19 Metaphors about Teachers and Teaching that Pop! (2019)

metaphors about teaching

We can use metaphors about teachers to get deeper insights into what a teacher does with their day.

Here’s some reasons we might want to reflect on metaphors for teaching: 

  1. It can help people considering a career in teaching to get a better understanding of what they would be doing;
  2. It can help teachers explain what they do to others (including parents);
  3. It can help teachers to reflect on their job role and what they really should be spending their time on.
  4. It can give teachers a laugh!

So here are the 19 best teaching metaphors.

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The Best Metaphors about Teachers

1. A teacher is a gardener.

Friedrich Froebel developed this metaphor to explain the role of the teacher, student and environment in early childhood education.

Froebel believed that the ideal learning environment for children is in a private natural setting away from the corruption of the adult world beyond. He saw schools as gardens (hence: kindergarten, German for children’s garden).

The children would be flowers, naturally growing and blooming into something beautiful.

Teachers, therefore, were gardeners: gently tending to the children’s needs. Teachers should nourish and nurture children, ensuring they have the perfect environment for their development in the garden.

You can read more about Froebel in this post on contemporary perspectives of education.

2. A teacher is a coach.

A teacher who is a coach is different to a teacher who is a gardener. When we think of coaches, we think of tough love. The coach pushes us to go beyond our limits. When we’re hurting, the coach tells us: “just a little more”.

Of course, teachers aren’t coaches in quite the same way as sports coaches, but there are many overlaps that make this metaphor relevant and useful for reflecting on the role of an educator in the 21st Century.

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3. A teacher is a juggler.

Any teacher would agree with this one! Teaching requires multiprocessing. A class full of 20 to 30 students is hard to manage at the best of times. Add to this that different children have different abilities, learning styles and needs, and you can see why this metaphor works.

Here’s just a few of the things a teacher might need to keep in their mind at any point in time:

  • The needs of children with learning disabilities
  • The fact that a few students will fly ahead of the class and finish work super early
  • A few students won’t be able to understand the topic and will need additional support
  • One or two students don’t get along and need to be kept in separate spaces in the classroom
  • A child needs to have his medications at an exact point part way through the lesson
  • One child is extra sensitive to sunlight and needs to be kept away from the windows
  • Etc. Etc.

The list goes on: and the teacher needs to juggle all of these competing needs and demands at once.

Read Also: A List of 107 Effective Classroom Teaching Strategies

4. A teacher is a firefighter.

The metaphor of the ‘teacher as firefighter’ refers to the fact that teachers are constantly ‘putting out spot fires’.

In other words, throughout the day, the teacher will be dealing with dozens of little issues that pop up that they need to deal with.

Here’s how it might work:

  • Before school even begins, a teacher gets a message: one of the students has got lice and needs to be separated from the rest of the class
  • A parent comes into the classroom just as the bell for the start of the day rings. She wants you to give her son harder homework
  • A student has turned up on a hot day only wearing a hoodie. He hasn’t got a t-shirt on underneath, but he’ll overheat wearing just a hoodie. You need to find him a shirt
  • During the literacy lesson, three children want your attention at once, but someone’s knocked on the door and needs your assistance immediately.
  • At lunch, two children have gotten into a fistfight. One walks into the class with a bloody nose. You still have to teach your lesson while dealing with all that blood.

And on and on it goes. Put out all those fires and still make it to the end of the day!

5. A teacher is a dictator.

In a classroom of 25 students, you’re the boss. What you says goes. Well, at least that’s the idea of a traditional ‘behaviorist’ classroom management approach.

The reality is that behavior management is tough – real tough!

But, in many classrooms, that’s what many teachers aim for. It’s not a democracy, it’s not one-vote-each. You’re the adult, and you need to take control of this situation! You’re the dictator!

(P.S. For new teachers, I always point them to Smart Classroom Management. It’s undoubtedly the best resource you can find on how to improve your classroom behavior management.)

6. A teacher is a chairperson.

Of course, some people disagree with my above metaphor. Some people might prefer to say that the teacher is the chairperson of a democratic classroom. Children should get a vote and a say in all things in the classroom. 

This metaphor might be used by people who believe in progressive education by the likes of John Dewey. In this approach, the goal is to raise democratic child citizens who value compromise, empowerment of the collective will, and know how to contribute to a positive democratic atmosphere.

And it’s the teacher’s job to facilitate all that democratic energy!

7. A teacher is a sculptor.

Teachers get students at the start of the school year who have unrefined views about all sorts of things. We’ll ask them questions about topics and they’ll be misinformed, not understand, or simply not know about the topics.

But as we go throughout the year, our children develop deeper knowledge on their topic and we can see them becoming ‘more refined’. The ideas in their minds start ‘taking shape’.

This sounds a lot like the work of a sculptor. She starts out with a square lump of clay and over time works away at it to reveal something more refined and sculpted within.

8. A teacher is a big hug.

Sometimes a teacher can be that warm, comforting person in someone’s life that makes them feel safe and happy. If there’s one teacher who might be referred to as a ‘big hug’, it would be Miss Honey from Matilda. Matilda’s life at home is terrible, but every day she comes to school and Miss Honey is there to welcome her and make her feel safe and at home.

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9. A teacher is like a doctor.

Sometimes teachers need to ‘diagnose’ things. Just like a doctor needs to look at all of the factors that impact on a patient, teachers need to look out for all the factors that might be causing learning difficulties. This can be a powerful message for an educator who needs to be seen as a professional who identifies and diagnoses challenges facing learners.

However, some might disagree with this metaphor. Doctors look for deficits that need to be fixed. For teachers, there needs to be a focus on looking out for strengths in a student and helping children out on those strengths.

What do you think? Is the ‘doctor’ metaphor appropriate for teachers?

10. A teacher is a babysitter.

Too often, teachers are accused of being ‘just babysitters’. This analogy can be damaging to the teaching profession because it downplays the importance of education and schooling. A teacher doesn’t mind children: she helps children develop knowledge, social skills, physical abilities, and critical thinking.

11. A teacher is a second parent.

Of course, a teacher isn’t literally a second parent. However, we use this metaphor about teachers to show just how important teachers are to a student’s life. School teachers spend long periods of the day with students, day after day. Because they spend so much time with a student, they often become a confidante and support network. They also develop intimate knowledge of the student and know the student almost as well as parents would.

12. A teacher is a tour guide.

While most students and teachers can’t literally travel the world, a teacher can help inspire students in the same way as a tour guide. The teacher leads the student through interesting new concepts, places and ideas. Their goal is to inspire students to be interested in the topics, learn from them, and develop as people. This metaphor of a teacher as tour guide also shows that teachers need to ‘guide’ and ‘support’ rather than simply ‘tell’. A tour guide provides guidance, but isn’t an overbearing authority figure.

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13. A teacher is a superhero.

Throughout the year, we often celebrate teachers at schools. Teachers do amazing things for students. They help students to see the world as an inspiring, amazing place. They might also give students hope for a better future, provide students with self-confidence, and let people see the possibilities of self-improvement.

With teachers occupying such an important role in students’ lives, it’s not surprising that you sometimes hear someone using the exaggeration: my teacher is my hero!

14. A teacher is a playmate.

While at first this metaphor may seem derogatory to teachers, it may also be seen in a positive light. In the 21st Century, play-based learning is considered one of the best ways to encourage deep thinking, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Play also helps children develop social and communication skills.

So, many teachers – of young students and older students – see themselves as leaders in play, there to observe children’s play and provide developmentally appropriate resources that ensure play encourages learning to occur.

15. A teacher is a captain.

“Oh captain, my captain” is the famous line in the great movie Dead Poet’s Society. In this movie, the teacher (John Keating) comes across a group of disaffected young people. Over his time with them, he shows them the way and ‘steers the ship’ – just like a captain! He shows them the beauty in poetry and literature, showing the boys the value in learning.

16. A teacher is a lifeline.

Sometimes a teacher is the only person left who believes in a student. Children from troubled homes or who feel isolated from their communities may learn on their teacher for support. Hence, a teacher might be the last ‘lifeline’ for a young person seeking meaning and a better future for themselves.

17. A teacher is a compass.

The compass metaphor is very similar to the captain metaphor. The compass points students in the right direction. It is a guide to show the way for learning a new concept or striving for a better life. However, while the captain metaphor implies the teacher is a leader, the compass metaphor doesn’t have this leadership element within it.

18. Teaching is like herding cats.

Can you picture in your mind someone herding cats? It would be a hilarious sight! The cats will have minds of their own, running around and evading capture. 

Similarly, for teachers, managing to orchestrate and control a classroom full of students sounds like an impossible task. Students will be running around hanging off the ceiling whenever the teacher turns her back!

19. A teacher builds skyscrapers.

Teaching takes time to build up a student’s knowledge and skills. You might have heard the saying “teaching involves building skyscrapers, not baking cakes”. Baking a cake involves putting in all the ingredients then waiting while the cake sets. But building skyscrapers involves slow, taxing work.

Teachers and their students place one brick at a time until a tall, strong “skyscraper” of knowledge is constructed. This skyscraper will be strong and withstand strong winds and storms.

Final Thoughts

Metaphors about teachers help us to get a greater appreciation of all the various roles, tasks and responsibilities of a teacher. It also gives us a chance to reflect on what sort of teacher we want to be: you can be a captain, a lifeline, a doctor, or even a dictator!

I’d love to keep building this list, so if you have any other metaphors that come to mind, please do share them in the comments section below!

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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