The Everyday Metaphors of Teaching: ‘Guide on the Side’

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In my last post, building on Maxwell’s (2015) work, I outlined the inevitability of metaphor in our discourse as teachers and how understanding this in our profession can help us shed light on what our metaphors exaggerate but also hide. I posed two questions:

With what metaphors in mind are we to teach?

What evidence are we to base our metaphors for teaching on?

In this post I will outline a problematic metaphor to lay the groundwork for proposing a new metaphor for teachers working in disadvantaged contexts or working with pupils in poverty.

A bad metaphor: ‘Guides on the Side’

The metaphor that came to mind most prominently, when thinking about my past two years of teaching was as a teachers I must think of myself as a ‘Guide on the Side’. A clear memory I have that illustrates this was from my PGCE year. When receiving feedback for a science lesson observation from my tutor, he suggested that I consider myself to be more of a ‘guide’, ‘stewarding’ children towards the learning, rather than a ‘chalk and talk’ teacher. In the lesson he said that there was too much modelling and I focussed too much on the input and instruction, rather than the activity. ‘I need to stand back,’ I thought, ‘not intervene after input; let children figure out as much by themselves as they can’ – these were the ideas that stuck with me and I wrote them in my reflection notes after the lesson.

Increasingly, I believe this metaphor, which I began to let guide my professional judgment, to be deeply flawed. As a teacher, particularly in the primary phase, is it really wise to let young minds ‘discover’ the knowledge they need? Will that ever even happen? Most children, particularly those who are from disadvantaged contexts or need extra support, don’t get much from lessons like this at all. This is due to a range of reasons that can’t be discussed here. However, if I am right, letting our professional discourse be shaped by a metaphor that merely guides some pupils towards learning, while others perennially struggle, then it is a troubling way to think about our craft.

This is echoed from research summarised by Rosenshine (2012) about principles of instruction. He makes two evidence based claims about teaching that are hidden by the metaphor of ‘guide on the side’. They are:

  1. Teachers should allow for more time to give clear and detailed instructions and explanations to their students.
  2. Teachers must guide students closely when they begin to practice.

The use of the word ‘guide’ here has a very different meanings to the one in the metaphor in question. What guide implies here, according to Rosenshine, is that teachers help their students and closely monitor the first steps of practice once new information has been received, ensuring that misconceptions don’t occur early on in the development of new knowledge. This is very different to the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor. For me, the inference from the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor is that we let pupils figure it out by themselves and do everything we can to not intervene. Rosenshine (2012) and other scholars (mentioned below) think this is a very bad idea, particularly in the first few minutes of providing instruction.

In summary, the ‘guide on the side’ metaphor is inadequate for describing the actions and judgments of teachers and in my view could hinder the learning of students. By just letting pupils ‘discover’ or ‘investigate’ new learning, as shown by some of the research mentioned here, is not good teaching. Therefore to use it in our professional discourse would be dangerous and potentially damaging in the development of young teachers’ (including my own) professional reasoning.

Note: I am appreciative of the fact that I have not spent much time analysing this metaphor here and in fact the metaphor itself is part of a much wider school of thought in education. In subsequent posts I will attempt to unravel this problematic set of ideas in a range of ways.


The core research that I’ve built on in this post (including Rosenshine’s summary) is referenced below:

Evertson, C.M., Anderson, C.W., Anderson, L.M., Brophy, J.E., (1980) “Relationships between Classroom Behaviours and Student Outcomes in Junior High Mathematics and English Classes,” American Educational Research Journal, 17:1

Rosenshine, B. (2012) “Principles of Instruction: Research – Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know.” American Educator, Spring 2012, pp. 12-39

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. and Clark, R.E. (2006) “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem Based, Experiential and Inquiry Based Teaching.” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), pp.75-86

Maxwell, B. (2015) ‘Teacher as Professional’ as Metaphor; What it Highlights and What it Hides’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(1), pp. 86-104.


The Everyday Metaphors of Teaching: Problems and Solutions

Elephant Funny

It’s an elephant guys – come on.

Metaphor is so deeply embedded into the language of teaching that Greene (1973) argues that it would be possible to organise a history of educational ideas around recurring metaphors. As early as 1553, the classical humanist view of educators was as ‘gardeners’ (Rabelias, 1991). Rousseau (1979) saw the teacher as a ‘liberator’, while more recently Piaget (1969) saw the teaching profession as ‘applied science’. Like Maxwell (2015) claims, it seems as though many of the ideas of philosophers of education of the past can be described using metaphors (Davis, 2004).

Beyond educational ideas, any brief reflection on teaching and learning in schools today would reveal several metaphors that are regularly used in the discourse of the profession. Maxwell (2015) helpfully identifies four regular domains of life that we as teachers draw from:

Exercise metaphors: We have to regularly do mental maths work out to keep brains nimble.

Environmental metaphors: There is a certain climate in that classroom that is not conducive to learning.

Carceral metaphors: Teachers are gatekeepers of knowledge.

Liberation metaphors: Great teachers can help kids achieve anything they want to, regardless of background.

Maxwell (2015) continues by explaining: ‘teachers regularly compare themselves to actors, coaches, cheerleaders, partners and guides. (p.88)”. What is puzzling, is that a profession that is so rooted in the concrete and making learning ‘visible’, we still, by choice or not, choose to explain our craft metaphorically. But it seems that it is in fact at the heart of the profession and the system at large. The etymology of the word ‘education’ provides two roots: ‘to breed or to raise’ (from the Latin educere) or ‘to lead or to bring out’ (from the prefi ex- + ducere). What this show is that at the core of word meanings in our profession there is even metaphorical ambiguity!

These observations are unsurprising to cognitive scientists who study metaphor, since a core tenet of metaphor theory is that metaphors can be found wherever we are speaking about topics that are remotely abstract (Maxwell, 2015). In ‘Metaphors We Live By’, George Lackoff and Mark Johnson make strong claims about the effect that metaphors have on our lives as human beings, with strong implications for education when applied (1980). Firstly, they make clear that metaphor is not just a literary device used to analyse the written language; neither are they merely used in linguistically rich conversations to describe reality. Instead, metaphors ‘systematically and unconsciously’ structure the way that we think and act in many domains of life. Lackoff and Johnson claim that this is achieved through the inference of the ‘source domain’, drawing comparisons to the ‘target domain’ (Lackoff & Johnson, 2003, p. 265). For example, in the metaphor ‘teachers are gatekeepers’, ‘gatekeepers’ is the source domain and ‘teachers’ is the ‘target domain’. By comparing these two things, the inferences that teachers could make will naturally impact reasoning and professional judgment in the classroom greatly, based on the comparison between aspects of their role as a ‘gatekeeper’.

It seems, if Lackoff and Johnson are right, that there is no escaping the metaphorical nature of our discourse as teachers, due to some of the abstract concepts and nature of our craft. However, this claim does not come without its problems. What Lackoff and Johnson (2003) highlight is the issues that these metaphors can cause in our understanding of reality. If the metaphorical language we use as teachers is inaccurate or does not emulate the nature of learning or evidence based teaching, it can skew our reasoning and professional judgment greatly. Put simply, there are two potential problems with the metaphors we use as teachers:

  1. Metaphors elevate and hide certain aspects of our profession;
  2. They can enforce false assumptions about the nature of teaching and learning.

The potential results of these two problems are that as teachers:

  1. We might be prone to neglecting aspects of teaching that may in fact be important to raising attainment in our classroom while continuing to do other things that may have no significance;
  2. We might end up doing things that actually have no evidence for contributing to improving student outcomes, while justifying them through the metaphors we use to describe teaching.

(Lackoff & Johnson, 1980)

So the questions are:

With what metaphors in mind are we to teach?


What evidence are we to base our metaphors on?

Through a clear serendipity, in my next post I argue for a new metaphor, found in a character in one of my favourite children’s novels.



Davis, B. (2004) Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy (New York: Routledge)

Greene, M. (1973) Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age (Belmont, CA, Wadsworth)

Lackoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press)

Maxwell, B. (2015) ‘Teacher as Professional’ as Metaphor; What it Highlights and What it Hides’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(1), pp. 86-104.

Piaget, J. (1969) Psycholgie et pedagogie (Paris, Denoël/Gontheir)

Rabelais, F. (1991) Gargantua and Pantagruel, B, Raffel, trans. (New York, W.W. Norton & Company)

Rousseau, J-J. (1979) Emile: Or On Education, A. Bloom, trans. (New York, Basic Books).

The able child in the Primary Classroom: reflections on To Kill a Mockingbird and Scout Finch.

Scout Finch










Scout (formally known as Jean Louise Finch) is an unusual little girl. She is disarmingly confident, unusually attentive and exceptionally thoughtful in her approach towards people (despite her misgivings about the social constructs of the Deep South). More than this, she is a fascinating narrator to an excellent story. For me, she epitomises the ‘gifted and talented pupil’ that as teachers we are told to plan for to meet Ofsted criteria. I wish here to celebrate her candour, wit and observations of schooling, teachers and education and potentially shine a light on the failings of our primary institutions to cater for excellent young minds. Harper Lee peppers her excellent narrative with glimpses of Scout’s education. Just these few pages alone throughout the books have helped me deeply reflect on the way I view the most able in my classroom.

‘I knew nothing except…everything I could lay my hands on.’

‘I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything.’

Scout loves knowledge. Atticus (her father) taught her to read long before she began school – putting her well ahead of many of the pupils in her class. This was a real annoyance to her teacher, who asked her to tell her father to stop teaching her to read. Oh, the irony. This becomes a regular problem in the relationship between Miss Caroline and Scout – she already knows everything she is supposed to be taught. Whose fault is this? Miss Caroline? The curriculum? The state education system?

I admit to having felt the same sort of pang that Scout’s teacher did when she discovered how far ahead Scout was from her class mates. I admit to struggling to know what to do with this sort of pupil after I’ve meticulously planned the learning and differentiated for supposedly all abilities. Our reactions as teachers to these moments with our able pupils are critical. I have a hunch that moments like this could ‘turn off’ able students forever if we’re not careful – just like it did for Scout Finch.

Like I said, Miss Caroline never stretched Scout further, or planned for her learning but there have been many times when I haven’t planned for my ‘Scout’s’ either. I’ll never forget my third Ofsted observation of their recent inspection of our school. I was teaching PSHE and my focus was ‘Understanding identity and its role in society’. I introduced the learning objective, gave an interesting hook for the children to discuss and moved around the room to check how they were getting on.

“Sir, I know what identity means already,” came a voice very near to where the inspector was sat, “and I know what mine is too”.

My heart sank. I’d planned an awesome lesson that I couldn’t wait to deliver and here was smarty-pants sat right next to the inspector telling me she knew everything before we’d even got going. I ploughed on with a utilitarian motive, justifying in my head that ‘it is for the greater good of all that I do what I have planned – if smarty pants knows it all then so be it’. To cut a long and embarrassing story short: Ofsted didn’t think this was the right thing to do. As time has passed, neither do I. At this point I could launch into strategies and techniques (which I have subsequently attempted to implement since this lesson) for stretching the able child. Instead I want to delve deeper. I want to understand something of what this pupild is like. Scout Finch provides a great opportunity to do this.

Firstly, Scout didn’t just want the knowledge, she wanted to know the how and the why of the way things were. In her conversations with Atticus, rather than her teacher or schooling, she got just that. Atticus let her in to the intricate maze of culture, social infrastructure and racial prejudices that existed in their small town of Maycomb in a way that puzzled her.  Time and again Scout attempted to understand the world and make sense of things in a big way by asking probing questions. Atticus modelled sophisticated vocabulary and terminology (in addition to pointing out to Scout that the world is a complex place and you may never understand it fully). We could all learn from Atticus as teachers. Smarty pants, in my case, could have been asked to think about the how and the why of identity. She told me that she ‘knew what hers was’, well, could she compare her identity to that of a different culture, such as French or Spanish? Could she even compare two or three? Her desire to know the how and why in my case wouldn’t have meant she was doing different learning but rather deeper learning. I failed to see this and so did Miss Caroline.

This desire to know the how and why contrasts sharply with Scout’s schooling: ‘Miss Caroline (waved) cards at us on which were printed ‘the’, ‘rat’, ‘man’, and ‘you’. No comment seemed to be expected of us,’ I grimaced at this line. As I read Lee’s narrative and Scout’s character unfolds, her depth of cultural knowledge and understanding was so much more advanced than the education she was receiving in school: ‘I was bored, so I began a letter’. To this, she is told that pupils do not begin to write in first grade, that doesn’t begin until the third grade.

In the case of my PSHE lesson, my actions reflected a similar meaning to this comment. Miss Caroline’s teaching was closed, fixed and easily assessable, while the tasks Scout and my pupil wished to engage in were open ended and creative. This is forever the challenge for us as teachers, to let go and let minds run free.

‘…as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something…’

What was this something she was being cheated out of? Lee never makes this clear. However, when I think about my able pupil I have a possible answer: learning for the sake of learning. Learning not for an assessment, evidence or test but for the joy and challenge of knowing something new. Maybe this is why Scout loved sitting with Atticus so much: he never assessed her on her capabilities or asked her to evidence her thoughts; he let her mind run free and kept this at the heart of his relationship with her.

Now back to reality; back to the grind of my PSHE classroom, where some of my pupils can’t spell ‘Identity’, while smarty pants ‘knows what hers is’. How then should I teach? Strategies are legion and I could spend days writing about them. What lies at the heart of it is this:

let us not let our Scout Finch’s or smarty pants’ of this world feel cheated in our classrooms or inch slugglishly along the treadmill of state education, let us allow them to lead the way.


*I am massively appreciative to Tom Sherrington’s blog about a ‘total philosophy for gifted and talented children’ which has helped frame a lot of my thoughts here. If you’d like to read more about this topic or other aspects of his wonderful work, please do so here:


Gifted and Talented provision: a total philosophy

3 things I wish I knew about teaching as an NQT.


My last blog post about being an NQT – at least for the foreseeable future – is on teaching specifically. I’ve learnt so much the hard way over the past two years and the three things I want to share have become close allies for me moving forward in my career.

Expect failure – and learn from it quickly.

I’ll never forget at the beginning of Summer Institute (part of my Teach First training) one of the main leaders of the charity standing up and declaring that we ought to ‘fail a lot and fail quickly’. I didn’t fully understand the meaning of this until I got in the classroom in September. I failed at everything it was possible to fail at – including being late for work on my very first day. There’s a great TED talk I listened to by Astro Teller titled ‘The Unexpected Benefits of Celebrating Failure’ which really made me reconsider my perception of failure. As an inventor, he talks about not just learning from making mistakes but revelling in them, actively seeking them and celebrating when they occur. The purpose of this is to focus more sharply on doing things better and potentially rooting out things that might have stopped you from being the best you can be later on down the line. Understanding failure as an essential part of the process of learning has helped me massively in my teaching, not only for myself but for my pupils too.

Big dreams aren’t bad – just hold on to them tightly.

I am naturally a blue sky, big vision thinker. One of the reasons I came into teaching was to make a difference to the pupils I teach. What I wasn’t clear on was what this difference might look like or how I might do it. Within days I’d lost that vision I had and resigned myself to merely ‘getting through’. I assumed it was unachievable for me as a teacher due to extraneous factors. This was one of the worst things I ever did. After a discouraging year, on the last day of school I received a card from a pupil who was both able and challenging. It didn’t have the traditional ‘you’re the best teacher ever’, or ‘i’m going to miss you sir’. Instead it read this:

To Mr Burns,

You’ve enabled me to be all that I can be.

Thank you for everything.

Adam (Pseudonym)

My dream was to make a difference to the pupils I teach. For some reason I thought it would mean they would turn into little prime ministers, standing on their soap box in the playground preaching about inequality in society. Instead I realised i’d made a difference to some of the pupils in my class, with one claiming that i’ve enabled him to be all he can be. It’s safe to say i’ll be keeping this card forever, holding on to my dreams tightly, always looking to edge them forward in small steps.

Never stop learning.

I love reading. I love learning new things. I love the satisfaction of opening up new corridors of knowledge to see that it is utterly endless. When I began teaching, for some reason, this became the last thing on my agenda. Subconsciously, a lingering feeling of my time for learning ‘being over’ began to creep in to my thoughts. My approach was to race through two to three books in a half term to steal some more learning for myself. This suffocated my practice as a teacher. I realised this when pupils like Adam would ask me why a relative clause needs two commas; why Hitler rose to power; why gravity is so powerful or who decides what we learn in school. My answers were dusty at best, since they had been sat stagnant in my mind for so long. At worst, they made no sense, for I was unwilling to claim that I didn’t know. It made me feel sad that as a so-called ‘gatekeeper of knowledge’ I had no time to develop my own. This has since changed and I am carving out time in my week to study the difference between phrases and clauses and who decides what we learn in school – we’ll save those for subsequent posts. Please, never stop learning…or you’ll end up like I did.


Here’s the TED talk if you’re interested:


3 things I wish I knew about behaviour as an NQT.


I arrived as a male in a primary school context naturally assuming I would have a handle on my pupils’ behaviour. After the first ten minutes, I realised I was completely and utterly wrong. I could write here all the little tips and tricks that you might have picked up from others more experience teachers. I could write here all the visible things that you will see in classrooms around the country (behaviour charts and point systems). Instead, I’ve gone with some more principle focussed things that ‘I wish I knew’. In my opinion, so much of classroom behaviour is about expectations and relationships between you and your students. Start with this and I think the rest will follow. Here’s the three things I wish I knew:

Establish discipline before management.

Sanctions, praise, sanctions and more sanctions. That effectively tells the story of my behaviour management in my first few weeks. A staffroom conversation made me realise that my class had the most praise and the most sanctions distribution. At first I thought this was a good thing but a prompt from my mentor made me realise the opposite: the more you use something, the less effective it is. This led me to realise that there was no discipline in my classroom, there was only management. I had not taught my children how to do the small things that had big implications: lining up properly, putting pencils and books away and handing out homework. More than this, I had not taught my pupils how to speak to me, peers or adults and instead sanctioned them for ‘being rude’. A bad mistake. By sweating the small details and doing the graft of routine, basic classroom discipline and interactions, the overall benefit to management will definitely pay off (more on this in future posts). From the point of discipline the focus is on ‘how we will behave in this room’ rather than ‘do’s and don’ts’. Classroom management then becomes merely an outworking of a shared set of common values and behaviours that are expected not hoped for.

Your ‘teacher voice’ is more powerful than you think.

I realised about half way through the year that I had three voice levels in my teaching: input voice, stern voice, shouty voice. More than this, I realised they were all pretty much the same tone and sound, despite me thinking otherwise. I then began to train myself to speak quietly, slowly, quickly, sharply, softly etc etc. The range and variety in voice that I have begun to develop has proved to be really powerful for two reasons. Firstly, pupils have been more interested when I have to speak since I have varied the tone, pace and pitch in my voice. Furthermore, they now know that a quiet, low whisper in the ear while others are working means that they need to correct their behaviour, regardless of what I have said, while a sharp melodic instruction means that something needs to be done quickly by all. Secondly, my throat doesn’t hurt and I don’t ‘feel bored’ of what I have got to say. All things considered, if something is exciting than surely it’s worth speaking in an ‘exciting’ way?

Engaging teaching is a great way to manage behaviour.

I assumed when I first started that behaviour management and teaching were two very separate issues. I assumed that once you’ve nailed behaviour, you can then start teaching. A year on I think this is a false claim. I think that it is false because maintaining control in the classroom very much depends on whether your pupils are engaged in the learning.  They might be able to sit quietly, raise their hands in the right way or speak to others properly but if they are disengaged in the learning, then their passive behaviour is somewhat pointless. More than this, unless you are a super genius educator, I think it is difficult to control a class by merely explaining your rules and practicing routines if they don’t have any learning to do. It will get old very quickly. I have often found that some of the behaviour issues in my class have not been down to pupils making poor choices just because they feel like it; instead it has been because they are disengaged.

Therefore, by engaging pupils for example through a high quality hook at the beginning of a lesson (more on ‘hooks’ in a further post), engagement and curiosity can be stimulated in learners – resulting in them not having time to think about misbehaving! Dovetailed with this is the fact that often I have avoided giving out sanctions by diverting the attention of the pupils to an activity I think they will enjoy. Before you know it, you have sneakily got them involved in learning and the pencil they were about to throw has actually starting writing a beautiful piece of poetry…




5 things I wish I knew about wellbeing as an NQT.

Owl Teacher

I thought i’d begin my blog by reflecting on my NQT year. Instead of revelling in what went wrong and telling you how arduous it was, I thought it would be good to consider some practical things that I wish I knew when I started. Let’s begin with wellbeing.

Illness will happen.

Snotty noses, grubby hands and coughs in the face – it’s impossible to escape them. I had been told the year before by a colleague that all NQTs get ill in their first year and she was right. For me, it was the sickness bug that knocked me for six. A simple way to prevent (but definitely not to solve) illness is to carry vitamin C drink tablets with you to school. I wish i’d have done this sooner. In the summer term I used them a few times and it solved the beginnings of a cold.


Protect your rest.

I spent a short period of time off school this year due to anxiety and stress. In that short time, I realised that I had not protected this essential bodily function. As teachers, our work is ‘decision dense’ and we ‘perform’ for lots of the day to engage our pupils in learning. In addition, challenging behaviour is exhausting, not to mention explaining this to the parents after school! Try to do your very best to set up a clear cut distinction between your work and home life. At times this will be impossible but make sure you can play catch up at certain times in the week by doing something you enjoy that is not associated with work.


Don’t depend on Caffeine.

I regularly found myself at my desk on a Monday morning not being well rested after a long weekend. My solution was often to drink more coffee to get me through the day. This was a really poor choice. I found myself becoming jittery and anxious, in addition to getting headaches. This had a direct impact on my teaching. I became less patient and struggled to remain calm with certain pupils in my class at times. Coffee is a wonderful beverage but only in moderation. Try to limit yourself to between 1-3 cups a day. Why not even try to sit in the staffroom until you’ve finished your whole coffee and see it as an opportunity to integrate ‘rest’ into your day.


Eat lunch everyday.

By this I don’t mean that you should have five minutes scoffing a sandwich at your computer answering emails in your lunch break. Neither do I mean have a three course meal in the staffroom that you have painstakingly cooked the night before. Have a period of rest, where you sit, eat and talk to colleagues. Consider what you eat: have you eaten a piece of fruit, some carbs and some protein that day? This sounds so simple but I forgot it within three weeks of starting my NQT year and reverted to barely eating at all during school to ‘save time’. A very bad move. Carve out time and space to prepare easy to make food for lunch times. I noticed the benefits of this within a few days.

Make the most of your travel time/commute.

I used to spend my morning cycle stressed and anxious about the day ahead. All I could think about was getting to the printer first before someone else got there (!). Similarly on the way home, I felt nothing but worry about getting all my marking done that I had carried strenuously in my rucksack. As I reflect on this, I realise that this commuting time just became and extra hour of worry and stress every day. Instead, in my summer term, I decided to walk. It took me 35 minutes. I listened to music, books and at times just enjoyed looking at the world around me. The point i’m making here is not about the mode of transport; it’s about the principle of integrating reflection into your everyday schedule in a meaningful way – and that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘reflecting on your practice’. I found my time walking to and from school so profitable for considering not only what had happened that day but also about my life in general.

What are your thoughts? Are there any things that you’d add to this list? I hope this has been helpful to you if you are starting out in the profession and I’d love to hear your thoughts.