Metaphors on teachers

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon

WE value the fact that among all creation, it is only us humans who have the ability to communicate through the spoken word. Let us fully use this gift as teachers. Creation continues through the Word. Often, though, the plain use of words do not suffice to communicate what our message really is. Whilst our minds can draw from the infinite to share in the spirit, we can only muster plain speech. This would not fully express what we have in mind and heart. Is it because we are finite? So, we resort to metaphors. Just as the cave man expressed his thoughts in picture alphabets, we use picturesque words to better express ourselves.

Once in a MAEd class, I shared with students a metaphor of me as then a teacher in a high school class of a lower section. “I thought of myself as a midwife to my class,” I said. “I encouraged the class with soothing words whilst they ‘labored’ to form their answers, helped them give ‘birth to their ideas.’” One of the MAEd students remarked, “Ma’am, in ‘midwifing’ your class, you had only a brief span of ‘connectiveness’ to the class.” “Why? How?” I asked. The student explained, “A midwife assists the mother only a week or so until the umbilical cord has healed. And then, the midwife is gone. You were gone soon, Ma’am. Your role was finished!”

Her observation made sense. I realized then, that a teacher’s role need not be short-lived. But this brings us to the difference between a teacher and a mentor. A teacher’s role is tied to months, to a term, whether this is a trimester, semester or a full school year. That of a mentor lasts for a lifetime. I have students, (the Nazarios of Morristown) now pleasantly retired expatriates, several from the honors class of the late 70’s (Manny and sister Diana Engwa et al.) who sustain conversations through a loop of us —- their batch mates and teachers —with emails twice, thrice weekly, indicating hyperlinks on Brexit, the digital divide, Aero farms and through Snail Mail Daniel Tammet’s “stunning rumination on mathematics,” whole pages of the NY Times on Shakespeare, etc. But what makes a teacher a mentor would be another story.

Metaphors are multifaceted and expand interpretation. Proceeding with metaphors on teachers, here are several I have come across over the years. As a fountain of knowledge — this likens a teacher to a natural source (fountain or spring) or to a man-made source such as a “faucet” (a simile!) is turned on to pour knowledge over “vessels” (“vessels” refer to learners, a metaphor). Stretching the metaphor of the fountain of knowledge likens knowledge to something that quenches thirst and that nourishes, such as water. The fountain itself is rich in an associative sense, as in “the fountain of life,” or “the fountain of wisdom.” Expanding the metaphor to implications in a class, we associate learners either as “active learners” as in those who from their own accord go to “drink from the fountain” of knowledge or the “passive ones,” who, like vessels, “wait to be filled up” with knowledge from the fountain. Extending the waiting “vessel” metaphor would point to two types of passive learners as “vessels” with varying capacities to “contain” or absorb knowledge. There are “vessels” that can hardly be filled up because they leak; hence can contain only minimal or almost no knowledge at all from what drips from the fountain. That the “vessels” could be in different sizes, hence with varying capacity to absorb knowledge, would indicate a “mixed” class, no “sectioning,” to speak of. This quite meandering discussion of a teacher as “a fountain of knowledge” attempts to show the multiple associations — the pictures — some vivid, some faint — that one can draw from a simple metaphor.

Another metaphor is as a tour guide. Here are two kinds of tour guides — one, a guide of a “commercial” tour and another one, a “local tour guide.” By commercial, I refer to the tours such as those in my early days of study in Japan. One did not have much to choose within a tour. Tours were either solely of temples or of shops or of schools. No changes were possible. Routes and schedules were struck on stone. Hence, a commercial tour guide metaphor of a teacher is one whose syllabus is firm and final. No room for students’ choice of what to learn within a given theme. Contrary to today’s approach, graduate students help decide on student learning outcomes (SLO’s). For this reason, and especially in the arts and social sciences classes, I prefer the metaphor of a local guide. A local guide would ask what the tourist prefers to visit, suggests places the tourist may not have heard about, would almost guess one’s preferences, does not hurry and is generous of his/her time.

Visualize a teacher as a gardener, a great one, who nurtures with nature (no climate change then when Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote Emile). There are other metaphors such as teachers as artists who are “able to insert a large portion of themselves into their work;” as jugglers, who multi-task – attending to “students’ needs, colleagues, parents, lesson plans, grading homework, providing feedback, and reporting at meetings, etc, — while maintaining some semblance of a personal life;” a coach — “thrives when students collaborate and succeed, and push them when they’re on the verge of failing.” For more metaphors, visit<>Please, share us your metaphor!

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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and institutional management experts, held top academic positions at Xavier University (the Ateneo de Cagayan) before heading chartered institutions. She studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Great Britain and Japan. An internationalization consultant on call, she is copy editor of the Liceo journals, and professorial lecturer at the Graduate Studies of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro City). Awards include a Lifetime Professional Achievement Award from the Commission on Higher Education.


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