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Metaphor and Meaning in the Language of Teachers

by Eugene F. Provenzo Jr., Gary N. McCloskey, Robert Kottkamp & Marilyn M. Cohn - 1989

Interview data from a study investigating perceptions and attitudes of teachers toward their work provides the basis for this article which examines the metaphorical language teachers use to describe their experience and sketches an outline of the meaning of work as perceived by teachers, school systems and society. (Source: ERIC)

Commenting on the shortage of qualified teachers in the United States, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has said: “Educated people today simply do not want to work in the kind of factory the traditional school has become, especially when they’re treated like hired hands.“1 In making this observation, Shanker uses a metaphor to communicate his powerful image of the condition of the teaching profession.

An individual’s creation of metaphor is part of a fundamental human impluse to find meaning in life. C. A. Bowers sees this impluse to use metaphors as a drive to name, to give meaning, and to categorize.2 Much of the power of metaphor is contextual. Through its capacity to clarify meaning in complex settings, metaphor is able to go beyond the limitations of scientific language and description.

Working in the fundamentally ambiguous context of schools, teachers are in need of a language that enables them to clarify meaning in the midst of complexity. Metaphor meets this need, especially in the schools of a pluralistic culture such as the United States, whose very nature is fraught with multiple meanings and values. Metaphor becomes an extraordinarily powerful tool through which the teacher can express more fully the meaning of what he or she does in an ambiguous work setting. For the researcher, in turn, the metaphors used by teachers provide a tool for interpreting the meaning of what it is to be a teacher in American society.

This article is based on interview data from a larger research project investigating perceptions and attitudes of teachers toward their work.3 We were struck by the images teachers consistently used in the interviews—struck by the use of metaphors to create meaning in ambiguous, complex situations. Here we not only explore the importance of metaphor for teachers, but also examine the metaphorical language teachers use to describe their work experience. In examining teacher metaphors, we sketch an outline of the meaning of work as teachers experience it. In addition, we contrast teacher images and meanings with images imposed on them by the school systems in which they work and the society that employs them. Finally, we attempt to describe a perspective through which to view teaching as a profession, not from the standpoint of the school system or larger society, but instead from the experience of teachers.


In our review of the metaphors used by teachers in the interviews for this study, three major categories emerged. The first was the group of metaphors that addressed the question “What is a teacher?” The second explored “What does a teacher experience?” while the third addressed “How does a teacher function as part of a system?”

However, to understand fully the meanings of the metaphors teachers use, it is necessary to understand the use of metaphor as a means of communication. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in his studies of the use of language, has focused on the role of metaphor in the creation of meaning. In The Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur outlines the historical and phenomenological interpretations of the use of metaphorical language. For Ricoeur, metaphor enables one to (1) describe the discrepancies between the expected and the experienced, (2) use expressions reflecting the experience of multiple meanings or values in a situation (pluralism), and (3) create new understandings in a given situation.4

Throughout this article we draw heavily on Ricoeur’s ideas as a means of interpreting the metaphors we found teachers using to describe their work, because his theories provide explanations of how teachers use metaphors rather than a schema for categorizing teachers’ metaphors.5 For an initial inquiry, the usage of metaphor seems to us the more illuminating approach. Categorization by function and types of meaning (although important to a full understanding of teachers’ use of metaphors) would be a future endeavor built on the insights gleaned from this study.


Throughout the interviews, teachers used various metaphors to define what it means to be a teacher. Although they were never asked specifically to define the term teacher, the metaphors they used in answering other questions revealed a struggle to name what it is to be a teacher. No single metaphor predominated, but all those offered seem to reflect a view that teaching is a complex endeavor demanding that each individual, by virtue of personality, focus predominantly on one part of a range of meanings because the whole is too complex for one vision to control.

Among the classical metaphors used were the images of the teacher as a trainer or a nurturer of things that grow. One of the teachers mixed these two metaphors to present his understanding.

I think I’m basically a trainer. I say that because I have trained horses and I loved it. I like to see accomplishment. I think this is my greatest satisfaction -seeing something grow. I am also into plants. I love to see plants grow. I like to see people grow. That’s just my nature, to see things grow, to start with nothing, develop it and end up with a finished product. (23, M, W, Jr/H, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Other respondents also used traditional metaphors. For example, one teacher explained her role as a life anchor for children when she said:

Even as an adult you need something to hold onto. You need an anchor. Children feel the same way. (63, F, B, Elem/H, Spec.Ed./V.E.)

Some teachers expressed their metaphors in terms of other professions. As one observed:

Half the time I think I am a preacher. I seem to find myself constantly relating literature, even if it had been written 160 years ago, to the present day-to what these kids find as their major problems. (50, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Even the difficulties teachers found with each other came to show the metaphorical conceptions teachers have of their work.

You have the hanger-oners. You find those all over. Even when you’re laying bricks you’ll have the brick shirker. (66, F, W, Elem/H, 4th).

Sometimes, a focused concept like anchor, preacher, or even brick layer was too confining and teachers attempted to describe their work by an all-inclusive catalogue of traditional metaphors. As the teacher who saw herself as an “anchor” explained:

You’ve got to be the mother, the counselor, the doctor, the lawyer, the preacher, the teacher and everything. (63, F, B, Elem/H, Spec.Ed./V.E.)

Despite the specificity of traditional metaphors, teachers did not necessarily feel restricted by them. In fact, teachers seemed to feel free to create nontraditional metaphors to express their highly articulate personal philosophies about teaching. One teacher expressed his thoughts, about teaching as molding lives, in this way:

I think attitude is more important than knowledge and skill. You have to be a mold breaker more than an educator. If you can motivate kids to want to do it, they will do it. I think that’s what makes successful teachers. (22, M, H, Sr/M, Phys.Ed./Dri.Ed.)

The fact that teachers are some how very special people, who not only do special things but have a special brand of determination, came through in a high school teacher’s observation:

In order to be a teacher you have to be cut from a special kind of cloth. You have to be able to take the work. You have to be able to take the hate, to use the word—insults. You have to be able to take the parent criticism. You have to know your place. You have to be determined that in spite of all this you will do a good job and enjoy it. Those teachers who don’t feel that way are not really very good teachers. They burn out so very quickly. They leave for other fields. (25, F, W, Sr/L, Lang. Arts/Eng.)

Often the images conveyed in descriptive metaphors emphasized the uniqueness of a good teacher as a quality that cannot be given but only developed. The range of these images can be seen in the excerpts from one teacher interview:

She could spot gum on a midnight without a moon with the lights off, just amazing perception. (51, M, W, Sr/L., Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Everyone was a character. Maybe that’s what I look for in a teacher. They are good actors. They can sell their subject. (51, M, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

She’s like a bottle of champagne, you shake it up and it’s all over the place. . . . When she teaches she puts out more energy in that hour than I could in a week or a day. It’s just pure love—energy absolute. Whatever she does puts me to shame. This gal is so eclectic, she goes from A to Z and back again. I feel like I am somewhere in the middle between M and N. (51, M, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Whether it is being a mold breaker, someone cut from the special cloth of determination, someone able to spot gum in the dark, an actor/huckster, or the energy of a shaken-up bottle of champagne, these untraditional metaphors express the concept that the teacher brings unique qualities to his or her work. These are qualities that are not obtained through education but rather are parts of the personality that resonate with and enhance the teaching act.


In the use of conventional metaphors to express a range of meaning, or even in the creation of unique metaphors, teachers expressed a tension between what they expected teaching to be and what they eventually experienced as professionals. This fits with Ricoeur’s notion that by using metaphor, a statement is made that something resembles (is like) something else. This in turn implies that there is also an element of nonresemblance (that it is unlike). Therefore, within the metaphor there exists a tension between what is “like” and what is “unlike.” In addition, because of the unlike element, the metaphor provides a shift in meaning for the expression. This shift allows the individual to assimilate and integrate the different, the unknown, and the unlike into what is already known and understood. Metaphor allows the understanding an individual already possesses to contribute to the interpretation of experience for which present understanding and descriptions are inadequate.6

An example of this can be seen in the quotation above in which a teacher tries to describe what he does with a combination of trainer and nurturer metaphors. Initially, an implicit analogy is made between educating children and training horses. Significantly, the metaphor is inadequate to describe the range of the teacher’s feelings, so he turns to the metaphor of students being like plants, things that grow—things that begin as nothing, that develop and become fully grown. Each of the metaphors used by the teacher describes his experience in some way. Only through the use of both metaphors in conjunction with one another is it possible for him to express the range of his experience.7 The conception is one of internal growth with a sense of external ordering. Using the trainer metaphor alone could give one the idea that education involves an external ordering only.

The metaphors that the teachers used not only expressed discrepancy between the expected and the experience but also outlined the meaning of the experience. According to Ricoeur, in a metaphor “the meaning is not something hidden but something disclosed.“8 In disclosing meaning, metaphor has two functions: rhetorical and poetic.9 The rhetorical function can be seen when a word or phrase expresses contradiction through the way it is used, or in a proposition contradicting its usual reference. No one, for example, believes that a teacher is a shaken-up bottle of champagne, yet when the statement is made the meaning of the phrase—despite its rhetorical overtones—is immediately understood. Likewise, no one believes that a teacher’s classroom is a railroad station, yet when the statement is made that “during lunch time my room was like Grand Central Station” (55, F, W, Sr/L, Spec. Ed./V.E.) the meaning is conveyed.

The poetic function, on the other hand, can be seen in a perception of reality that contradicts previous conceptions.10 This poetic function involves the presentation of that tension between like and unlike, resemblance and nonresemblance.11 A good example of this contradiction is the metaphor of moldbreaker. One has often heard teachers referred to as molders of youth, yet the teacher here sees the need to break the molds the students have been placed in, in order for these students to achieve their potential. To reach the growth that education is aimed at, the teacher has to break rather than make molds. Another example can be seen in the combination of nurturer and trainer. These separate conceptions, when put together in the tension spoken of above, present an element of contradiction. Training with its external locus of control and nurturance with its internal locus of control can be seen to contradict each other if we do not see the dynamic tension a teacher must make sense out of each day.

What the use of metaphor tells us about teachers’ understanding of these conceptions is that to be a teacher one has to make sense for oneself out of the experiences and roles presented, and at times find new images. Teaching also demands a type of personality that has the determination to focus on the needs of the children in a particular classroom despite the contradictions presented by societal or organizational expectations. In addition, the various metaphors communicate the feeling that the formal training teachers received as students was inadequate, by itself, to meet the actual challenges faced by them in the profession. The traditional images were conveyed in teacher training, but the determination and the need to find meaning for oneself were overlooked there, and thus entry into and continuance in the profession were jeopardized. In short, teaching for the interviewees involved strength of character, the ability to grow and to cope with complex and challenging environments as they sought to aid children in the development of their learning.


Listening to the metaphors used to describe a teacher one might naturally ask what is it that a teacher experiences in teaching. The teachers interviewed have already observed that the answer is not to be found in textbooks, but rather in the multiple experiences that combine with one another to define what it is that is going on in teaching. Through metaphor teachers have identified for themselves those things that they actually experience.

In many of the metaphors, interviewees describe highly idiosyncratic experiences of assuming authority within their circumstances and inductively defining the world of teaching. One teacher explained how he confronted the discrepancy between the expected and the realities of the classroom.

I believe you should try every trick you know to motivate a person, to stimulate a person, to help. But if the person has other pressures upon him, whether it’s innate lack of ability, or family problems, societal problems, where he’s living, or the fact that mom is divorced, or mom has never been married and so forth. I don’t think you’re going to overcome this by some teaching strategy. I think it’s Pollyannish to think so. . . . It’s like the Holy Grail. It’s like my argument about democracy as I teach my students. We have a vested interest in the concept of democracy. I make my speech that we believe that the entire world should be democratic. Of course historically, it’s completely foolish. (42, M, W, Sr/H, Soc.Stud.)

This teacher tries every trick in the book to cope with the pressures exerted on students by forces outside the school. Even his presentation on the concept of democracy does not always ring true, given the need to reconcile expectations and reality.

For some teachers, overcoming the discrepancy occurs as the result of a special experience that puts their work as teachers into a new light. A high school English teacher explained this process as follows:

We used to bowl over at the Congress Bowling Alleys on Monday nights. They were telling me, “You have to hold the ball just so. You take two steps and swing your arm.” Whatever it was, it wasn’t working too well. I heard a voice behind me say: “Mrs. - - - , you bowl like I do English.” It suddenly dawned on me that as teachers we don’t realize—we think it is easy to know a noun from a verb. Easy! Any damn fool can see a noun and a verb are not the same. But kids don’t see it. This youngster was bowling 170-180, and all of a sudden he said, “You bowl like I do English.” I think that made me a better English teacher. (25, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

In the experience of bowling, this teacher learned about the experience of learning and, in turn, teaching.

Coming to terms with one’s own experience was clearly one of the important functions of metaphors for the teachers who were interviewed. Metaphors provided a means by which to cope with fears and apprehension about oneself and expectations about the job of being a teacher. One delightful example of this use of metaphor can be seen in the following description by a high school teacher.

I remember Ethel Barrymore. The day she didn’t have stage fright before she went on stage was the day that she would have walked out. Ethel Merman said she never had it. She didn’t know what it was. I’m the Ethel Barrymore type. I always have stage fright. When it’s not going well, I feel it’s not going well. (51, M, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Beyond the images of Barrymore and Merman, enthusiasm and passion for what one experiences as a teacher were frequently communicated in the metaphors used by the interviewees. Often teachers described what they experienced as though they have to sell a product. Teaching for them not only involved assuming authority through enthusiasm with a touch of inspiration, but also a touch of salesmanship, perhaps even hucksterism.

I think you’ve got something to sell. I’ve got literature for sale. I present it and I am selling it to the kids. (50, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Enthusiasm came through the interviews as a crucial element to support effective teaching over time.12 However, enthusiasm in teaching is an embattled commodity. The enthusiasm that many of the teachers showed for their work was tempered by sobering perceptions of problems within the larger field of education. Concern regarding the rapid growth of knowledge and the complexity of what students had to learn was communicated by a high school teacher using a metaphor drawn from mathematics.

You’ve got to realize that knowledge is increasing exponentially. Our ability to teach seems to be decreasing fractionally or increasing fractionally. . . . The more there is to know in this world, the less we’re able to teach them each year. They’ve got a lot of other things to distract them. We’ve got to find a way to bring that measure of distraction into the school curriculum or we’re going to lose them. (37, M, W, Sr/M, Lang.Arts)

A further sobering perception that the teachers interviewed dealt with was the experience of the loss of the prestige, authority, and power once attached to being a teacher. One teacher trying to maintain enthusiasm and overcome difficulties with her work explained how she coped with the pressures of her job by focusing on what was doable in her classroom.

Sometimes you are up against a brick wall. You have a love of subject matter. Sometimes it’s difficult to communicate that to a student. A student has other things going on in his mind, especially towards the end of the year. The kids are concerned with Grad Night and things like that. You’re trying to get objectives across, and they’re just not responding. You have to realize this is their problem and just try and forge ahead. If they’re not receptive to the idea you try to reach the students that are. (38, F, W, Sr/L, Fine Arts/Art)

For some teachers, there is no reconciling perceived indignities experienced in teaching with their image of themselves as professionals. As one high school teacher complained:

I don’t like being assigned extra little duties that we don’t really need, like lunch duty and hall duty and things like that. This is different from just covering for somebody for an hour or so, whenever they need it. I get coverage from coaching. But, when you only have about a forty-minute lunch break, you should not have to spend ten to fifteen minutes of that break on hall duty. My wife is a nurse. Why does she have to go around changing sheets? That is why they have aides, but she is still doing it. You are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. You should be teaching. You are more babysitting. (39, M, W, Sr/L, Industrial Arts)

Another teacher reacted against her practice that had become mechanical.

I explained it to the children one day. I wasn’t going to do it anymore after that. Have you ever seen at the zoo when an animal does a trick they get a cookie or whatever? I said, “This is what it seems is going on here.” They thought about it, and they said that’s true. (43, F, B, Elem/M, 4th)

Clearly, this teacher needed to take action to eliminate the problem involved in using a prescribed method of special education instruction after she discovered that this method forced her into dealing with students in a way she felt was inappropriate. The image used is particularly striking because it emerged from a special education setting, where its full impact and significance might have been lost on the students.

Despite the travails of teaching, teachers do experience, at times, support and fellowship from their colleagues. As an elementary teacher explained:

My first teaching experience was teaching kindergarten in a private school. It was a parochial school. The faculty was very social and I enjoyed that aspect of it. They also weren’t fuddy duddies. They smoked and they drank. They told dirty jokes, and they did everything that everybody else did. They were just plain human beings and I thoroughly enjoyed my year with them. (32, F, W, Elem/M, 4th)

The assistance provided by such mutual support and networking was indicated in the following:

There are programs where you get to meet and talk with other teachers. Oftentimes, we end up discussing concerns, problems, and we find out that we are the same—we’re not the only pebble on the beach. There are other people out there with the same concerns, the same problems. You can network and provide a support team. (69, F, W, Jr/M, Spec.Ed./V.E.)

The realities experienced in teaching are rarely what most individuals anticipated. Yet despite this fact, the teachers interviewed consistently showed their flexibility and capacity to adapt themselves to different demands and needs. Through this flexiblity and adaptability teachers assumed authority in the world in which they worked. This need to assume authority did not seem, for the most part, to be some sort of need to show who is in charge. Rather it seemed to be the recognition on the part of teachers of their responsibility for children’s learning. This is a responsibility in which they have not been supported by society or the bureaucratic structure. The authority that comes with responsibility is something that must be taken hold of since the present system is not going to give it, and at times does not support those who exercise it. The enthusiasm teachers see as necessary to their work relates to the absence of support for them as they assume the responsibility of teaching.

Another area in which teachers have difficulty finding the expected is in the search for rewards and satisfactions. The metaphors teachers used to describe the rewards and satisfactions they received from their work frequently repeated images they used to describe what it meant to be a teacher. The metaphor, for example, of the teacher as nurturer and gaining satisfaction thereby is clearly evident in the following passage:

I raise cactus and succulents. I had been doing it for a second income before I started teaching night school. . . . I like to see things. grow. I like to go to the flea market and sell someone a cactus and have them say “Oh, how beautiful,” or “I like your arrangement, I’ll buy it.” I get a high, and it’s the same with seeing a student learn new vocabulary. “I didn’t know that word.” Then they start using it. . . . That’s what makes me stay in the profession. I love to see the growth. (23, M, W, Jr/H, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

This image presumes that growth will be visible and that success and satisfaction in the teaching endeavor will be immediately apparent. Yet a number of teachers clearly expressed in their use of metaphors that the pleasures derived from teaching were neither consistent nor always readily apparent. As one teacher indicated:

It’s kind of like a roller coaster. Sometimes I feel that this is the best job in the world and I wouldn’t do anything else. Other times I say, “God I wonder if I could find something else.” But no, it depends on that particular year and how things are going. There’ve been some years where I just decided I didn’t want to teach anymore. Other years, I’ve said, there isn’t a better job in the world. I can’t believe sometimes that they pay me for what I do. (22, M, H, Sr/M, Phys.Ed./Dri.Ed.)

Reflecting on the invisibility of many of the rewards found in teaching, one teacher offered the following advice to new teachers:

I let them know that there are some good and bad parts to it. If they can handle it, it is a very rewarding job. But, if they don’t have their eyes open to see the rewards, they are going to walk right by them. It’s like knowing there’s a pot of gold just under the sand. If all they’re doing is looking out here, they’re going to walk right over it. They’ve got to be able to dig a bit, and look for it. If they say teaching isn’t rewarding, then I’ll call them a liar, because it’s very rewarding. But, you have to be able to know what to look for. (33, F, W, Sr/M, Sci.Bio.)

The pot of gold being sought is not at the end of the visible rainbow, but is instead hidden under the sand. Thus, the rewards of the profession must be searched for and can easily be missed. What teachers are looking for may not be as grand as a pot of gold. Their search may be simply for the little satisfactions in life:

When I was a beginning teacher I was much more interested in just the academics. If the child learned, then that was sufficient for me. In little things I didn’t take time to smell the flowers. I didn’t look for the little things and I do that now. Little things can be very satisfying for me. (56, F, W, Elem/H, Kindergarten)

The need for rewards that were lacking in the professional structure of teaching was indicated in a number of other metaphors used by the teachers. Often the image of being “stroked” appeared. Particularly interesting was the fact that many teachers felt that the only time that they were recognized by the principal was when they were causing some sort of trouble. One teacher described the situation in the following terms:

I look at it this way. . . . As long as you’re driving and you don’t run a red light, or you don’t have an accident, nothing is said about it. You know you’re doing all right . But as soon as you do something wrong then you’re going to get a ticket. Well, I feel that if I do something right, someone should mention that. (28, F, B, Sr/M, Math./Geom.)

Another teacher saw positive stroking by administrators as being as helpful to the administrators themselves as to teachers. If administrators stroked teachers more it might be easier to get them to work more effectively and efficiently in meeting the goals of the administrator.

In my situation other teachers are friendly and we compliment each other. But we don’t get enough from the administration. We get some but we need more. We can go miles with it. We can get ten miles out of one mile worth of gas with stroking. . . . Every week the football team is complimented whether they win or lose. (51, M, W, Sr/L, Lang. Arts/Eng.)

Some teachers offered images that went contrary to the desire for stroking. For them rewards would always be intrinsic. As one teacher put it:

My drive, my energy, just the devotion I have for the profession, . . .

I don’t look for my name in lights. I think that I would perform at a certain level regardless of pay or whatever. (29, M, B, Sr/M, Soc.Stud./Civ./Gov.)

Another teacher saw something unhealthy in the search for positive strokes.

It’s vying for the attention of the principal so that he, as a father figure, will say, “You were a good girl today.” Psychologically that’s about it. What it boils down to, backbiting or whatever it takes to get close to the principal. (34, F, W, Sr/H, Media Spec.)

Rewards and satisfactions for teachers, as expressed in their use of metaphors, emphasized the variety of needs that different teachers have. Any attempt to satisfy or reward teachers cannot rely on a single solution. Even pluralistic models of rewards and satisfactions must be used carefully since some teachers find certain types of rewards and satisfactions expected by other teachers inconsistent with their own professional goals and personas. Although they may not receive such a reward or satisfaction, the fact that it is given out at all is a problem for them.


The review of ideas surrounding rewards and satisfactions presents a world of teachers with different and at times conflicting understandings of these ideas. However in this situation of multiple meaning (authority over the teaching act), teachers seem pretty consistent in maintaining that rewards and satisfactions are present in their experience but are hard to come by and must be gotten for oneself most of the time. This then presents teaching as a tension between the expected/desired and the experienced.

According to Ricoeur, by allowing such tension, the poetic aspect of metaphor “sketches a ‘tensional’ conception of truth.“13 The tension of truth within the metaphor does not determine the meaning the hearer draws from it. Although the speaker uses the tension to overcome contradiction, the nature of the contradiction and tension allows for multiple meaning. Even the individual words used in a metaphor can convey multiple meanings. Polysemy is this “property of words in natural language of having more than one meaning.“14

An example of the use of polysemy can be seen in the following exchange between a veteran high school teacher with nearly forty years of experience and one of the interviewers:

INTERVIEWER: What are the things that bother you?

TEACHER: The fact that we get the blame for everything. We don’t get much credit. I think like everyone else teachers are human. We would like to have our back rubbed once in a while. We have done a good job, and we appreciate recognition. “They” mark us down for doing something.

INTERVIEWER: “They” being?

TEACHER: They being the nebulous “they” that sits in the ivory tower.

INTERVIEWER: The social order or whatever?

TEACHER: Yeah, that sits in the ivory tower. (25, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

The use of “they” by the teacher allows her to express her feelings concerning the forces that are influencing and shaping her day-to-day work, without having to specify their actual source and origin. The use of language in this manner is highly problematic. As Ricoeur explains, there are decided advantages and disadvantages to the use of polysemy:

On the one hand, it satisfies the principle of economy, which is the basic principle for all kinds of languages, at the same time that it allows the contextual game to draw an infinite variety of meaningful effects from this economic structure. But on the other hand, it delivers language to the precarious and haphazard work of interpretation and, therefore, to the risks of ambiguity, equivocity and misunderstanding.15

Given the ambiguous, pluralistic contexts in which teachers typically find themselves working, polysemy can be useful, but also potentially highly misleading. People with different meanings for the same metaphor can believe themselves to be allied with other individuals when in fact the concerns they have are very different. “They” for one person may be society in general, while for another “they” may be the administrators in the school system. Risking the disadvantages of polysemy is the necessary condition for the advantages to come to the fore. As J. B. Thompson points out, “Polysemy, by endowing the word with a surplus of meaning that must be sifted through interpretation, provides the basis for the creative extension of meaning through metaphor.“16

Reflecting on “what it is that they experience,” teachers present a vision of reality that, although it is filled with many creative possibilities to be sifted through, is also fraught with problems and difficulties. Given the multiple understandings of the reality of teaching, terms like responsibility, authority, and rewards and satisfaction will always mean different things to different teachers. Despite this apparently idiosyncratic reality, whatever definitions teachers give to responsibility, authority, and rewards and satisfaction, each of these is always difficult to find. Even though education is a societal function, the metaphors underline the fact that the teacher, in reality, has little or no social status nor authority to act as a professional. Thus, they must work to gain respect. In order to gain this previously expected status and authority, the teacher must be flexible and focus on the manageable and doable. Rewards and satisfaction, although sometimes illusory, are obtainable if a teacher looks hard enough for them. Additionally, such rewards and satisfaction will not be given to the teachers by anyone, but must be sought after by themselves and in some way created by them through their own ingenuity. In the end, even though personal definitions of the reality of teaching are a reflection of the variety of experiences individual teachers possess, the metaphors teachers use outline the confrontation of a reality no teacher escapes, and a tension in the truth of their experiences that demands that they make sense out of teaching—a sense no one else can give them.


As we studied the responses of teachers in the interviews, it became clear that they do not see their work as involving just classroom situations. Instead they also clearly saw themselves functioning in new ways within a larger social and bureaucratic system. Their responses reflect their struggle with new experiences of the question “How does a teacher function as part of a system?” For the teachers interviewed, the single most evident image that seemed symbolic of their work as part of a system was increasing amounts of “paper.”

Victimization was a theme clearly expressed through the metaphor and image of paperwork. Teachers saw paperwork as evidence of teachers’ taking the blame for society’s problems. As one high school physical education teacher conceived it:

Going back to English, because it’s the one I know the best because my wife teaches it. She keeps a folder on each kid and a sheet on each kid and all these things. She spends more time on paperwork than actually what she’s supposed to be doing. Mountains and mountains. Every time there’s something in the paper that says our kids are not graduating with a good enough education we just get a few more forms to fill out. (22, M, H, Sr/M, Phys.Ed./Dri.Ed.)

For a veteran teacher the victimization had become debilitating.

There’s always something hanging over your head that has to be done. You still have to do more. It’s like the pressure of it all. The mounds and mounds of paperwork, not children’s work I’m talking about. But other kinds of forms and charts and other things that you have to turn in to the administration. It’s not them that’s putting it on—it’s coming down through them. It’s funneled down. They say “You must have your teachers do this.” The administration says, “Teachers you must do this and that.” The state is telling the system what they must do and that sort of thing. So all of this combined, it gets to be too much. I’ve had it. I’ve had enough of it. It’s too much to expect of one person. (12, F, B, Elem/H, 2nd)

Underlying this sense of victimization is a perception that the paperwork is meaningless, that is, it does not even accomplish its purpose. In the words of a teacher:

When it comes to all the garbage that we have to do in addition to teaching, it is not going to make us a better teacher. (25, F, W, Sr/L, Lang. Arts/Eng.)

In all the references to teaching as a world of paper, the sense of a bureaucracy that has no focus or control of its destiny comes through. The lack of focus, responsibility, or authority within the system often appears to the teachers as activities in playing a game. A teacher expressed it this way:

The game sometimes bothers me. I feel if you’re reaching the goals that you need to reach with those children you don’t have to play a game. It’s because of the system that you have to play games, and people play games with you. That’s the only way things get done. That’s not teaching. That’s paperwork. I know what my principal wants when it comes to the grade book. I don’t want a hard time, so I’ll play her game. I’ll do everything in blue ink, pretty things, and I’ll make sure it is just so. (21, F, H, Jr/M, 6th)

When teachers accept the “game” aspect of participating in the system, that acceptance brings with it a determination to control one’s own form of participation in the game. This can be seen in the remarks of two teachers. As one commented:

I began to see this is a game. We’ll play it their way, because the rules are stated here. Now I want to win. If those are the rules, we’ll play by them. But I am awfully glad that I had my forty hours of chemistry that I can say, “That’s something I can rely on.” That’s where I go for help. I don’t go to the education books. (47, F, W, Sr/H, Gen.Sci.)

Although not as militant in her response, another teacher sees the game as imposing limits on the “other side.”

Teachers have to assert themselves. The school board has to play the game honestly. If they are going to talk about upgrading education, they have to allow us to do it as teachers. Parents can’t call and say “I want my child in this class,” and have us put the child in this class, whether or not he is capable of doing the work. (25, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/ Eng)

Conceiving the paperwork as the relation of teacher to system, teachers saw this as a classic bureaucratic experience. Even the paperwork game is a signal of a government bureaucracy at work.

If you have a dedicated person you’re not going to have to demand paperwork to prove it. If you have a person who is not dedicated, even then the mountain of paperwork that he passes through isn’t going to say that he is performing. How do you bridge that? Governments like paperwork. (47, F, W, Sr/H, Gen.Sci.)

Going further, an elementary school teacher saw the school system as a bureaucracy within a bureaucracy. As she put it:

Teachers feel that their hands are tied. What good does it do to say anything to the principal? The principal doesn’t have control over it. What good does it even do to complain, if you could get there, to the superintendent of schools? He doesn’t have any say in the matter. (36, F, W, Elem/L, Spec.Ed./L.D.)

Everyone’s hands are tied. As a result, the origin of mandates and directives remains unclear.

From the images of paperwork and metaphors of bureaucracy, it is evident that teachers often do not understand the purpose of the educational system and the reasons for many of its programs. From the strength of the comments there appears to be a chasm between teachers and administrators. Yet, at other times, a sense of both sides being victims of some larger entity becomes a bridge over the chasm.

This victimization by the larger system of which education is but a part has led some teachers to conceive of addressing their plight by taking responsibility and acting. As one teacher sees it:

I’m afraid that we’re going to have to launch a campaign. We are going to have to sell ourselves. We’re going to have to sell what we’re doing. We’re going to have to use the media. We’re going to have to go out and raise funds for ourselves to do this. Somebody is going to have to educate the public. Since nobody seems to read these days, we are going to have to do it with television. We better sit down and face the fact that we are going to have to raise funds to do some real fine publicity. We have to advertise ourselves. (50, F, W, Sr/L, Lang.Arts/Eng.)

Yet another teacher sees the problem as the poor self-image of individual teachers and of the profession as a whole—a self-image that continues to reinforce itself negatively.

If teachers don’t teach well, they don’t have any self-respect either. . . . It’s a vicious cycle as far as I am concerned. It’s like the non-achiever. He doesn’t achieve so he doesn’t try. He doesn’t have success, so why should he try. It keeps going around in a circle. The teaching profession is very much the same. People used to think that education was a snap and say, “Boy I’ll do that.” (32, F, W, Elem/M, 4th)

It is interesting to note that this teacher views part of the problem as coming from an unrealistic original conception of what teaching is.

In trying to conceive of an image for the world of teaching, some teachers used the business world as an image to clarify problems they have with the system. As one teacher viewed it:

They said that even the people who have been there should float. So they have two rooms. I had three or four last year. . . . A business executive doesn’t float around. He has an office and he can be more organized. To work under those conditions seems primitive and silly. (10, F, W, Sr/M, Soc.Stud./His.)

Other teachers’ comments indicate that the business-world image is useful but flawed. In the words of one teacher:

It’s not like being an accountant. Going in there they give you books. It’s either a one or a seven or whatever. In teaching it’s not like that. It’s not either a one or a seven. You’re dealing with human beings, kids that are abused, physically and mentally. You’re dealing with all these personalities in one room. It’s just you. You have to be able to cope. That is a very important skill. (21, F, H, Jr/M, 6th)

Another teacher saw unionization as borrowing an element from business that brought with it undesired and unexpected consequences:

People are becoming more complaisant. Unionization has maybe done some of it by bringing in the time clock. If they are going to sit there and punch you in and punch you out, and you have to be at the school at 8:20, then the whole school will be vacant at 3:40-not a soul will be there working. If you start to leave at 3:40, then you start to think ‘Well I’m not going to take my work home. ” When it becomes a matter of “the union says you’re getting paid for this and da, da, da, and you’re not being paid another cent more, ” then people stop thinking as professionals. Then they start thinking like the blue collar worker who punches a clock and is here for x number of hours. You think they own you or they don’t own you. I don’t know one accountant who’s successful, one doctor, dentist, attorney, or businessman or woman who thinks their day is over when they leave the office. (69, F, W, Jr/M, Spec.Ed./V.E.)


The teachers’ metaphors describing the relation of the individual teacher to the system of education reveal professionals who predominantly see them selves in the nontraditional role of victim. Such an image is a new understanding/meaning for the term teacher—in fact, a somewhat frightening one.

To comprehend this new meaning there is a need to go one step further in understanding the use of metaphor. To this point the concepts outlined have assumed a case in which there is like and unlike and multiple meanings/values (pluralism). As stated earlier, Ricoeur sees metaphor as a circumstance in which the meaning is not something hidden but something disclosed. The disclosure property of metaphor implies that where metaphors are apparent in discourse, there is disclosure of circumstances in which like confronts unlike and multiple meanings/values are the order of the day. Implicit in the existence of metaphors is the description of a reality in which pluralism necessarily resides.

Revealing discrepancies and pluralism alone does not enable one to give order to the differences. Metaphors also provide the means to incorporate differences. They enable the speaker to fuse various horizons into one ordered conception.17 One previously quoted teacher described teaching to people interested in entering the profession as the search for a pot of gold hidden beneath the sand. Usually a pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow. Because the rewards from teaching are not immediately evident for this teacher, her reshaping of the metaphor provides the means to demonstrate the order she finds in her personal experience. An ordered conception such as this is an interplay. “The identity and difference do not melt together but confront each other.“18

The creation of metaphor reflects a power that is not simply responsive, but that goes beyond previous categorizations into new territory. “Metaphor not only shatters the previous structures of our language, but also the previous structures of what we call reality.“19 Metaphors are therefore iconoclastic.

This iconoclastic function of metaphors repeated itself time and again throughout the interviews. In a previously quoted metaphor, an elementary teacher involved in special education expressed her frustration over the use of behavior modification techniques. She did so by evoking an image of her students as animals at the zoo being given cookies to perform tricks. Through the use of this metaphor the teacher creates an iconoclastic image. Significantly, this iconoclastic function provides the means by which to create a new icon. Through the use of a powerful metaphor, an otherwise relatively inarticulate teacher is able not only to see the failure of an old conception, but also to formulate a new conception to take its place. In this case, the conception is the image of a real dialogue with special education students about their education. The teacher is not simply an icon breaker, but also an icon maker.

For Ricoeur, “the strategy of metaphor is heuristic fiction for the sake of redescribing reality.“20 Redescribing reality is a confirmation of “interest in emancipation.“21 It is clear from the context that the use of a zoo as the metaphor for schooling was an ironic expression of a desire to redescribe reality for the purpose of emancipating the students involved.

Thus, despite the fact that they see themselves as being victimized, teachers remain remarkably self-confident and firm in their conviction about what they are doing. This is so because they have struggled with ambiguity and have somewhat successfully reshaped their authority in the classroom. These are individuals who have taken responsibility for their lives and have, iconoclastically, given themselves new meaning within the context of their work. As a result, they are surviving as part of the bureaucracy. However, because the system does not provide the freedom necessary to do the work, these people become adept at playing bureaucratic games. In a society that often seems unclear about the purpose of education, the educational system seems reactive to every movement in society. In the teachers’ perceived need to compare teaching to other professions, it would appear that the conception of teaching as a profession in its own right is unclear. This lack of clarity (meaning) in both the profession and the system may be a significant factor in the difficulty many teachers have in finding for themselves a clear role or a place (new meaning) in the system. The profession is unclear as to the authority, responsibility, and freedom teachers have when they teach, while the system is unclear as to what authority, responsibility, and freedom society has given to it.


Faced with unexpected situations in which the stock answers were inadequate to describe their experience, the teachers interviewed responded to the uncertainty by developing or reformulating answers through the use of metaphor. However, Dan Lortie, in Schoolteacher, maintains that in the face of such uncertainty

eased entry and unstepped careers exacerbate rather than alleviate the feelings of uncertainty provoked by teaching tasks. Uncertainty, under these conditions, can be transformed into diffuse anxiety and painful self-doubt, which reduce the psychic rewards of classroom teaching.22

Thus, because of the reduction of psychic rewards in the actual work of teaching, the teacher is confronted with critical questions. The answers that teachers develop enable them to assume authority and responsibility in the situations confronting them. Ricoeur calls this use of metaphor as the means of taking control of the unknown and unexplained “appropriation.“23 For these teachers, metaphor provides a means by which they can construct and express their understanding of social reality when the definitions and understandings presented to them fail to provide adequate meaning.

Given the endemic uncertainties in teaching, how can a teacher learn the appropriate ways to assume authority and responsibility? Paulo Freire has proposed a theory of education and culture in which those being educated (and in turn teachers themselves) do not simply adapt to a given scenario. Rather, those being educated integrate themselves into their reality through their exercise of “the critical capacity to make choices and transform that reality.“24 Through the metaphors that teachers use, the process Freire calls “conscienticization” or “critical self-insertion into reality” takes place with respect to their identity as teachers.25

Despite the assertion of self-identity, and its attendant liberation, the metaphors teachers use continue to reveal a negative attitude toward both education as a social system and the preparation they received in teacher education. Freire observes that every announcement of critical consciousness brings with it a concomitant denunciation.26 However, it seems that the denunciation has a deeper tone of estrangement—an estrangement from freedom—that exists in the face of apparent liberation through the assumption of authority and responsibility.

Maxine Greene sees this estrangement as endemic in teaching. The teacher as stranger is very much a “Hemingway hero.“27 This estrangement, reflected in a negative attitude toward education as a social system, may come from the failure to achieve effective praxis (the integration of theory and practice). True praxis, as Greene observes, is a collective not an individual project.28 Facing education as an ineffective social system, the individual can continue to feel dominated and lacking in self-assurance. Yet teachers do experience a certain level of control. They find rewards in their teaching and see success. There is a sense of hope in the endeavor of education, even though their estrangement, at times, makes it an ambivalent hope. This estrangement marks the limits of appropriation, limits that the neophyte must learn to confront in the quest for critical self-insertion into reality. One may try to self-insert, but what if reality rejects the form of self-insertion?

Henry Giroux sees such a dilemma and its ambivalent hope as part of the experience of the hegemony of education as a social system. Hegemony used in this context is the predominant influence of one state of affairs over all others. Hope lies in the reality that the terrain of hegemony is a constantly shifting and active relation between ideology and power.29 It is not a cohesive force. “It is riddled with contradictions and tensions that open up the possibility for counter-hegemonic struggle.“30 In the teacher metaphors described in this study, hope is found for a counter-hegemonic struggle to improve the praxis of education. Ambivalence results from the absence of ways to collectively harness teacher authority, responsibility, and freedom into a counter-hegemonic struggle. The absence of such a struggle may only reinforce the teacher’s feeling of estrangement from the dominant hegemony.

Since effective praxis is a collective endeavor, how effective can education be as a social system if the work force is so disaffected? The metaphors of teachers demonstrate they have something clear and important to contribute to the talk about teaching. Teacher metaphors, as counter-hegemonic language, expose contradictions inherent in the existing fabric of the educational hegemony. A confrontation of both false assumptions and false practices is necessary to bring about improved practice, or even the effective praxis that the current hegemony itself claims to seek. Teacher metaphors related to education as a social system expose areas in which dialogue should begin.

Metaphors that demonstrate a negative attitude toward preparation received in teacher education appear to suggest another problem. Giroux observes that teacher education programs are, by and large, part of the dominant ideology and hegemony of social control.31 Teacher metaphors have a contribution to make here by demonstrating critical areas unaddressed, or underaddressed, by teacher education programs. In metaphors, teachers name for themselves the critical experiences of their lives. Such naming, when it can be generalized to the experience of others, is what Freire calls “generative words.“32 Although Freire presents generative words as leading to literacy, for the teacher, the generative situations, or problem posing, that lead to metaphor are events or experiences that make them critically conscious about teaching rather than reading. Exploration of teacher metaphors on a larger scale can lead to the identification of critical events in teaching and how the teacher experiences them. Such events and experiences, if introduced into teacher education programs, can provide a dialectic for current programs in order to expand the repertoire of the teacher-to-be and illuminate his or her entry into the reality of the profession, as it is experienced. For teachers in the field, who experience these critical moments as interfering with their teaching performance, the use of metaphors and the events confronted through metaphor can enable them to appropriate as their successful colleagues do, that is, to envision ways to change their circumstances and deal with the basic contradictions and tensions found in the process of schooling.33

In the ambivalent hope evident in teacher metaphors one can observe in action Maxine Greene’s perception that the teacher is “stranger, homecomer, questioner and goad to others.“34 Facing critical questions, the teacher, as individual, is “condemned to meaning and compelled to choose.“35 Such a choice becomes possible through the use of metaphor. Yet metaphor also reveals the distance of the individual from the agenda of both education as a social system and teacher education—a distance that needs to be bridged. Teacher metaphors, systematically understood, can become a basis for dialogue between teachers, corporately, and the educational system, as well as between the reality of teacher experience and teacher education programs. Such a corporate dialogue may result in teachers’ being better able to go be yond the experience of endemic uncertainty as stranger and questioner to the achievement of the profession’s traditional goal of the more psychically rewarding experience of a homecomer and goad to others.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 4, 1989, p. 551-573
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 475, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 3:15:34 AM

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