Ditch the Toolbox

In a world full of metaphors, English educators can do better than succumbing to cliché comparisons.


Skip Olson, Teacher Writer

“Here’s another tool you can put in your toolbox.”

You’ve heard it before. We’ve all heard it from other teachers, administrators, AEA presenters, college professors – the list goes on. But maybe it’s time to hear something different.

English teachers: we can do better. 

After all, are we not the Wardens of the Word? Saviors of the Synonyms? Masters of the Metaphor? The Thanos of the Thesaurus? 

Let’s look at new ways of saying we have resources at our disposal. Let’s acknowledge that we have many resources and ideas and have earned each. And after all, doesn’t a toolbox mean that we’re trying to fix something and implying that our students are broken (ugh, I just wrote one of those sentences – you know the ones, the ones you read in teacher books that, depending on your mood, either make you feel good and warm inside or make you roll your eyes and want a beer once the chapter is done)? So without further ado, here are some alternatives to the toolbox metaphor.

The Flea Market/Antique Store/Collection

If you’ve ever gone antiquing or to a flea market, you’ll see all sorts of…erm… treasures. At least, I think they’re cool, but cool is subjective (says the guy who wears a wool-lined denim jacket unironically). Each resource you gain as a teacher is like another item in the antique store. If you haven’t dived into the realm of antiquing, then imagine every antique store or creepy junk shop you’ve seen in TV or movies. There are always the easy to find items – bottle openers, pocket knives, and Prince Albert tobacco cans – and these are like the methods we all know and love: KWLs and Think-Pair-Shares come to mind. They might be easy to find, even a little cliched, but they work. Then there’s the glass case. Everyone knows that the items in the glass case are spendy, collectable, rare. You don’t just come by one of these bad boys every day let me tell ya. I’m willing to bet that there’s a story behind the item(s) within that hallowed case. And we as teachers all have that ace up our sleeve, that go-to book, activity, or method that we put in a glass case. We know the story of when we first acquired the glass-cased item and can tell you all sorts of success stories about it. We don’t let just anyone use this, but, I guess you can use it…this time….

The Netflix List

English teachers have TBR (To Be Read) piles that grow to the point where most can tell you what their retirement will look like (hint: a LOT of reading). The same goes for Netflix. Sometimes we need a good, cozy watch after a hard day like “The Office.” And then there are the shows you stumble upon that you have – just have – to tell others about. Maybe as a teacher it was a book that had the help you needed or a Ted Talk that made you rethink your grading policy. Whatever the case, you were no better than that teacher who just started a KETO diet: everyone knew. And, like that Netflix list, your resources grow with time – old favorites, recommendations, new stuff that everyone is fangirling over, and the offbeat indie you decided to try that actually paid off.

The Grove

If you grew up on a farm or have family that did, maybe you remember a grove of trees. Most likely on the north side of the acreage, it consisted of pine trees, dogwood, tall grass, and a graveyard of rusted…erm…treasures. I come from a long line of, well, hoarder is such a harsh term. Let’s just say my grandparents passed down the recycling gene before it was cool. “You never know if you’ll need it” went from a philosophy to a damn-near religion. So, yeah, we bought a new(er) piece of equipment, but that doesn’t mean you just throw away the old! So you throw the older model into the grove. As time passes, the grove amasses a trove of yesteryear in the form of PTOs, old tires, scrap iron, and some seats for spraying beans. Just like teachers have those old lesson plans we might not have the heart to toss out just yet; they were good in their day, but we’re on to new things. And, after all, who knows what the future holds? I just might teach that novel again one day. 

Maybe this writing can help you, the reader, think of alternatives to the common metaphors we use. Better yet, ask your students: If life isn’t a box of chocolates, then what is? And maybe that’s what we need right now, something to think about to take our minds off the dumpster fire that is our world (don’t get me wrong, keep an eye on the fire, but like, think of metaphors too, you know?). 

Other options for your consideration

Here’s another suspect in your Agatha Christie novel.
Here’s another old friend you can contact for your pyramid scheme.
Here’s another exotic animal you can add to your aristocratic menagerie.