Watch Those Metaphors!

I seem to harbor a fascination with the words and metaphors we use so frequently in our contemporary discourse. For example, within the context of a three minute conversation on a local National Public Radio station during its pledge week drive, I heard the word “absolutely” used six times. What, I wondered, does that tell us about our need for absolutes in a culture where such concepts are constantly being questioned? So, too, I am fascinated by our use of images such as “low hanging fruit,” “tool kits,” and “buckets.” Perhaps there is meaning to be found in reaching into our tool kit for an implement that will help us gather the low hanging fruit into a bucket or two!

It is easy, I understand, to poke fun at the words and metaphors we gravitate toward that go in and out of style so very quickly. We draw upon such images because they help us make sense of a complicated world, one which so often defies description. In our schools, how frequently we encounter situations which astound us and lead us to conclude, “You couldn’t make this up!” Popular words and metaphors help us give shape and context to so much of what we encounter.

Still, I think there are some words, metaphors, and phrases that invite if not require (at the risk of using another common image) “unpacking.” When these words or metaphors are invoked, what do they mean?  Everyone around the table may be nodding their head when they are used as if a profundity had just been spoken, but do we really know what we are implying by them? Is there a common understanding of what they actually mean? 

As educators, much of our stock and trade is with words, so it is important for us to stop, on occasion, and ask the difficult, if momentum-stopping question, of what are we assuming when these words and metaphors land on the table. 

Let me raise questions about two of them.

Taking things to the next level. At the end of the marathon of interviews that routinely characterizes the visit of semifinalists in a head of school search, the school search committee does a wrap-up meeting with the visiting candidate. The head of the search committee summarizes the vision of the school and what the search committee is looking for in a new head of school by saying, “We really want to take this school to the next level.” All of those around the table nod in agreement. This sounds like both a commonly understood goal and a clear mandate for the new head of school. But does everyone understand what that really means? Moreover, does everyone know what might need to be relinquished, left behind, by going to the next level?

It may have to do with advancement goals, enhanced academic standards, or increased enrollment. Whatever it might be, it is worth clarifying what that expectation really means. A new school head needs to know if that metaphor reflects something specific or a more generalized longing on the part of the school community to be something more. Nothing is more inhibiting for a new leader than an unspoken expectation, or one that sounds good but still needs to be fleshed out into specific goals.

To be sure, on a larger scale it reflects the wish that any school community has to grow, flourish, and be better known in the community at large. It is a desire for more of something, based upon the deep love people have for this school community. Still, it is incumbent upon an educational community, known for its stewardship of words, to have a clear sense of what the metaphor truly means.

Being on the same page. Some differences of opinion are being aired during a faculty meeting and the outcome of the discussion seems at risk in a way that is not uncommon when deeply committed people consider important issues. The head of school seems increasingly frustrated by the progress (or lack of it!) of the discussion and finally says to the assembled faculty, “It is very important that we all be on the same page on this matter.” All of a sudden there is an awkward silence, as if those who support an alternative viewpoint wonder if they are in effect being silenced.

Effective teamwork is an essential component of a well-run school. So, too, when a board of trustees or a faculty reach a decision on a difficult matter, it is important that all involved in the decision come together in support of the outcome, despite their feelings about the value of the decision just made.

At the same time, metaphors such as “being on the same page,” when used in times when serious discussion needs to take place, can serve to stifle difference. The “same page” is a great place to be, and critical when it comes time for the entire community to move ahead, but never can we assume that people are all on that “common page” at the beginning of a discussion. Nothing can be more detrimental to the culture of a school than the unspoken assumption that differences of opinion are not tolerated in the discussion of an issue. It harms morale, pride in the community, and a sense that we, as Episcopal schools, are places that welcome diversity.

Metaphors enrich our conversations when they help us put words and images to matters that are complicated and, at times, in need of greater clarity. They inhibit us when they mask an unspoken intention and create confusion as to where the school is going strategically. As stewards of words, we educators in Episcopal schools need to be ready to explain what lies behind our metaphors as well as be prepared to question the meaning of a metaphor when its intention and desired outcome are not clear.