Metaphors for Teaching

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


While taking education courses in college, my peers and I were asked to think of metaphors for our pedagogy. At the time, I found inspiration in the idea of being the conductor of an orchestra, using my conductors’ wand to help bring out the creative genius of my students. I imagined my hair getting ruffled by the breeze created by my own motion as my body kept time—the community of it all, the uproarious appreciation of the crowd. But after 15 years of being a college professor, my metaphor for teaching has evolved from “I am a conductor,” to “I am a circle-creator.” It’s a metaphor that reminds me to bring students together (often into the shape of a circle), to constantly renew my commitment to circle back to previous concepts before building on them, and to help students build cyclical routines. My new metaphor is not as glamorous, and in the strict sense of definitions, it’s only metaphor-adjacent, but it works a lot better for me.

The circle-creator metaphor speaks to me because I find it valuable to be at the edges of the classroom, alongside my students, where we can encourage each other and learn collaboratively. This allows for insights to come from the voices of students, rather than just my own, resulting in a deeper understanding of the material. However, creating a literal circle in the classroom can be a challenge, as my current Humanities 101 students can confirm. After attempting to arrange desks into a circle, the result often looks more like an octopus having a bad day. Additionally, one or more students may end up sitting outside of the circle (by choice or by chance), and the pace of discussion can make it easy to miss opportunities that help students deepen their analysis. That being said, I like the circle formation precisely because it is not always easy; together in the circle, we strive to make meaning together, and there is always something about the literal or metaphorical configuration to improve upon next time.

The circle-creator metaphor also works for me because it reflects the iterative nature of teaching. A student may understand a concept one week and forget it the next. To solidify and deepen our understanding, I remind myself to circle back to previous concepts before moving on to new ones. For example, before discussing the shift to monotheism in Ancient Rome under Constantine, I asked my students to recall what they remembered about the shift to monotheism under Akhenaton in Ancient Egypt. My students and I think about how history repeats itself, and we repeat ourselves too. Thinking about the circle-creator metaphor helps me to slow my teaching down—to offer reminders and opportunities to rethink, instead of just plowing ahead.

When teaching study skills in my English 097 class, I also think about the circle-creator metaphor in terms of routines. I encourage my students to make small changes in their study process, such as writing down exactly when they plan to do their homework for the class. We then circle back the next day to see how it went. If a student says that a strategy didn’t work for them, I remind them that it may be useful to try it more than once. We also talk about how good habits, once established, can come and go. I share with them that I, too, constantly slip and have to circle back to my better habits like going to bed on time, and properly managing my grading time.

I believe that using metaphors for teaching can clarify our practices and our values and keep us fresh. The circle-creator metaphor works for me because it reflects the power of collaboration and the cyclical nature of learning.

Comment below about the metaphor(s) that work for you!