December 14th, 2010

Teachers as Guides: A New Appreciation for an Old Metaphor


Still finishing up? I remember one semester when I was doing my final grading in my office on a Saturday morning. It was very close to Christmas. I finally finished, submitted the grades, and exuberantly headed home with Christmas music on the radio far louder than it should have been. It was such a relief to finally be finished. At a stop light, I was singing with the radio and thinking about making Christmas cookies. The light changed and I zoomed forward, failing to notice the car in front of me had not zoomed forward. I did not exuberantly drive the rest of the way home.

As we close out this semester, I thought we’d revisit a familiar metaphor: the teacher as guide, in this case, mountain guide. I never thought much about this metaphor or saw its potential richness until I read the essay referenced below. It’s an old piece, but many of the essay’s comparisons have stayed with me across the years.

“The mountain guide, like the true teacher, has a quiet authority. He or she engenders trust and confidence so that one is willing to join the endeavor. The guide accepts his leadership role, yet recognizes that success … depends on close cooperation and active participation of each member of the group. He has crossed the terrain before and is familiar with the landmarks, but each trip is new and generates its own anxiety and excitement.”

Author Nancy K. Hill, then a professor of humanities at the University of Colorado at Boulder, describes how the rope links those who climb so that they may assist each other. But the rope also ties those it connects to risk and vulnerability. I like how this metaphor gets at the role of teacher who is there to guide, to protect, and to encourage, but not to climb for those who ascend to the peak. They must do the climbing themselves just as students must do the learning themselves. But it’s Hill closing paragraph that I know by heart and frequently use during workshops with faculty.

“The teacher is not a pleader, not a performer, not a huckster, but a confident, exuberant guide on expeditions of shared responsibility into the most exciting and least-understood terrain on earth—the mind itself.”

Reference: Hill, Nancy K. “Scaling the Heights: The Teacher as Mountaineer.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 16, 1980, p. 48.