Images make the man A teacher is not always a gardener

What am I: an animal tamer or an entertainer?
What am I: an animal tamer or an entertainer? | Photo (detail): © Mikesch - plainpicture

Are teachers gardeners, actors or entertainers? Analysing metaphors such as these is extremely important, as it improves the way teachers see themselves – and are seen by others.

In a 1996 study – descriptively entitled The free educational prison: metaphors and images – learners were encouraged to think about the role of the teacher. Over 7,000 metaphors were compiled and categorized. While teachers saw themselves for the most part as having a caring or at most formative role, learners saw things quite differently: they perceived themselves as victims of monitoring and control. In a second study, entitled How teachers in different educational contexts view their roles (2003), the images of zookeeper, orchestra conductor and shop owner that teachers came up with contrasted significantly with the idea of puppeteers, judges and animal tamers that learners had in mind.  

Dangerous metaphors

Because educational ability is not something tangible, people use metaphors in an attempt to pin it down. This is perfectly legitimate so long as one realizes that one is reducing the teacher’s role to a specific image. However, metaphors can become dangerous when it is no longer a question of teachers using them to obtain clarity about their own role, but when politicians and researchers employ metaphors of a technicist nature that promise to monitor and control that which cannot be monitored and controlled – namely educational ability.

Lehrer mit Schraubenzieher Foto: © David-W- /
In the educational domain, metaphors of a technicist nature are fatal because they suggest for one thing that all one needs to do is twiddle certain knobs and adjust certain levers at schools in order to achieve the desired effects, effects that themselves are not technicist in nature whatsoever. Secondly, and far more dangerously, teachers end up concentrating on routine administrative tasks because these can be more easily monitored than the educational abilities that are the original goal.

A lack of focus

No matter whether metaphors are used individually (to describe a teacher as a gardener, entertainer or actor) or more broadly within the educational policy discourse, their advantage is that they provide an image with which to describe complex notions that are difficult to express in words, such as “teaching” or “personality”. However, for one thing such images lack focus in terms of their respective educational policy objectives: unlike the private education sector, the state school system is responsible for providing schools nationwide, for ensuring integration and for making remedial tuition available where necessary. For another thing, metaphors standardize individual role expectations which in many cases can then not be met. The aforementioned notion of “personality” is a good example of this: looking at this term from a psychological viewpoint, it is quickly obvious that there are no specific personality traits or combination of traits that make up the “definitive” teacher’s personality, but that all kinds of different profiles can be expected which, depending on the particular context, may be more or less successful. If the concept of “personality” is now widened to take ethical categories into account, things become more than problematic, especially from a moral philosophical viewpoint.

Metaphors that come alive

For metaphors such as “teacher” to work at all, i.e. for them to “come alive”, we must not be aware of them; they must generate impact of their own accord. However, metaphors can also cause us to stumble when – rhetorically speaking – they create a phantasmagoria of two or more overlapping images. At least the following overlapping areas characterize the job of a teacher, however: provision of content (salesperson), keeping the class in check (orchestra conductor), and care for the students (zookeeper) – which can easily turn it into a descent into hell. To conquer the evil demons of this world with the brave spirit of research, it is important not least to analyse the images and concepts associated with this profession.

In her 2009 dissertation entitled Metaphern des Lehrens und Lernens. Vom Denken, Reden und Handeln bei Biologielehrern, Sabine Marsch shows how metaphors convey constructivist perspectives of teaching and learning. As tools in teacher training, metaphors can thus illustrate to us how a person sees and thinks about the world. To enlighten ourselves and others, we therefore need to ask which are the fundamental metaphors in our culture that dictate our actions. Metaphors are like a tanker in the ocean: they are almost impossible to steer but protect us from short-lived change requests and therefore, like schools themselves, cannot be simply abolished.

Lehrer mit Glühbirne Foto: © David-W- /

The point of analysing metaphors

With respect to images associated with professions for example, it is useful to analyse such metaphors because they can be used to identify the individual differences between various (school) contexts and/or socio-cultural environments. Theoretically, it would even be possible to ascertain which metaphors, as used by future teachers to describe themselves, will give an insight into the way they will later perceive their profession: tell me which metaphor you use and I will tell you how successful you will be.

Naturally, the following observation argues against any such predictability: one thing that two divergent studies into the use of metaphors by teachers had in common was that the metaphors “ship’s captain”, “gardener” and “compass” occurred in both. However, one and the same metaphor can be assigned to entirely different concepts, that is to say a metaphor has no clear relation to a particular concept such as “supplier of knowledge”. This was demonstrated very nicely by Birgit Lehmann and Hermann Ebner in their 2011 analysis of these studies: ‘Ein Lehrer ist wie...’: Mit welchen Metaphern umschreiben Studierende der Wirtschaftspädagogik die Tätigkeit von Lehrpersonen?.

Glasses have to be removed to be seen

Metaphors are ambivalent, in other words: yet they are the glasses through which we can see that there is a need for action. To see clearly what one is doing, it is better not to remove one’s glasses – in that sense the “practitioners” are right. However, when glasses cause us to stumble, or when they mislead us, it is not a luxury or even a mistake but a necessity to take a close look at the glasses themselves. And in that sense it is clear that the “theorists” are right.


  • Ben-Peretz, Miriam/Mendelson, Nili/Kron, Friedrich W. (2003): How teachers in different educational contexts view their roles. In: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 19, Issue 2, p. 277–290.
  • Hattie, John (2008): Visible learning. A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
  • Inbar, Dan E. (1996): The free educational prison: metaphors and images. In: Educational Research, Volume 38, Issue 1, p. 77–92.
  • Lehmann, Birgit/Ebner, Hermann G. (2011): "Ein Lehrer ist wie...": Mit welchen Metaphern umschreiben Studierende der Wirtschaftspädagogik die Tätigkeit von Lehrpersonen? In: Faßhauer, Uwe/Aff, Josef/Fürstenau, Bärbel/Wuttke, Eveline (Ed.): Lehr-Lernforschung und Professionalisierung. Perspektiven der Berufsbildungsforschung. Opladen: Budrich, p. 135-145.
  • Marsch, Sabine (2009): Objekt-Metadaten. Metaphern des Lehrens und Lernens. Dissertation, FU Berlin