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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Teaching Is Like . . . ?

Writing a metaphor for their work can focus and energize educators.

He put the little vibrator in his coat pocket and went out to hunt a half-built steel building. Finding one in the Wall Street district, 10 stories high, with nothing up but the steelwork, [Tesla] clamped the vibrator to one of the beams. "In a few minutes," he told the reporter, "I could feel the beam trembling. Gradually, the trembling increased in intensity and extended throughout the whole great mass of steel. Finally, the structure began to creak and weave, and the steelworkers came to the ground panic-stricken, believing there had been an earthquake. . . . Before anything serious happened, I took off the vibrator, put it in my pocket, and went away. But if I had kept it on 10 minutes more, I could have laid that building flat in the street. And, with the same vibrator, I could drop the Brooklyn Bridge in less than one hour."—Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man out of Time
It's a powerful image: Tesla, with his pocket vibrator, setting off vibrations that could cause a steel building to tumble. A lot of little pushes in the right place can achieve big results.
In teaching, we often use the metaphor of resonance. Literally, resonance means "to resound or sound again; to echo." Stories "ring true"; we are "in (or out of) tune with the times"; we find people who are "on the same wavelength." In physics and in life, for something to resonate, it needs a force to pull it back to its starting place and enough energy to keep it going. Science writer K. C. Cole (1999) explains: "Two can play this game much better than one, because one can feed energy to the other. That's what sympathetic vibrations are all about" (p. 166).
In our complex professional world, we are often separated into our professional disciplines. Many of us search, and yearn, for sympathetic vibrations. Instead, our faculties are too full of internal friction to resonate. Educators at the Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Professional Studies have formed an interdisciplinary community that resonates with ideas and that produces those little nudges that can lead to big changes.

Getting Together

The power of resonance comes from literally being in the right place at the right time. For it to work, there has to be harmony between what you're doing and the way something (or someone) wants to go. (Cole, 1999, p. 166) In fall 1998, we came together as members of the graduate school's Core Committee, which offers interdisciplinary courses to our students. Some of us (David Hagstrom, Ruth Hubbard, and Caryl Hurtig) had belonged to the committee previously, but the other three members (Peter Mortola, Jill Ostrow, and Valerie White) were new to both the committee and the university.
Our initial discussions resulted in a joint research and writing endeavor that grew beyond our committee's original charge. We each chose a graduate student to shadow for a day, in an attempt to understand his or her world. Our students are all either interns or working professionals in different disciplines, so spending a day with a student offered new insight into the personal and professional demands on our students. We believed that such a micro-ethnography would provide rich data that could help us see our programs through our students' eyes.
Beyond the learning that took place in this joint endeavor, we discovered that working together stimulated and renewed teaching. When our research—and our year as a committee—ended, we wanted to continue to meet monthly as a writing group to discuss the outgrowths of what we had explored together. Through our continued sharing and writing, we find new ways to refresh our teaching.

Discovering Our Root Metaphors

To describe the unknown, we must resort to concepts that we know and understand, and that is the essence of a metaphor—an unusual juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar. (MacCormac, 1990, p. 9) Early in our research, we discovered the potential significance of metaphor in our teaching lives through psychology professor Peter Mortola's interview with a student he shadowed. The student, a children's counselor, learns a great deal from riding horses. One horse would not respond to her commands, resulting in control issues between horse and rider. The student learned to find her balance on the horse and rode him in circles when he acted up. When he responded to her commands, she let the horse canter around the arena. The horse learned that he needed to work with the student and that to have freedom himself, he needed to let her be in control.
Peter writes: Teri [the student] and I started talking about the relationship between working with children in counseling and her experience riding horses. She said, "You have to be in control, but you also have to give [the horse] enough rein. I have a tendency to pull up on the reins and then he wants to fight it. If I relax the rein, he'll relax and stop fighting." She talked about the importance of "a certain amount of freedom and control" that needs to be in balance when she is working with her horse. . . . Many of these parallels seemed to fit perfectly with her work in the counseling setting. As a result of his conversations with Teri, Peter learned that real-life experiences can help students understand and apply what they are learning from textbooks. He decided to explore how he could help his students learn from activities in their lives—to find root metaphors that enhance what they are studying.
The notion of root metaphors captured our imaginations. We began to think about how tapping into our personal experiences could inform our teaching worlds. We agreed to write our own root metaphors for teaching.
Our experiment resulted in some of the most joyful and most thought-provoking writing we had ever done. When the time came to share, we were brimming with enthusiasm and jockeying to see who would go next.
Creating our root metaphors connected us with the enjoyable and comforting aspects of our lives and led us to insights into our profession. The writing itself differed from our daily writing: responses to student work, e-mails to colleagues, departmental memos, or journal articles. Sharing our writing and our creative processes produced an added benefit: We recaptured a lost pleasure in writing that reenergized our other writing projects. Finally, the experience encouraged us to use the process with our students.
Teaching and the Ocean

Teaching and the Ocean

Teaching is like the ocean in that it covers most of my surfaces and seeps into much of what I do. I am a clam digger, always turning things over to find what I can use in the stews of my courses, looking for new combinations and surprising ingredients that might tie it all together. I watch for driftwood that can fit into a collage or a mobile. I study the seabirds for flight patterns that connect to the skyline, as I gather shells to string on a necklace I can give to my students, a necklace never completed. . . . My teaching needs the inner quiet and contemplation I find at the edge of the sea so that I can listen for these things.

As different as the grains of sand, the students' lives blend together, from a distance looking the same; up close, distinct, often odd and surprising. The sands can blend into beautiful patterns or grate against one another all year. They can be tossed around by unexpected seas or lie low and miss the turmoil of the waves. It's hard to really touch all of the sand; some ends up in your shoes, some seems to show up everywhere and won't go away, even with a good vacuum; some grains go hardly noticed, blending in. Some, so brilliant as to appear as polished jewels, are finished without my touch. The sand moves around by currents, gathers in dunes, disperses; some disappears altogether.

Teaching is like the ocean in its vastness and ever-changing nature; I can never quite get my arms around it. I can't ever comprehend its complexity, its beauty, its meaning.

—Caryl Hurtig

Making Bread

Making Bread

When I'm baking bread or cooking for my students or family, I purposely slow down, and I'm very mindful and intentional about my creations. . . .

I don't believe that it's in anyone's best interests for me to be a short-order cook. Instead of creating a million separate dishes for a meal, I can expose people to new ingredients and recipes they wouldn't taste otherwise, like quinoa soup or quiche crust made with crunchy rice. When I've tried these recipes for my mother's gluten-free diet, others in my family have found they like this new food well enough to ask for the recipes. . . . Likewise, students who aren't used to exploring meaning through visual metaphor, poetry, or tableaux can learn new strategies along with their classmates.

—Ruth Hubbard

Student Metaphors

Resonance is also music to our ears. A violin bow slips across the string, catching it imperceptibly at precise intervals that push it at the proper time to keep vibrating. The body of the instrument vibrates in tune to a rich range of harmonics. (Cole, 1999, pp. 166–167) Reading one another's metaphors initiated connections, images, metaphors, and ideas, and we committed ourselves to bringing our new insights to our students. Caryl introduced the idea to her preservice students to make the point that their passions can inform and energize their work.
Caryl asked her students to mentally design a costume that incorporated their personal interests. One student described a huge, fruit-laden hat because she loves "pleasure and sex." Had Caryl merely asked, "What interests you?" she doubts that the student would have answered so frankly. Yet these future teachers will be working with hormone-charged adolescents, so thinking about sexual energy and teaching is a good idea. Another student slung a guitar over her shoulder to remind herself that music can reach the heart.
During the seminar, Caryl had been struck by the students' feelings of angst and frustration in their roles as teachers-in-the-making, as well as with their complex relationships with their mentors and school sites. She asked the students to write in 10 minutes a metaphor for what it's like to be an intern teacher. Below are two examples: [Like a tree] you are tired but you are anticipating a time when you will have more leaves than ever before. Sometimes you turn different colors with embarrassment, confusion, or shame, but sometimes those colors are glory. You feel your leaves falling off, and your performance as a tree is naked, vulnerable; your body is available for appraisal. You feel the new ring in your trunk—it's not there yet, but you itch where it will be. That ring represents a year of heavy growth. Your branches tingle where buds and sprouts will grow in the spring. Although the winter is coming, you will miraculously weather both the sunshine and the onslaughts, for your roots are deep and store nutrition. You hold vital essences until you need them.—Santha Cassell[Like a salmon] I know where I want to be even though I have no real vision of ever being there. That place, that one place where I am driven to is out there, beckoning me . . . home. Right now I am fighting against the current of my own needs, my own desires, the sense that I am ready now, but I have to keep swimming. The water is cold, painful, and amazingly strong as I navigate through the rapids of classes and over rocks of seminars. Sometimes the waters of paperwork are shallow and quick to push me back. Other times the water is still, deep, and quiet. I think in my mind I see where I want to be. It isn't a definite shape or scene, but a hazy outline of purpose and being. There is also fear—what will happen when I reach my place? Will I create new life—new mindful thinkers before I die, or will my journey have been for nothing? I don't know, but I can't stop now. I have no choice but to swim.—Christine Jenkins
With their permission, Caryl shared the metaphors with the students' mentor teachers to facilitate a discussion about the complex relationship that they were embarking on with their interns. In turn, the mentors shared ways to help the interns, which Caryl compiled and gave to the interns. In our experience, metaphors help us explore our lives. Metaphors open the fresh space of truth-telling, humor, powerful use of language, and image that hold the paradox and complexity of the human experience.

Good Vibrations

One of the most useful properties of resonance is its ability to act as a precision tool, plucking one pure vibration from a sea of others, a single tune out of a confusion of noise. (Cole, 1999, p. 167) One of the most exciting aspects of our collaborative writing group is how our teaching strategies and reflections regularly find their way into one another's classes. For example, Peter and David read Ruth's "making bread" metaphor to their classes to explain why sharing food in class is an important element of community building. Jill read the metaphors from Caryl's interns to her own students, encouraging them to write their own metaphors for intern teaching.
Knowing how writing, collaborating, and supporting one another across disciplines have informed our teaching and significantly affected our students, we invited our entire graduate school faculty to write root metaphors. We repeated the 10-minute metaphor-writing exercise by asking our colleagues to create a metaphor for teaching that incorporates a personal interest. Participants then shared their metaphors in cross-departmental groups of three. Finally, volunteers read aloud their pieces.
A description of how small vibrations can cause a large structure to tumble may have seemed like an odd way to begin an article that stresses the growth of community, renewed energy, and the natural harmonics of ideas reverberating and ringing forth. But one of the strengths of metaphor is its ability to hold paradox, often producing just this kind of tension. As literary theorist I. A. Richards notes, "Like poetry, metaphors can express emotive meaning; the tension they produce is an expression of that meaning" (as quoted in Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
And our sympathetic vibrations are paradoxical in their effect on our community. For although they are feeding energy by virtue of their natural springiness, they also create the little pushes in right directions that can cause a school culture to give way to a new and collaborative structure that resonates with personal experience, shared connections, and promising innovation.
The Geology of Teaching

The Geology of Teaching

Geology is all about getting to the core of things—finding out about the extraordinary characteristics of this planet. Questions lead to more questions. Our environment has been shaped by layers and layers of earth. Geology is getting to know these layers, finding beauty in ordinary things that we take for granted, like rocks.

The beauty of teaching is looking at my students as unique souls—not just another group of students. The geology of teaching is learning about students, finding the "inner beauty of the thunder egg"—they all have one. The geology of teaching is patience. I need to work on my patience as I wait for my rock tumbler to go through its four cycles of grinding and polishing. . . .

I have learned to be patient, but not always gentle. . . . I know that there are remarkable layers of beauty and color within an ordinary "normal-looking" rock. . . . I can wait patiently, imagining what it might look like, but when it comes time to dig deeper with my curiosity, I must know exactly how to handle it. If I smash it, I will get little pieces. If I cut it with a rock saw, I must know which way to cut or I won't get the layers I want to see. Sometimes it's a guess—sometimes I know exactly what I'm doing and why. . . . With some, I know exactly where I need to dig in order to learn as much as I can about them. With others, it takes more polishing, more grinding from me.

—Jill Ostrow


Cheney, M. (1992). Tesla: Man out of time. New York: Routledge.

Cole, K. C. (1999). First you build a cloud. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

MacCormac, E. R. (1990). A cognitive theory of metaphor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

David Hagstrom has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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