Published: Wednesday March 2, 2011 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 6, 2013 MYT 11:15:06 AM

The true teacher

Getting to the root of good teaching.

WATCHING E News one day, I found myself listening to an interview with world-famous musician and singer, Elton John. When asked how he planned to bring up his son, Zachary, John did not mince his words.

Despite being one of the parents in a gay marriage, he said clearly: “I will bring him up to be loving, kind, respectful, compassionate and understanding of differences. The world is losing a large measure of its civility and I don’t want my son to be part of this.”

I must say that he put it very well. And teachers could well take a leaf from his dictionary.

You see the whole essence of teaching lies in not just conveying knowledge and garnering understanding but also in bringing about enlightenment – be it civic or otherwise.

Truth be told, many teachers go into teaching not realising what it really means to be one.

For instance, few teachers are even aware that the word “teach” is derived from the Old English word tæcan which means “to show, point out, or give instruction”.

According to an online etymology dictionary (, in 1290, the word “teacher” was in fact used to refer to the “index finger”, or “one that points out”. By 1300, “teacher” took on its modern meaning, as “the one who teaches”.

Teachers in government run schools form part of the civil service. Did you know that the word “civil” originates from the Latin word civilis which relates to “a citizen” and “public life”? It sounds about right because teachers do serve the interests of the public when they teach the children of citizens.

A teacher is also advised to be “civil” at all times – as befitting the other meaning of the root word civilis which is to be “popular, affable or courteous”.

The polite sense of the word “civil” is definitely rooted in its original Latin derivation. In those days, citizens were seen to be courteous, in opposition to soldiers who were not so.

Meanwhile, in Indian and Malay societies, teachers are often referred to as guru. In tracing back this word to its Sanskrit origins, the word gu means “darkness” while the word ru means “removal”. In other words, a guru is a “dispeller of darkness”.

I myself can attest, from my own diverse and numerous teaching experiences, that good teachers are indeed “ones who enlighten”.

Interestingly enough, there is another ethymological claim that the source of the word guru actually originates from the Sanskrit word gru which means “heavy or weighty”.

Reading this, the teacher in me smiled because if there is one thing I will agree about teaching, it is this. The responsibility we bear is no light matter and true educators are indeed “heavyweight” characters who care deeply about “pointing out or showing” their charges the right way in life.

The other word associated with the world of schools and teachers is “education”. While you may know that the verb educar comes from Latin origins and means “bring up” or “rear”, did you know that educere means to “bring out” or “lead forth”?

This reference apparently comes from the word ex which means “out” and ducere which means “to lead”.

Frankly, and any mother will support me on this, it is far more difficult to “educate” than to “teach”. To nurture a child in such a way so as to “bring out” the best in him is a monumental task and a caring parent’s most constant worry.

In the book The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali, it is stated that the whole purpose of education is to “draw out” a student’s innate God-given intelligence!

Realisation is intrinsic and resides within the mind and heart of each student but educators pave the way for him to tap its source.

That is why I was not surprised when someone once told me that the letters G, U, R and U in the word guru also popularly stand for “Gee, yoU aRe yoU!” meaning let children be, and let them discover, through learning, who they really are, and where their innate potential and talent lie.

Good teachers? They facilitate this discovery and the honing of knowledge, skills and the attitude that helps it.

However, if you think teaching is merely “showing” the way, or being an expert in your subject (the “heavyweight” in the arena, so to speak) or disseminating knowledge in an engaging manner, you don’t have the whole equation in the bag yet.

The astute teacher often asks of her students: “Do you see what I mean?” because she knows that true enlightenment comes from the cognitive processing in the brain which occurs in different individuals in its own unique way. To inspire this is huge.

Before I wrap up, there is one more word associated with teachers that I would like to highlight. This word is “mentor” and it encompasses an additional responsibility ascribed to teachers – that of being a “wise advisor”. My user-friendly ethymological online source informs me that this particular word derives its meaning from the character of Mentor in Odyssey who was friend of Odysseus, “advisor” to Telemachus.

As for the noun mentos , pray think not of some peppermint-containing soothing sweet but of the words “intent, purpose, spirit, passion”.

Having said that, I believe we now have a more complete picture.

So, what then is my definition of a good teacher?

Getting to the root of the matter, the true teacher is a spirited, caring individual filled with noble intent, who is a “heavyweight” bearer of knowledge, a “guru” who enlightens, dispels darkness, shows the way, epitomises true civility, brings out the goodness within each child and advises with passion and purpose.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle


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