kindling, just the faint whiff of a flame. Can something be done to rekindle the fire in these teachers, to transform their poetry of burnout? And can metaphors be used to enable this transformation?

Previous metaphors of teachers have been decontextualized and individualistic—with all the onus placed on teachers to be sole gardeners or architects—rather than contexualized and collective. Perhaps transforming schools into more collective spaces can alter metaphors to be more collective. Or, if teachers start imagining their work in more collective ways, they can transform the contexts through their language and their actions.

Such “radical imagination” (Madeloni & Gorlewski, 2013) can stimulate metaphors-for-action. Similar to Schön’s framework on types of reflection, I posit that there are levels of metaphors, as well. He argued that there are three types of reflection: reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, and reflection-for-action, or a culmination of the previous two types that leads teachers to take action and make change (Dunn, 2011; Schön, 1983, 1987). Moving beyond metaphors-in-action and metaphors-on-action (as have been described here as metaphors that teachers create upon considering what is happening in their lives), teachers can create metaphors-for-action.

For example, can a metaphor-for-action re-imagine schools and communities as bellows? When a fire has nearly burned out, one can use a bellows to restart it. Schools and the teachers in them, as well as community members and teacher educators, can be bellows for reigniting the flames of burned out teachers in challenging settings. There are models of bellows surrounding us, in the form of teacher activists and collectives. These models can help sustain teachers who feel they have no control over their situations, as they see that others who have felt the same eventually found a way to stand up for their rights. We can look to Jesse Hagpioan and the teachers from Garfield High School in Seattle who protested against the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment; to Barbara Madeloni who, with her students, spoke out against the edTPA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; to Arizona’s Curtis Acosta, colleagues, and students whose Mexican American Studies program was shuttered; to Ian Altman and Matt Hicks who fight for the rights of undocumented students amidst anti-immigrant policies in the rural South; and to Karen Lewis and the hundreds of Chicago of teachers who marched through downtown in a mighty lesson about what it means to speak truth to power. Significantly, these models can be bellows for other teachers because their protests have not been in vain; in many cases, changes and progress have been made. And they have been made through the power of collective voice and action.

Overall, a shifting understanding in how we use metaphors to describe teaching and teachers—from decontextualized and sometimes idealized versions of what education looks like in today’s schools—is needed. It is also important to hear the voices of teachers as they are experiencing the challenges of testing, privatization, and other neoliberal reforms that make their experiences akin to sinking ships and cliff-jumping lemmings. Reimagining the collective force of schools and then, critically, supporting teachers’ efforts to make sense of their world through metaphors-for-action, offers the potential for a new kind of poetry. In this way, we can all work together to, as Dylan Thomas calls us to do, “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”


The author wishes to thank Nadia Behizadeh, Stephanie Behm Cross, Erica Dotson, John Dunn, and Laura Quaynor for their assistance with this piece. 


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17234, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:27:28 PM

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