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Automatic English For The People

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Metaphors

by AJ

Much of the debate (nearly all, as far as I can tell) about teachers, teaching, and schools, is metaphoric. Lets be clear, we are arguing metaphors. We are pushing archetypes.

Traditional teachers promote the "Parent" metaphor. In this sort of system, the teacher is a surrogate "mom" or "dad" and the learner, whatever their age, is a "child". The parents role is to exercise authority (strict or loose, depending on the teachers temperament), set limits, and direct the child. Implicit in this model is the assumption that the parent is superior to the child (in terms of power, "judgment", knowledge,...).

I won't argue the merit of such a metaphor when applied to real children.. those under 18 years of age-- primarily because I detest teaching this group and have no insights to offer.

But I do find great fault with this metaphor when applied to learners who are 18 years and older. For a 30 year old teacher to adopt the role of "parent" to a 40 year old immigrant ESL student (for example) is not only weird, its condescending and insulting. And the same goes for 18 year old college students, 28 year old businesswomen, and 70 year old retirees.

Adult education, in particular, needs new metaphors. There are plenty to choose from...

Teacher as Coach: Think of the teacher as the coach of a professional sports team. In such an arrangement, the players are the stars. These days, few professional coaches succeed with the parent model. However tough or loose they may be, they are dealing with confident, difficult, and highly paid stars who simply will not tolerate condescension. In the words of NBA coach Phil Jackson, "Coaching is winning players over". And in coaching, motivation is as important (or more) as conveying specific skills or strategies.

Teacher as Designer: Think of the teacher as a service/experience designer. Based on the clients (students) desires, the teacher designs a learning system to meet their needs. This is not done in a vacuum, but by working closely with the student. Think of the way an ad designer or interior decorator works.

Teacher as Personal Trainer: For those who worship "toughness", consider swapping the parent model for that of the personal trainer. Trainers get paid to work their clients to the bone. The best ones push clients to the edge of their limits. The difference from the parent metaphor is that ultimately the client is boss. The client can and will stop when they want to..... and while the client expects toughness... they also demand respect, encouragement, and equality. If they dont get it, its the trainer who gets fired.

Teacher as Counselor: For the touchy-feely folks, why not think of yourself as a counselor. Your role-- painstakingly assess the students needs, fears, desires, strengths, goals, and motivations.. then work together with them to reach those goals.

Teacher as Servant: Imagine flipping the tables on the parent-authority model. Think of yourself as a customer service representative. Your job-- make the customer happy and win their undying and fanatic loyalty. That means helping them to kick ass-- rather than trying to force them to accept your agenda.

Teacher as Director: Think of the teacher as the Director of an improvisational play. The teachers role-- set the scene, convey the vision, keep the action going.. and pull out the very best performances from the learners.

Teacher as Mentor: Another possible role-- that of informal mentor. No authority or control... just the respect that comes from excellence and character. Imagine meeting with learners in a pub, over a beer.

And so on. There is no limit... and thats the point. We do not need to be bound by the tired, ineffective, and insulting parent metaphor. We can create any role we like. We can create any type of relationship we like with learners... so long as it is mutually agreeable.

The key is not to surrender this decision to a committee, or bureaucracy... nor to adopt one because "thats the way we've always done it".

Rather, I think each teacher should make this decision on their own... after a careful assessment of their own strengths.... and the desires of their particular students.

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