Metaphor for Teaching: The Teacher as Midwife

The midwife is still my favorite metaphor for teaching. I don’t think there’s a metaphor that more aptly captures the complexity, power, and richness of the dynamic relationship between teachers, students, and learning. The metaphor is not original with me, and although I have read some quibbles in the literature as to who first proposed it, I first encountered it in a 1986 Harvard Educational Review essay by William Ayers. Here’s some of my current thinking about how the midwife mirrors all that a good teacher should be.

The teacher midwife is there at the birth of learning. She has attended many other births, been with many other students as they have gone through the arduous process of learning. It is a joyful, exciting event, but not without pain—sometimes the pain is long and intense, causing the learner to despair and lose hope. But the midwife understands. She knows that sometimes progress is slow. She also knows how much more pain lies ahead and what the learner might try to ease the discomfort and expedite the process. The midwife offers encouragement; her presence is reassuring.

Although most births are similar, no two are identical, in the same way that student learning follows patterns but is always unique. Sometimes problems arise. The midwife knows what to do. She is prepared, not with a script, but with knowledge, a wealth of previous experience, and resources she can summon. It is when problems emerge that the midwife’s presence is most needed and appreciated.

The birthing event joins midwife and mother in a shared quest. Midwives are not the ones giving birth any more than teachers are there to do the learning for a student. What the student is struggling to learn the teacher already knows. But midwives still struggle. They strive to figure out the best way to help, support, guide, and encourage the mother. Birth and learning require both teacher and mother to expend effort. They work together, but they tackle the problem in different ways.

When the understanding does finally arrive, credit for having given birth goes to the learner. Just like the midwife’s, the teacher’s job now is to share the joy and wonder. I once heard a midwife say, “I’ve lost track how many births I’ve attended, but I know that when it’s over and the babe is there in the mother’s arms, my heart still leaps for joy.” That’s so much like teachers who savor those moments when understanding settles over a student—it is as if the light of a new day has dawned.

Do you have a favorite metaphor for teaching? Please share it in the comment box.

Excerpted from The Teacher Midwife, The Teaching Professor, January 2008.