Teachers for the 21st Century: What Figurative Language Reveals about Shifting Selves in Professiona

by Dr. Gloria Latham and Dr. Julie Faulkner



Twenty-first century learners require teachers equipped to teach creatively to an unknown future. Yet a regulatory approach to education is positioning teachers to fit within prescribed standards. Using a narrative inquiry approach, the authors explored these tensions as they examined a range of qualities from a small group of practising primary and secondary teachers who were questioning normative practices and exploring more responsive and holistic ways to teach. The focus is on teachers’ complex identities and the ways they live their lives. Through the telling of teachers’ own stories, theauthors analysed teachers’ unsolicited use of figurative language to illuminate the influences of childhood adventures, educational pasts, and current practices on their beliefs about teaching and learning. This exploration gave rise to greater understanding of the uneasy connections among 21st century teachers’ mindsets, the performing of their professional roles, and how they need to teach.



A vast body of literature explores the strongest determinants of students’ learning. The OECD annual report in 2005 summarised this literature and the findings reveal that the largest variation in student outcomes is teachers, especially with respect to teacher quality. Yet what constitutes quality teaching, and how one becomes the ‘good’ teacher, is highly contestable (Connell, 2009; Groundwater-Smith & Mochler, 2009; Mochler, 2013).

Regulatory bodies often take a market-driven approach to bettering the quality of teachers. A regulatory approach can lead to quality teachers being positioned poorly by those who fit the current standards and those who fit into and adhere to the current initiatives –compliant teachers. Connell (2009) argues, “employing the Standards framework embeds distrust of teachers’ judgment” (p. 9). Moreover, teaching to a set of standards diminishes the importance of teachers’ attributes and being responsive to the strengths of individual learners. Further research identifies the increasingly regulatory culture and loss of professional agency in teaching within neoliberal policy frameworks.

The beliefs posed above illustrate the conflicting attributes that constitute the ‘good teacher’. They also demonstrate the ways in which teachers are positioning themselves and are being positioned by others. How then, in this complex climate, are teachers representing themselves? While identities are shifting, we argue that the lacuna in the literature appears to be how teachers with particular mindsets are responding to and shaping rapidly changing, highly unpredictable, and uncompromising professional landscapes.Our participant teachers’ metaphors suggested discordance among their roles, motivation, and personas. In an interpersonal context such as school, teacher identities function as a primary tool of interaction (Tauber & Mester, 2007).


Understanding teachers’ lives through figurative language

Adventures, journeys, and performance are familiar tropes in describing life trajectories. Why do people search to situate commonplace observations and experiences into other, less familiar frames? As a creative language device, metaphor has the potential to form ideas in innovative and unconventional ways. Even used conventionally, metaphors are embedded in daily lives, both in language and in thought and action. The research suggests that scholars have already linked metaphor to educational policy practices. Loh and Hu (2014), in Singapore, and Gatti and Catalino (2015), a year later in America, studied the effects of neoliberal ideologies on teachers. The two studies worked to make visible the ways one teacher (in the case of Loh & Hu) and one pre-service teacher (Gatti & Catalino) dealt with conflicting frames of teaching.

Linking metaphor to the dehumanising effects of accountability regimes, Cook-Sather (2003, p. 7) argues that education metaphors have often been defined as a cure “that students are quantifiable objects to be packaged or diseased beings in need of remedy.” Although establishing the power of metaphor to conceptualise personal and worldviews is difficult to research, we noted the frequency of comparative images in our participants’ stories. We wanted to discover the affordances of the language chosen by our participants and how those attributes might reflect particular mindsets in relation to teaching in current times.


The Study: Storylines

To explore the qualities needed in 21st century teachers’ lives, we sought the stories of six practising teachers over a two-year period. Because narratives help capture human experience, we drew upon a narrative inquiry approach. However, their large stories were not enough to capture the range of attributes we sought in our participants’ teacher identities. We also drew upon their small stories, captured particularly in the initial interview.

Bamberg and Georgakopoulou (2008) define small stories as often past, future, and hypothetical tellings that might well lack narrative structure, because they can be mere fleeting unfinished thoughts. Researchers often dismiss these stories as being off-track or unfinished, yet Bamberg and Georgakopoulou believe these fragments could hold powerful and insightful meaning. By having people talk about their lives, aspects of their interiority become visible. In such moments of micro change, Bamberg (2016) believes one’s identity is sharpened. A ‘small stories’ focus from different perspectives can examine incremental changes that have brought these participants to where there they are in the moment. They recognize the way individuals position themselves in the storylines and the contradictions and ambiguities that ensue.

After securing Ethics approval at one of our universities and with the Department of Education, participants were drawn from students we had taught who we felt fostered intellectually curious, creative, and imaginative thinking. We had kept in touch with these people and wanted to understand more of their post-graduation lives. We asked them (two beginning and four more experienced teachers in primary and secondary sectors) to participate in three interviews that addressed their childhoods, their schooling, their teaching practices, and how they reflect on their own teaching identities. From the textures of their stories, we asked how their pre-teaching lives shape their current practices.

Participants were teaching in diverse disciplines and sectors with varied learners, learning environments, and philosophies. Therefore, we devised questions inclusive of all differences. To pilot the questions posed, we answered them ourselves. In addition, we took care to devise questions that evoked conversations eliciting stories rather than answers. Stories grew and deepened over face-to-face and online exchanges. Additionally, we invited teachers to address further issues and correspond with each other in an online forum.

Our exploration of the qualities of adventurous teachers in times of “psychometric mindsets” (McCleneghan & Doecke, 2010, p. 224) thus arose from the ways teachers created a dialogic relationship with policy “meganarratives” (Olsen & Craig, 2009). This paper specifically focuses on the ways these six teachers used figurative language to explain themselves as teachers for 21st century learners. Although several studies deal with the metaphors teachers use to describe their teaching (Nikitina & Fumitaka, 2008; Northcote & Fetherston, 2006; Cook-Sather, 2003; Thomas & Beauchamp, 2011), many of these studies focus on pre-service or beginning teachers. Moreover, as researchers we asked participants to consciously construct metaphors around their teaching. In our exchanges, we did not request or even mention metaphors. Their stories, the language they used, and their content choices engaged with and rubbed up against the themes in the literature. The increased outside control, reduced teacher agency, and the impact of teachers’ out-of-school lives influenced their attitudes and beliefs. From this engagement emerged linear narratives, but also inconsistencies and contradictions around which we situated our metaphorical explorations.

In the analysis of the teachers’ stories, we listed and then grouped participants’ use of metaphorical lenses. These lenses offered insights into contemporary teachers who reach for the unknown. We examined their figurative language into the qualities under investigation: (a) their childhood exploration, (b) their schooling, (c) their teaching practices, and (d) their professional identities. We then focused on when and how teachers were drawing on figurative language to describe experience. Our literary analysis, or positioning and repositioning of the ways these teachers told their stories through and beyond, revealed three themes: (a) Adventurous Journeys, (b) Outsiders, and (c) Creative Problem-solvers.


Adventurous Journeys

As researchers, we examined how participants attempted to (re)imagine experience and reconcile conflicting realities of teaching. We wanted to arrive at a deeper understanding of the kinds of teachers who can best work with new knowledge and new ways of learning. We focused on language as central to how participants storied their sense of selves. Lifting the figurative language from their narratives allowed us to study the assumptions and beliefs inherent within.

Kate, a beginning primary teacher at an international school, is learner-centred with her emphasis on guiding and fostering learning communities and the children driving the curriculum. Kate describes teaching “as a journey into resetting the mind;” yet, she confronts several obstructions. “I have had a few discussions with teachers about not rote teaching times tables, which gets many teachers flustered when they hear this.” Kate evoked a circus performer metaphor as she attempted to resist drill and skill pedagogies and “focus on mental strategies” instead. “It feels like juggling many balls at once at times, with some surprise chainsaws thrown in.” She did not elaborate on the vehemence of the chainsaw image, but later alluded to “burn out” and the continual need to collect “hard evidence” of learning and assessment.

Another participant, Jennifer, a senior primary teacher, is also highly learner-centred. She uses informed teacher judgment to probe students’ responses further, understanding the importance of getting her students to be resilient, think deeply and critically, to solve problems, and to further develop their fertile imaginations. Jennifer clearly viewed teaching as a journey and continues to learn through extensive professional reading. She spoke openly about her distaste for competition, imposed standards, and high-stakes testing. As a teacher with over 15 years’ experience, Jennifer felt she and her colleagues are made to “play the game – to fake it” but admitted when acting that “you sort of feel like performing seals or a cookie cutter teacher following a recipe.” Jennifer believed that too much teaching is regimented and too many teachers rationalized this process as “It’s just a job.” However, for these teachers, such a dismissal, couched in the mechanics of teacher ‘training,’ is not personally possible when they believe that teaching begins with an individual learner.

Although outwardly compliant, Jennifer was also mentally resistant to the policy mandates delivered, interrogating top-down decision-making:

I cannot accept it unquestioningly without seeing where it could sit creatively with my beliefs, the potential of an idea – being able to celebrate and communicate the multiplicity or versions of ‘what could be…’ knowledge … learning with the notion and strong teacher child bond at the core ... I really struggled with the implementation of our Region’s agenda – my concern was during the time when there were Instructional Rounds, principals, and regional staff would visit classrooms with the objective of finding ‘problems of practice.’

At her school, Jennifer’s lesson plans had to be uploaded a week in advance, keeping her teaching pre-planned, scripted, and under close scrutiny. Instructional Rounds were undertaken twice a term with the principal and assistant principal coming into all classrooms and ‘checking-up’ on how each teacher follows his/her lesson plans. Jennifer believed, “It’s a joke really, a one size fits all philosophy” – a need to fit into a system constrained by the business of teaching and its curriculum mandates.

Our participants frequently opposed their own sense of professional practice to the managerialist or business model approach they believed was driving teaching and learning. Josh, an experienced secondary teacher, was adamant that education and his agency as a teacher should not be viewed as being pragmatic or reductive. He claimed:

The enduring truths of my childhood, which I still apply today, include the importance of education in self-determination, the value of learning beyond its status as a means to an end. That education is about more than simply preparing one for a job or a career.

            Juliet, a secondary teacher, also spoke about her teaching journey, describing her beliefs using figurative language about genuine diversity practices in her school. Her brush-tarring image reinforces her recognition of egalitarian mythologies:

I found it very difficult to be in a school where the reproduction of inequalities was so strong. I know I shouldn’t tar all schools with the same brush. But it is very hard not to see the whole system as perpetrating myths about meritocracy, whilst year after year the same groups don’t do as well.

            Using her own experience in school, Juliet sought geographical images: “I never quite found a place to land.” She evoked road maps in her construction of teaching as a bumpy pathway: “For me it boils down to critical thinking skills as per my posts. Not only does this give you a practical road map for problem solving, it also protects you emotionally from being chewed up by the system.”

            However, “chewed up” was what Juliet eventually came to feel. Although, as a Masters of Education student, she was able to draw on research to frame tensions and contradictions she experienced in her school, she ultimately capitulated:

[I] was able to understand that there were many factors outside of my control that were impeding my ability to survive in such an environment. Emotionally though, it was a different story as I came to viscerally, physiologically feel the draining, wading through treacle that eventuated in my resignation. My mental and physical health was deteriorating, and there was no one at the school who I could connect with intellectually about what was happening. In fact, it was rather the opposite as I was starting to become known as subversive due to my vocal disagreement towards the bureaucracy of the place.

Images of feeling stymied (“wading through treacle”) added to earlier feelings of “suffocation” by the tone and culture of the school. Although Juliet’s journey continued in tertiary education, she tendered her resignation at the school she had entered enthusiastically only two years earlier.

            Ben, another senior secondary teacher now working in an International Baccalaureate school in Bangalore, recalled a more literal journey of panic on his first overseas trip. When he went to Japan, a place he had always wanted to experience, he spoke of feeling “lost, terrified, and out of control. Clearly I was not well-suited to the life of a traveller.”

He went on to admit:

I had an 8-day, stop-over in Vietnam on the way home (Vietnam turned into an encroaching dark cloud in my mind how the hell was I going to cope in that developing wasteland when I was struggling so terribly in a tightly-managed and sophisticated megatropolis like Tokyo?) I wanted to cancel that little side trip. Get back to Melbourne and my family and friends and the places where everything made sense.

Whether fear can translate to a generative learning experience depends on a number of contingent factors. Ben managed the translation, describing his next trip to Vietnam as “an extraordinary adventure. It was also in Vietnam that I met two very seasoned travellers who, seeing the twinkle in my eye, told me I should go to India. And five years later I did.”

The “encroaching dark cloud” assumed perspective as Ben reflected on and reconciled his fears: “Even while we are troubled by those tiny storms we perceive around us, we can trust our internal navigation systems to weather the course and bring us home again and again.” His reference to an inner compass echoed Juliet’s practical road maps as inner resources drawn on to seek and regain equilibrium when not coping.

Sammy, in only his second year of teaching primary, loved working at a small school in the country. The flexibility he was allowed to work three days a week suited his family life well with a wife, young twins, and other job pursuits. At the start of his second year, a new principal came to the school with mandated ideas about pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment (NAPLAN is Australia’s national benchmarking test in literacy and numeracy), causing Sammy conflict. He searched for an image to describe the ways standardised testing compromised his identity as a caring teacher. In an email he explained:

The work front is a little more complex. Our new principal started at the beginning of Term 3 and unfortunately she’s a little too NAPLAN-focussed for my liking. A big slab of my teaching for the rest of the term is teaching NAPLAN ‘skills’ (including focusing my teaching around practice NAPLAN tests). One comment that sticks in my mind is “You can have the best-practice teaching in the world and students will still score low on NAPLAN: so we need to teach them the skills to do the test.” All of this is very annoying and disappointing to say the least.


Sammy’s performance conceit (recalling Kate’s earlier juggling) surfaced, as he argued, “If I wanted to be a monkey-trainer I would have gone and joined the circus, not become a teacher.” Using further comparisons to speculate on how his teaching fits with the school approach, Sammy, like Juliet, considered his future:


My prior experience in the professional world has taught me some valuable lessons, first and foremost is that if I find myself in a square-peg/round-hole situation then it’s time to change. There might be some movement to change at the school – if enrolments go up then it is possible I might get my own class in a full-time role. However, reading between the lines I think I’m still going to have the NAPLAN coaching role in the afternoons if that were the case.

What provides teachers, often inexperienced like Sammy, with the will to persist with and challenge professional dislocation? Current and former role models may form part of the reason these teachers remain in teaching with fractured identities. Kate speaks of being inspired by innovative and creative teachers at the international school where she teaches. Sammy fondly remembers a teacher who always asked ‘why,’ driving him to deepen ideas. Josh had a literature teacher who negotiated the curriculum with his students, while Jenny details research that inspires and furthers her learning.

As researchers, we continue to explore participants’ stories to search for shared or juxtaposed themes, to throw light on their resilience and optimism in difficult teaching times. When teachers are being asked to teach for an unknown future, they are indirectly being asked to find comfort in being lost, and learning to find their way by following the needs of their students. This means they never arrive, but are always journeying.

As we explored these teachers’ stories, represented here as snapshots, the teachers spoke happily and at length about their childhoods prior to formal schooling. Their stories revealed that they were not afraid of getting lost. Sammy, Juliet, and Josh were afforded great freedom as children as they roamed the woods and fields around their homes, often on their own. They appeared also to be determined to have adventures and make discoveries. The early years of our participants were fuelled by the exploration of their surroundings.



At school, the discoveries the participants experienced as students were often curtailed and they found themselves outsiders. Sammy and Josh considered themselves to be outsiders at school, using the term both literally and metaphorically. Several participants believed they didn’t fit in at school. Josh mainly connected with others who would ‘bend’ the rules, while Juliet, now a socially gregarious teacher, felt lonely at school and described herself as “a complete wallflower.” Sammy spent time at school hiding under his desk, while Juliet was in survival mode. Now a PhD candidate, Juliet admitted that she “didn’t get” many things about traditional learning. “I felt it was because I wasn’t clever enough.”

Interestingly, all six teachers interviewed also found their schooling mediocre. Their views of their schooling relate to a study by Mintz and Ricci (2010) where thirty-five visionaries in education were asked to tell stories of their schooling and teaching. What characterised most of their stories were descriptions of their schooling as unremarkable, uneventful, pretty standard, a game, and an irritation. Perhaps, being positioned on the outside allowed these teachers greater insight about what was going on (or not going on) inside and helped fuel their entrepreneurial spirit and desire for purposeful educational change.

Schools tend to prefer to support the formation of certain kinds of professional identities above others (Bullough, 2005). Participants again drew on figurative language to express doubts, frustration, and pressure in describing their responsibilities. Kate, a beginning teacher, wonders if her teaching is “in the ball park.” Jennifer, an experienced teacher, admits that some government initiatives see her “bored out of my brain!” Sammy, another beginning teacher, further revealed, “There is a very big push from the top and I’m the guy in the middle.”


Creative Problem-Solvers

What became evident to us was that, as the teachers discussed pleasurable aspects about their lives apart from their schooling and work, their language became far less metaphorical. Family members played a significant role in their early lives fostering creativity and problem-solving. Similarly, the development of an appetite for imagining and problem-solving can be seen as building capacity. Jennifer’s mother filled the small house with her beautiful operatic voice, which encouraged Jennifer to sing. Kate and Sammy’s fathers’ connections to nature had a powerful and lasting influence on them. Josh also credits the value of his problem-solving approach to his father.

As a child, Ben recalled that creativity and problem-solving were held in high esteem. “I can remember my parents helping me create several small science projects that included a steam powered vessel. Imagination was also very highly valued, with mum at least.” Creativity – in terms of approaches to problem-solving rather than in the sense of creating art – was encouraged, as was lateral thinking. Josh observed

My father was an amazing problem-solver and incredibly creative with his designs of and execution of his work. He would come up with an idea and pursue it immediately. He would find a way around or over or through any complication that presented itself, often thinking outside the box to achieve something. Working with him gave me a sense of the wonder of creating things.

His awe for his father’s practical ability exists despite his father’s flattening of Josh’s worldly curiosity:

I remember applying Pythagoras’ Theorem to a length of a beam in a roof my Dad was building. I calculated that the length was √10m. He told me that was useless because his tape measure didn’t have √10 on it. I remember in Year 7 speaking to him about entropy and the inevitable heat-death of the universe, of our own sun going supernova and destroying Earth. He dismissed this as irrelevant: he would not be around in 30bn years, why should he worry about it?

Our participants continue the journey of exploration and discovery in adulthood. They appear to see being alive and facing fear as an adventure in learning. Josh links his adventurism to effective learning and self-worth: “I am interested in, the dangerous things, but to respect the ways in which they were dangerous and to respond appropriately.”

            Ben continues to use creative problem-solving as a teacher. He is told that he must teach Lord of Flies (Golding, 1954) as a set text to his Year 7 class, an instruction he finds poorly guided. He argued that he is “not one to sit behind the defensive claim that students need to learn to endure things they find difficult or boring or inaccessible.” That said, he reconfigured received curriculum to something at once more creative and educative:

            We used bits and pieces of it while talking about civilisation, social groups, bullying, survival, etc. It opened a can of worms for dialogue on the tribal nature of the schoolyard. And part of the experience was drawing connections between Golding’s novel, the time and place it was written in, and what it serves to remind us of in our current social context. The students used drama and visual art to interpret the themes of the text, and we kept the focus on the concepts.

Figurative language here expands to ‘figurative pedagogy,’ or teaching that creates imaginative connections. Ben’s “can of worms” has become a magic box of possibilities for vicarious experience of other lives, places, and times.

The multisensory memories of our participants brought Jenny back to hearing her mother’s operatic voice filling her small childhood house; allowed Ben to compare feelings of travel to the protagonist in War and Peace who had no regrets; encouraged Kate to reawaken playful memories of dressing-up; while Josh fondly remembered his time as a knight on horseback. In selecting an image to represent himself as a teacher, Sammy identified a cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish (and many other members of the cephalopod family) are regarded as highly intelligent with excellent innovation and problem-solving skills. However, they cannot take advantage of their brains, as they lack the ability to transfer their knowledge to the next generation. As one generation lays their eggs, they die, taking their knowledge with them, leaving the next generation to learn it all, all over again.

(Discussion forum post)

The educational system and its mandates hinder teachers like Sammy from transferring innovative problem-solving skills. Telling stories (and calling on metaphor) are ways of transforming knowledge and understandings for the next generation and making sense of who we are and the world we live in (Bamberg, 2016).



Our participants actively engaged in reflection and appear to have a strong sense of their identities (Flores & Day, 2006). They freely drew on imagery to construct their personal and professional narratives. Particularly striking to us was that all their teaching metaphors were negative in relation to the lack of agency experienced, the standardization of learning and their daily roles as teachers. Their relative incapacity to act in ways they felt promoted learners’ best interests reflected a sense of professional marginalization, spoken of by Connell (2009), Apple (1993), and Groundwater-Smith and Mochler (2009) at the beginning of this argument. When teachers’ professional identities and personas are frequently at odds, as reflected here in performance metaphors, the ‘performativity’ begins to drive the teacher practice and, in turn, reshape teaching identity. In our participants” experience, this is cast as a rupturing process.

On the other hand, childhood memories of adventures and risk-taking were expansive and affirming, while devoid of figurative language. When the teachers discussed their current lives in school, they invoked images positioning themselves as outsiders, circus performers, and recipe followers. Metaphor “shapes everyday discourse, and by this means, it shapes how people discern and enact the everyday” (Santa Ana, 2013, p. 26). Our small group of participants suggested to us that figurative language offers insight, or at least voice to the contradictions that underpin pedagogical discourse: teacher identity concerns and increasingly regulatory policy environments.

To support and foster teachers who can best respond to 21st century learners, we argue the tensions between regulatory mandates and teachers’ agency must be addressed or we will lose quality teachers. This recommendation is mirrored in an Australian report on Teachers for the future, made over a decade ago (Skilbeck & Connell, 2004). This report recognizes that the only certainty is change and advocates for schools to be less regulatory and rigid.

As a window into experience and identity, the teachers’ choices of imagery offered us insights data cannot capture and frustrations we should not ignore. Our participants’ mindsets appear to be ideally suited to 21st century learners. Through analysis of the teachers’ stories, we discovered many connections between their professional identity and the way they lived their lives. The qualities we found essential for teachers to possess include an adventurous disposition, a creative and problem-solving approach, and an openness to lifelong learning. Adventurous teachers undertake a lifelong learning quest – a journey into the unknown both physically and intellectually. Caine and Caine (2000) contend that teachers seeking adventure utilize play in any learning event. One’s ideas can be playful, as can one’s physical explorations of the world. We argue that, as new discoveries are made through narrative construction and our awareness of the process, these teachers often generate new pedagogical questions of promise and possibility.



We believe greater attention on the part of educators and policymakers must be paid to the mindsets and lives of individuals seeking entry into Teacher Education programs. This focus applies also to those seeking employment as teachers in order to rethink teaching for new and unpredictable times. Teachers also need to be provided resources and afforded greater autonomy by educational leaders to foster playful, adventurous, and creative learning.

We acknowledge that the emphasis in this small study falls on the individual and we need to move to a more collective view of the role imagination and adventure play in teaching. We argue the importance of creating safe spaces for pre-service teachers to take risks and fail. The Australian Curriculum, mandated for all government school learners, identifies creative thinking as a general capability. This articulation, and those of other curriculum policies internationally, raise the question for teacher educators, teachers, and policy makers of how we plan for, practise, embed, and evidence creativity as an explicit feature of learning and teaching across all levels of schooling.



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Key words: Identity; figurative language; 21st century teachers; positioning; storytelling