We all want our children, grandchildren and family to have access to the best teachers because a great teacher can transform lives. Every child deserves to experience the care of an excellent teacher for no one forgets good teachers whose words echo through our heads, their insights lighting our way. Schweitzer understood this when he wrote that:
‘Each of us has cause to give gratitude to those who lit a flame within us.’
Since Socrates and probably long before him, people have debated what dispositions make a great teacher. Socrates saw his pupils as flames to be lit and not as empty vessels waiting to be filled. Some thinkers name Aristotle as the ideal teacher and he proves himself to be a pre-cursor of experiential learning when he writes that:
‘Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it…’
However, what makes an excellent teacher is complex as Cooke and Carr  point out:
‘In sum, the effective pursuit of education conceived as a distinctive professional practice clearly requires a complex range of interestingly interrelated virtues and other excellences that are perhaps only now – in the wake of some recent exciting developments in mainstream philosophical ethics and epistemology –beginning to be explored in due detail.’
Recently, I did research into the factors that make an excellent teacher and had the privilege of holding discussions and interviews with over fifty teachers; they had been recommended as good practitioners by either inspectors or headteachers. One of my requests to those teachers was to make a suitable metaphor for the teaching process. Gruber  recommended this approach for interviewing artists; he thought that the images we choose say a great deal about our approaches to our actions. In teaching, educationists are always looking for ‘the formula’ for a great lesson and we often read ‘top ten tips’, ‘how to make your lesson excellent’ or ‘a guide to getting through inspection’, as if there was a blueprint for excellence which if we could only bottle, education would be sorted. However, although teachers can plan for excellence, anyone who has been in a classroom knows that we all strive to catch the big wave which takes learning further into a flow of concentration. Teaching is part science and part art, but in both cases there is a craft which needs to be perfected through time and effort. Asking for metaphors turned out to be more illuminating than I had imagined or expected.
Looking over my notes, it became clear that the metaphors chosen could be grouped into different categories. The first set of examples dealt with images of travel. It is sometimes said that there are only three types of narrative, the mystery, the search and the journey. In constructing narratives about their own approaches, the teachers in this research have made use of all three devices to make sense of their working practices.
|Types of metaphor||Examples|
Metaphors of travel
|– Riding a bike |
– Climbing a mountain
– Voyage of discovery
– Discovering a galaxy
– Map making
The travel metaphors reveal a sense of going forward. Teachers often extended them, as did the keen cyclist who described teaching as exhausting and challenging. Before a long ride she is ‘excited and nervous – then the hills almost kill you but everything is fine when you go downhill enjoying the view.’ Metaphors of travel emphasise the idea that we are starting at one place and our goal is in the distance. It is the teacher’s job to ‘find ways to get pupils to their destination’. One of the interesting things about this metaphor is that it stresses the idea of effort and perseverance even though there are many interesting sites to visit on the way. However, all travel brings a sense of wonder and discovery, with the teacher as guide and fellow-traveller, on the road to knowledge. In Hitchcock’s film, ‘Vertigo’, Madeline tells the hero:
‘Only one is a wanderer; two together are always going somewhere.’
The teacher was often seen as a fellow-traveller and coach. However, those teachers who employed travel metaphors saw their role as equipping learners to eventually make successful journeys without them. Most people consult maps when travelling and although in journeys, people may stop off at interesting places, the map [or sat-nav] is used to guide us. In teaching, the teacher is also the map-maker who guides the journey to final destinations.
Another cluster of metaphors was centred on the idea of growth. Such teachers saw education as a type of gardening, ‘It is organic and is about the growth of the whole child, not just the intellect’. This holistic approach is reminiscent of Aristotle’s contention that:
`‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.’
Some teachers were quite philosophical about this, commenting that, ‘You plant a seed and sometimes you don’t know at all [or only know years later], whether that seed has really flourished’. Presumably having planted seeds the teacher may see only first shoots of learning but experience may wither or grow the plant later, ‘So many pupils have thanked me years later for the things they learned in my classroom but appreciated more at a later date’. Many of us share that debt of gratitude our younger selves did not express at the time. Such metaphors of growth suggest an approach which sees the teacher as a facilitator and life-coach.
|Type of metaphor||Examples|
|Metaphors of growth||– Plant growing |
– A tree
– Corn growing
– Planting seeds
Metaphors of growth are useful for those who see learning as a life-long quest and see the potential of learners to continue to put down the roots of good habits which can be drawn on throughout their lives.
A pupil of mine once wrote of education:
‘She is a shy creature, hard to capture
but once trained, her great eyes of wonder
and soft purr of satisfaction, make her a pet
you will not want to cage, but will let her roam
free. She is only a danger to the ignorant
and those who love authority.’
The writer has envisioned education as an animal which poses a threat only to those dismissive of its power or those who wish to rule others. The idea of education as a living organism is an interesting one and links with metaphors of growth, especially the idea that knowledge and learning continuously mutate in the light of experience.
|Type of metaphor||Examples|
|Metaphors of living creatures||– Many headed creature |
– A living, mutating organism
– Chameleons of our craft (used as the title for this report!)
The ideas of mutation and ‘many-headedness’ suggest that teaching has many facets and that it is never a static or predictable business. Chameleons are able to change colour for camouflage so as to blend in or as in the case of the teacher to act as coach rather than instructor, giving pupils a voice in their learning. Not only does the chameleon change colour for camouflage but also for social signaling and in reaction to temperature and other conditions. The teacher like the ‘lion on the ground’ changes tack or creates different ambiances in response to learning needs. This lovely idea of teachers as ‘chameleons of their craft’ gives the title for this article and suggests that flexibility, growth and resplendent colourfulness so indicative of the teachers in this research.
In Ray Bradbury’s ‘Faherenheit 451’, books are burnt by order of the state and a few dissidents have learned whole books off by heart:
‘I am Plato’s Republic. Mr. Simmons is Marcus. I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and-this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed.’
Their reason for this rote learning is to keep that knowledge alive which otherwise would be under threat of annihilation. The rebels have chosen books they consider to be the most important to humankind. Unsurprisingly, some teachers used the metaphor of print and knowledge to express their view of education.
|Type of metaphor||Examples|
|Metaphors of print||– Search engine |
– Reading a great book
– A treasure map with no X
– A compendium
These metaphors put store by researching and by reading material. The ability to read situations, people and find information is prized by these thinkers. The treasure map with no X suggests that the treasure is in the exploration not in the finding and it is not any book but a ‘great’ book which governs the metaphor. The teacher explained, ‘A great book always gives you something new’. There is an emphasis on knowledge here. That knowledge is partly to do with the facts and skills of the curriculum and partly to do with knowledge of individual needs and dreams. These metaphors contribute to the ideas of the teacher as an instructor and expert witness who helps learners acquire the knowledge and skills to go forward.
As the very creation of these metaphors suggest, teaching can be seen as a creative process. However, many of the teachers who spoke in this way, added the caveat that although their metaphor suggested that teaching is ‘an art’, they also thought of it as ‘a science’, ‘The thing is I do see teaching as being like making a meal but in order to make that meal special and tasty, you need to have learnt about nutrition, temperatures and timings, planning and balance. I don’t want to imply that it’s a free for all, it’s disciplined and it’s learnt over time.’
|Type of metaphor||Examples|
|Metaphors of creation||– The big bang |
– A craft
– Making a curry
– Making a meal
– Making a sculpture
– Jazz improvisation
– Writing a story
– Solving a sum
Metaphors of making are practical, although the big bang expresses wonder and mystery. Seeing teaching as a craft suggests skills that can be acquired and honed while the food metaphors smack of mixing, gathering and combining. The meal metaphor was extended in conversation in order to give a sense of progression to the ‘feast’. In putting emphasis on teaching as ‘creating’, the teachers put great store by instilling a sense of wonder, trusting intuition and the role of playfulness in learning. However, they also stressed the importance of persistence and the role of a disciplined approach which welcomed feedback and constantly honed ‘the craft’.
The key characteristics of great teachers as exemplified by this group are shown in the composite chart and these professionals revealed high standards of knowledge about subject specialisms and pedagogy, dedication and commitment beyond that of peers, and a sense of moral purpose and commitment. Furthermore, despite educations’s ever-changing face and increasing demands, this group had impressive levels of resilience and positivity. Zakkai has described a successful teacher as having:
‘the humility of a deacon, the adaptability of a chameleon, the hope of an optimist, the courage of a hero, the wisdom of a serpent, the gentleness of a dove, the patience of Job, the grace of God and the persistence of the devil.’
The teachers, I interviewed did not balk at finding a metaphor for their craft and whatever metaphor helped them make sense of their situations, it was clear to me that they were successful because they were chameleons of their craft.