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July 9, 2024
ASCD Blog

Why Do We Use War Metaphors to Talk About Teaching?

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Shifting the metaphors we use to describe education can inspire partnership and collective growth.
School CultureProfessional Learning
Illustration of a woman watering plants while standing in front of a symbolic image of flames, symbolizing a shift from metaphors of conflict to metaphors of care and community
Credit: GoodStudio / Shutterstock
“Clad in armor”—that’s how a colleague of ours described her mindset as a new teacher. Looking back on the start of her career, she said that her best advice to her younger self would be to take the armor off and be more vulnerable, flexible, and caring.
That’s good advice, but it’s hardly the prevailing message heard by new educators. Instead of shedding their armor, new teachers are often told to ready themselves for battle. Listen carefully at your next faculty meeting, and you may hear educators described as “boots on the ground” or “forces in the trenches.” Teachers are called on to “lead the charge,” “hit targets,” and “attack” problems.
Our organization UP for Learning works with youth and adults who are actively reimagining what education could be. That work is as much about mindset—and the language we use to convey it—as it is about a school’s policies and practices. So, we wonder: Why do people use war metaphors to discuss working in schools? What message does that language send to the next generation of educators? And how can we shift that metaphor from one of conflict to one of community?

The Power of Language

Perhaps war metaphors are the easiest shorthand we have for the grind of teaching. Working in education is often more exhausting and less rewarding than it should be: In trying to give our students the best experience, teachers push up against the constraints of the system, often in ways that leave them feeling isolated or even attacked by colleagues, administrators, parents, or the public. Battles and wars can seem like fitting descriptors for this work, especially at a time of media reports on school violence, conflict-filled school board meetings, and anti-teacher political rhetoric. Metaphors are not just linguistic devices—they help us visualize and convey our mental models, the stories we tell ourselves to help us interpret the world. Ultimately these prevalent metaphors reflect a vision of education that is deficit-focused and backwards-facing. They help us to describe the undesirable present rather than to build toward an ideal future.
Researchers have documented the contagious nature of “negative co-rumination” among educators, finding that teachers who had frequent conversations about what was wrong with their school were more likely to show signs of burnout than those who had more positive conversations. Similarly, positive and intentional relationships with colleagues and administrators are linked with higher job satisfaction and retention among new teachers who are more likely to stay in the profession when they feel a sense of voice, partnership, and inclusion in their schools.

Rethinking the language we use to talk about teaching may help us reshape schools in ways that are better for all who work in them.

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Living up to those values of voice, partnership, and inclusion requires commitment and hard work, but one first step is to imagine new metaphors and mental models. Rethinking the language we use to talk about teaching may help us reshape schools in ways that are better for all who work and learn in them.

Exploring New Metaphors

If we truly want to reimagine and transform education in a way that supports teacher and student well-being, we should be using a mental model that emphasizes traits like partnership, community, curiosity, discovery, possibility, creativity and collaboration. We explore three alternative metaphors below—and invite you to develop your own.

Education as Sustainable Agriculture

Regenerative or sustainable agriculture emphasizes how all aspects of the environment are connected through a web or system. The principles behind this dynamic system of agriculture are meant to restore soil and ecosystem health, address inequity, and leave the earth in better shape for future generations. These are not new practices, as indigenous people have farmed in this manner for generations. In this metaphor, we are reminded of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writing on the indigenous practice of the Three Sisters planting corn, beans, and squash. The plants are more productive grown together: “Only when standing together does a whole emerge that transcends the individual. The gifts of each are more fully expressed when they are nurtured together than alone.”
Using this metaphor, we might think of education as a practice of growing with challenges, rather than fighting against them. Our schools have long been places where collaborative, intergenerational partnerships have flourished. So, what if we took a lesson from sustainable agriculture and thought about how we can ensure that all parts of the school ecosystem—teachers, students, parents, administrators, and on and on—are connected, healthy, equitable and sustainable? What if we asked our new teachers not to be “boots on the ground,” but “cultivators of community”?

Education as a Community Garden

For readers living in the city, it may be more challenging to conjure up an image of a farm, but how about thinking of schools as a community garden? A place grounded in shared values and a desire to nurture growth? One gardener might have a strength in growing peppers; another might thrive when it comes to growing flowers. In a community garden, all members share their tools, techniques, and love for gardening with one another.
The result is a project rooted in community, where creative problem-solving and curiosity are key, and where everyone has a stake in the outcome. Using community gardens as a metaphor for schools emphasizes adaptability and collaboration. This mental shift may inspire teachers to view their classrooms as places where they have autonomy to explore new solutions to meet the unique needs of their students.

Education as an Orchestra

Our last alternative is to think about education as a symphony orchestra. In an orchestra, the players and conductor share a common goal: To play a piece of music together, as beautifully as they can. Everyone involved, from the violins to the percussion, supports the common goal. Collaboration is key to success, and individuals are engaged and motivated to hone their craft not just for their own recognition, but also to uphold their accountability to their fellow musicians. An orchestra, with its complexity of sounds, is a celebration of harmony and diversity.
Gathering and playing with others leaves your heart full—a feeling experienced by many people who have played in an orchestra or band, or who have been part of a dance group, theatrical production, or sports team. These endeavors are hard work. But the sense of collective mission—working with rather than against—makes it joyful work, too.

Ideas for Action

Suggestions for how you can engage your community in reimagining the metaphors we use in education.

  1.  Use this activity, along with this blog post, at a faculty meeting or in a community dialogue with students and families to explore the power of metaphor together.

  2. As part of new teacher mentorship or induction programs, invite participants to share their educational philosophies and to imagine metaphors that align with them. Return to these visions throughout the year.

  3. Pay attention to the language and metaphors that you hear yourself and your colleagues using.

    1. Make a list of words related to war or factories as you hear them in school. Notice during a typical school day how often these words are used in conversation or written communications with students, teachers, administrators, or parents.

    2. Are there particular contexts in which these words are used more often? (Such as staff meetings, IEP meetings, standardized tests?)

    3. Discuss with your colleagues – Hypothesize about what consequences seem to occur as the result of this language.

 

New Metaphors Lead to New Priorities

While changing our mental models in this way might seem like a superficial semantic shift, we believe that language matters! The collective language used in schools shapes the way educators, students, families, and the community think, feel, and act. In these alternative metaphors, the goals of student learning and growth are complemented by a desire for collaboration, celebration, and sustainability. They help us understand education as a partnership among teachers, administrators, staff, parents, caregivers, and community members. Perhaps most critically, these new metaphors make space for students as partners in their education.
Shifting schools toward a culture of partnership and collaboration yields positive results. At UP for Learning, we use the power of metaphor to think about what is needed to nourish a healthy and positive youth-adult partnership. In supporting youth-adult teams to move into this more collaborative paradigm, we found that youth have a strong desire to help their schools meet the needs of all learners. Young people want to be a part of making our schools better! When the structure of school orients young people as partners (in a garden or an orchestra), there are a whole host of benefits for everyone: Students report higher confidence, a greater sense that they are heard and respected, and see themselves as change-makers. On an institutional level, such partnership can lead to more effective implementation of initiatives, improvements in classroom practices, and stronger relationships between students and teachers.

Pat LaClair is a Program Director at UP for Learning, joining the organization after 10 years of teaching middle and high school in northern Vermont. He began his career as a Latin teacher, but found a true passion in supporting students through personalized, project-based learning.

UP for Learning supports youth-adult teams in schools around the country as they identify, explore, and take action on issues of shared importance. UP co-designs projects with school partners focused on social-emotional learning, student voice, equity, and sustainability. We support these school teams as they analyze data and implement a plan of action for systemic change, based on community input.

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Lindsey Halman is the executive director of UP for Learning, a nonprofit with the mission of empowering youth and adults to reimagine and transform education together. Prior to joining UP, she spent 15 years as a middle-level educator, leader and advocate, co-founding The Edge Academy in Essex, Vermont.

UP for Learning supports youth-adult teams in schools around the country as they identify, explore, and take action on issues of shared importance. UP co-designs projects with school partners focused on social-emotional learning, student voice, equity, and sustainability. We support these school teams as they analyze data and implement a plan of action for systemic change, based on community input.

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