Metaphors that make you

Shinjini Sanyal

Shinjini We all use metaphors to describe situations and states in life. They often describe exactly what we want in the simplest way possible. I recently came across this article by Lakoff and Johnson (2003) which suggested that images and metaphors are not trivial bits of language, but rather powerful and influential mechanisms that help us form world views and maintain them. In their work Metaphors We Live By, they explored how these metaphors influence the way we think and approach a situation, our expectations and how we perceive our roles and responsibilities. They play an important part in influencing or swaying discourse. For a teacher too, the various metaphors that speak about their own identity therefore shape their practice. They may not be based on professional considerations alone, but also on personality traits that are considered relevant based on socio-political and cultural beliefs. When I was studying teacher professional development for my course, I came across a few more articles that further shaped this belief.

For example, let us look at the common and age-old tradition of referring to the teacher as guru. The guru of ancient India was the ‘knowledgeable one’ both from an epistemic and spiritual point of view. The role of such an individual was to transfer worthy knowledge to his disciples and to shape their beliefs and world views as well. He was the only one in charge of their knowledge and well-being. Even today, male teachers are referred to as ‘guru-ji’ in Hindi in many schools across India and touching the feet of the teacher is a common practice. The teacher is still the unquestioned authority in the classroom, often put on a pedestal both literally and figuratively, and students think twice before questioning him/her, even on curricular matters. Teachers who hold this belief also come to expect unconditional obedience, allegiance and respect from their students. On a superficial level, this can be witnessed through the expectation that a child must always stand up to respond to a teacher, or greet without expecting a greeting in return; children who question their teacher are thought of as adamant.

Personality traits sometimes become more important than pedagogic knowledge for teachers when they talk about their beliefs about teaching and ‘good teachers’. Connected with this is the rather predominant metaphor of the teacher as a parent. Ideas of ‘unconditional love’ and ‘sacrifice’ for the child are common beliefs of teachers who maintain that the teacher is like a parent to the child, who is entrusted with the ultimate responsibility of moulding the child into a good human being. For this, the teacher forms relations with the child based on warmth, care and benevolence, and his/her role is to ‘protect’ the child from the harsh realities of the outside world. The feminization of the teaching profession and the popular concept of the teacher as a mother figure is a direct outcome of this belief.

After Independence, the role of the teacher as a ‘nation builder’ also gained a lot of prominence in the teacher identity discourse in India. The national development agenda in newly independent India led to a glorification of India’s traditional heritage and culture. This directly impacted the role of the teacher as an upholder of these values, and on the teacher as a morally sound human being. Even today a teacher is expected to be a good citizen, or patriot or martyr (Sarangapani, 2003) who has sacrificed material wealth for the betterment of the society and nation, and who has no bad habits.

Shinjini is a research scholar currently pursuing her Mphil-PhD at TISS, Mumbai. She has been working on education/development for over seven years now, collaborating with resource organizations that work on teacher development and curriculum design. She is keenly interested in issues of teacher professional development. She can be reached at

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