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First Year notes and references

Teachers’ use of metaphor in making sense of the first year of teaching

Steve Mann (University of Warwick)

Summary of paper given at TESOL New York 2008


Background Literature

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have been particularly influential in the development of our appreciation of the important and pervasive ways in which metaphors shape our ideas and our lives.

They are an integral part of our understanding and action (Taylor 1985).

Schon (1983) first argued that metaphorical exploration provides useful insights and reflection points for individual teachers and that metaphors are central to the creation of new perceptions and understandings.

They are used as 'explanatory vehicles' (Block 1996: 51-53) or useful tools to enable teachers to reflect, analyze, evaluate, and restructure their practice (Zuzovsky 1994). Individuals use metaphor construction as an ‘introspective and reflective tool … tapping the kinds of meanings practitioners create about their own professional actions, practices and personal theories’ (Burns 1999:147).

The exploration of ideas through metaphor is an integral part of reflective practitioner thought and, as Oxford et al. state, such thought and reflection is ‘part of the ongoing life of each language teacher’ (1998: 46).

It has been argued that metaphors used may be revealing of beliefs and this is why they are particularly interesting for teacher educators (Bullough & Knowles 1991; Bullough & Stokes 1994; Tobin 1990).

Munby argued that it may be profitable to attend to the metaphors used by teachers (1986) and Thornbury (1991: 193) sees the beliefs and values embodied in ‘personally significant images’ as providing ‘valuable insights for teacher educators’.

Farrell (2006a) demonstrates the role of metaphor in revealing existing beliefs and theories before, during and after teaching practice.

It has been pointed out that students are more likely to accept information and practices that fit with their beliefs and ignore those that contradict them (Zeichner, Tabachnick, & Densmore, 1987) and so metaphors can be helpful in assessing what new information may be helpful for an individual teacher.

It is now well recognised that an individual teacher is constantly reshaping knowledge and that new understanding ‘ emerges from a process of reshaping existing knowledge, beliefs, and practices’ (Johnson & Golombek, 2003).

Resolving the complex interplay between declarative or received knowledge, on the one hand, and personal, experiential and local knowledge (e.g. Wallace 1991) may mean that metaphorical articulation is particularly helpful in reflective teacher development.

There have been studies which have concentrated on ‘ root metaphors’ (Massengil et al 2005; Oxford et al 1998) and Massengil et al suggest that metaphorical constructs are persistent.

Mann (2004) argues that individuals often use metaphor as a specific points of comparison in a formative way. Such metaphor use is usually temporary and acts as an impetus for further articulation. It is dialogic because there is a ‘ conversation’ between the adopted metaphor and the target emergent meaning. Hence metaphor use prompts confirmation, clarification, modification, extensions, and shifts in understanding. An important element of this paper is therefore to look for any evidence of the persistence of root metaphors as opposed to more transient ones.


This study is best conceptualised as a case study within an ongoing series of action research cycles concerned with encouraging reflective practice (see Mann 2005 for an overview of the relationship between action research, reflective practice and teacher development). The principal concern of action research is making the quality of action more appropriate in any given context. This phase of ongoing action research is concerned with collecting and interpreting instances of reflection through metaphor use. Although the longer term action research process draws on a combination of ethnographic observations, interviews, and content analysis, this particular case study relies on the content analysis of e-mails exchanged with the researcher.


Metaphor is used by first-year teachers to try and articulate particular difficulties, conflicts and tensions.

A large number of these metaphors are concerned with reaching some kind of balance and metaphors are often used to explain these ‘balances’. In addition, there is little evidence that so called ‘root-metaphors’ are persistent.

Taken as a group, the case studies provide examples that supports the view that teachers use metaphors as 'explanatory vehicles' (Block 1996: 51). The data suggests strongly that first year teachers feel pulled in different directions and are confused, faced by competing demands and choices.

It is noticeable that a number of the metaphors are either about finding balance (in the physical sense of keeping standing up, ‘one hand and another’ or ‘finding feet’). Clearly part of the challenge of the first year is to keep some sense of balance (Spencer 1986), to become more centred and connected (Palmer 1999), and to find ‘somewhere to stand’ (Clarke 2003).

The data offers evidence of metaphor helping to understand and potentially resolve dialogic tensions between:

  • beliefs and reality
  • administrative role and teaching role
  • play and control
  • teacher and student expectations
  • seriousness and humour
  • advice and experience
  • CLT and discipline
  • Outside expectations and individual choice
  • Rewards and punishment

This study suggests that teachers do not hold onto so called ‘core’ or ‘root’ metaphors. There may be two possible reasons for this. The first is that their existence in any fixed way is open to doubt. The second is that they may be appealing in an educational context (University MA programme) but get supplanted with new metaphors used in exploratory ways. It is particularly striking that metaphors of balance are foregrounded in this sample, either in the actual metaphor or in close proximity to metaphor use.


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