30 Idioms for Teachers

As a teacher, it is important to have a strong command of the English language, including a wide range of idioms. 

Idioms can add flavor to your writing and speaking, and can also help you understand and communicate with your students more effectively. 

In this blog post, we will be discussing 30 useful idioms that teachers can incorporate into their daily language. 

Whether you are looking to enhance your classroom instruction or simply want to expand your vocabulary, these idioms are sure to come in handy. 

So, let’s dive in and explore some of the most commonly used idioms in the English language!

Idioms for Teachers and Teaching

  1. “The school of hard knocks”: This idiom refers to life experience as a teacher, particularly tough experiences that teach valuable lessons. The phrase is American in origin, first appearing in print in the early 20th century. It suggests that life itself can be a tough school.
  2. “Learn the ropes”: This phrase refers to understanding the basic principles of how something works. It originates from the golden age of sailing, where newcomers to a ship would have to learn the numerous ropes and their respective functions.
  3. “Show someone the ropes”: Similar to “learn the ropes,” this idiom refers to teaching someone the basic principles of how something works. It has the same maritime origins, implying teaching the functions of the ship’s ropes to a newcomer.
  4. “Teach an old dog new tricks”: This phrase suggests that it’s challenging to teach someone new skills or change their habits, especially if they’re set in their ways. The origins are not specific, but it appears to have been a traditional saying since at least the 1500s.
  5. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”: This controversial idiom suggests that people who are truly skilled do the work themselves, while those who aren’t as skilled teach it instead. It’s a derogatory statement and is often rebutted by teachers and educators. The phrase is credited to George Bernard Shaw from his play “Man and Superman” (1903).
  6. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”: This idiom means that you can provide someone with an opportunity or teach them something, but you can’t force them to take advantage of it or learn from it. This saying is old, appearing in English texts as far back as the 12th century.
  7. “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”: This Chinese proverb turned idiom means that it is more worthwhile to teach someone to do something (for themselves) than to do it for them. Its origins can be traced back to a novel by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie (1885).
  8. “Spoon-feed”: To spoon-feed someone, in a teaching context, means to make things so easy or clear for them that they put in very little effort. This phrase comes from the literal action of spoon-feeding infants or sick people who can’t feed themselves.
  9. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”: This idiom is often used in the context of teaching or parenting, suggesting that children often acquire the skills, habits, or traits of their parents. Its origins are believed to be from the old proverbial sayings in numerous cultures.
  10. “To pass with flying colors”: This means to succeed easily and excellently. This idiom has its origins in the age of sailing when ships would fly their colored flags (or “colors”) when returning home from a successful voyage. In the context of teaching, it implies a student doing very well in their studies or exams.
  11. “Learn by heart”: This means to learn something so thoroughly that it can be written or recited without thinking. It dates back to the ancient Greeks who believed that the heart, not the brain, was the seat of thought and emotion.
  12. “Cut one’s teeth”: To cut one’s teeth on something means to get your first significant experience in something. This phrase comes from the literal physical act of an infant’s teeth first emerging from their gums.
  13. “Learn the hard way”: This means learning from your own mistakes rather than from advice or instruction. The origin isn’t precisely known, but it’s thought to have emerged in the 19th or 20th century as an antonym to formal, classroom learning.
  14. “Get the hang of”: This idiom refers to learning to do something after practicing it. The term’s origin is unclear but it may derive from the idea of ‘hanging’ as balancing or suspending something, thus suggesting the gaining of balance or control in a new skill.
  15. “Old school”: If someone is referred to as being ‘old school’, it suggests they adhere to traditional rules or practices, often in a teaching or educational context. This term dates back to the early 19th century but became more popular in the 1960s and 70s.
  16. “Hit the books”: This means to study hard or start studying seriously by reading books or attending classes. It has been used since at least the 1930s in the United States and makes a metaphor out of physically hitting books, meaning to engage with them closely.
  17. “To teach someone a lesson”: This idiom means to cause someone to suffer the consequences of their actions as a way of learning not to repeat such actions. It’s been used since at least the 16th century and has an inherent punitive connotation.
  18. “Pull up your socks”: This means to improve your performance or behavior. It originates from the 19th century when the style was to wear long socks, which would often slip down and require pulling up, thus suggesting improvement or correction.
  19. “Learn one’s lesson”: This means to understand what can be learned from a mistake. The origin is fairly straightforward, derived from the common experience of learning from errors.
  20. “Put thinking cap on”: This idiom means to begin thinking deeply about something, often used in a learning or problem-solving context. The phrase dates back to the early 19th century and suggests the idea of wearing a special cap that helps one focus or think better.
  21. “To go back to the drawing board”: This idiom implies starting over and rethinking your plans or strategies, typically after a failure. Its origins lie in the mid-20th century, referring to a draftsman going back to his drawing board to start a new design following a failed design.
  22. “To be left holding the bag”: This means to be left with the responsibility, often in a situation where others have evaded their duties. The origin is unclear, but it’s believed to have appeared in American English in the mid-19th century, possibly referring to being left with an empty bag after others have taken what they want.
  23. “Drill into”: This means to teach someone something by repeating it until they understand it. The origin comes from the concept of drilling a hole into something, implying persistence and repetition until the goal is achieved.
  24. “The penny drops”: This idiom is used to indicate that someone has finally understood something after a period of confusion. The origin of the phrase is believed to come from old penny-in-the-slot machines, where sometimes a coin would get stuck and then eventually drop, allowing the machine to start working.
  25. “Turn over a new leaf”: This means to make a fresh start or change one’s behavior for the better. This idiom has been used since the 16th century, the “leaf” in the phrase referring to the page of a book, suggesting a new chapter or phase.
  26. “Catch on”: This means to understand or grasp something. The phrase dates back to the 19th century, but its exact origin is unclear. It implies the idea of ‘catching’ or grasping a concept.
  27. “Burn the midnight oil”: This means to study or work late into the night. This phrase dates back to the days before electric lighting, when oil lamps were used for illumination during nighttime work or study.
  28. “Take someone under your wing”: This means to guide, protect, or mentor someone, similar to how a bird protects its young under its wings. This phrase dates back to at least the Middle Ages and is found in religious texts like the Bible.
  29. “Back to basics”: This means to return to fundamental principles or simple practices in teaching. It became popular in the late 20th century as a catchphrase in education reform, emphasizing a return to traditional teaching methods.
  30. “Straight from the horse’s mouth”: This means to get information directly from the most reliable source. The phrase likely originates from horse racing circles, where tips about which horse might win a race, if coming “straight from the horse’s mouth,” would be considered incredibly reliable. In a teaching context, it could refer to learning directly from an expert or primary source.

More Words and Phrases about Teaching

Consult the following articles for more phrases about teaching:

  • Teaching Metaphors: A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares one thing to another for rhetorical effect, essentially saying something “is” something else. An example of a metaphor for teaching would be: “Teaching is the foundation upon which society is built.”
  • Teaching Similes: A simile is a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two different things using “like” or “as”. An example of a simile for teaching would be: “Teaching is like planting seeds, you nurture them and watch them grow into knowledge.”


In conclusion, idioms are an important aspect of the English language that can add depth and color to your communication. 

As a teacher, it is valuable to have a strong understanding of idioms in order to effectively convey your ideas and better connect with your students. 

We hope that the 30 idioms discussed in this blog post will be useful in your teaching practice and help you to become a more proficient and confident speaker of English. 

Don’t be afraid to try incorporating these idioms into your daily language and see the difference they can make. Happy teaching!

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