My fellow school staff and I shuffle through the sweltering high school auditorium and slide along the graffitied bleachers to attend the back-to-school pep rally. The marching band plays the fight song, the feedback on the microphones waxes and wanes, and the union rep announces the meeting for later in the day. The assembly culminates in a speech by the superintendent.
I hear phrases such as “fighting the good fight” and “heroes for the cause of education”—more narrative about victory in spite of the budget cuts and other setbacks. He concludes with a declaration that teachers are “on the frontlines” and the administration is our “base.” As the teachers politely applaud, I look around me wondering if I’m the only one finding this speech problematic.
The violent imagery evoked by these war metaphors fails to put teachers in right relationship with students. Democratic classrooms do not seek to struggle against students or to triumph over students’ knowledge deficits, but to thoughtfully consider multiple viewpoints and attention to otherness. Seeing ourselves as war heroes—the traditional narrative about teaching underprivileged children—casts us in a conqueror role. This is the antithesis of who we need to be as leaders of cooperative learning communities.
When we refer to teachers as working “in the trenches,” we are trying to describe the complex array of factors that go into teaching a room full of students day in and day out. Teachers may indeed see themselves as “fighting” poverty, escapist attitudes in students, ignorance or systemic injustice.
But I worry that these war metaphors perpetuate a culture of violence and a reductionist view of the issues surrounding education. In war, armies oversimplify the enemy by using dehumanizing stereotypes to justify firing the shots. When we use war metaphors to discuss the classroom, we run the risk of creating a hostile school environment where neither teachers nor students are seen for who they really are. Narratives based on violence and conflict can lead teachers to conceptualize their interactions with students as a zero-sum game. This dynamic cannot foster the interdependence and mutual respect needed to arrive at transformative change.
Forming new metaphors for our roles in our classroom and communities will allow us to act and think in new ways.
Teachers and administrators should take the time to try on different metaphors and find the images that most closely align with their work. Envisioning the classroom as a space for empathy building, inquiry and discovery leads to alternative metaphors for teachers—such as guides, gardeners or even midwives. Seeing classrooms as art studios or innovation labs where students craft their vision casts teachers as mentors, coaches and advisors. Illustrating teaching and learning as creating art, growing life or exposing students to new experiences redraws the student-teacher relationship as caring and empathy-based. These models better describe the work teachers do to prepare students for the deep listening and creative problem solving they—and we—need for the future.
Ricket is a high school English teacher in Ohio.