THIS Teachers’ Day, my heart fills with gratitude as I recall the many teachers in my life.
I see the best teachers as those who are carriers of a passion for learning which they infect their students with, each in their own unique capacity to carry out the responsibility and honour of shaping young hopeful minds and souls. For surely, every teacher is a gem that reflects and refracts the light of learning in a special way, illuminating the pupil.
My thoughts turn to afternoons with my very first teacher — my mother, back in the 80’s, how we sat together on our pea-coloured living room sofa as we made our way through the ever ubiquitous Peter and Jane books.
As an early childhood educator, my mother teaching me how to read at a very young age was a gift beyond measure. She was my very first teacher, patient, firm and with a passion for the written and spoken word, which carries on to this day. Her specialty — teaching the young to read. She has produced many young readers, who still stop to greet her on the street.
On teachers who were productive in their enthusiasm and passion, my thoughts recall fondly of the sprightly, well-dressed and self-assured Puan Liew, who taught me math during my secondary school years.
She was an amazing teacher, with a shiny jet-black bob haircut as bouncy as her step. She exuded a love of teaching math. She was always smiling, even when hovering over a desk to help a flummoxed student. Puan Liew had a magical talent of making any student, no matter how poor they were in math, feel special. Her popularity among all the students was undeniable. I never became a math whiz, but I did see improvement in my attitude towards math.
In college, as a student at the Faculty of Fine Arts & Technology in UiTM , I was privileged to be in the presence of many admirable lecturers and professors. There is one who stands out in my memory and with whom I still keep in contact with. Fondly and highly regarded in the Malaysian art scene, he is one of the most established and renowned fine artists of the country. I shall refer to him as Prof Jai.
If there’s anything Prof Jai was better at than making art, it was his rapport with his students. One could always sense that he loved being a teacher; and he encouraged his students to give their best. It never felt like his career as an artist was more important than being a teacher, rather, teaching itself was an art to him — an extension of himself and an expression of his identity as an artist.
In contrast to encouraging freewheeling creativity and individual expression, my father recently retired as a lecturer. He had specialised in teaching aircraft maintenance and engineering. It was a subject that is quite serious and painstaking in its detailed understanding and adherence to strict procedures, as the smallest error or oversight could potentially compromise the safety of hundreds of passengers.
His contribution as a teacher was rooted in his passion for accuracy, logic and preventing disasters from happening, in other words, caring enough not to overlook any detail, and striving to pass that level of care and thoroughness to his students.
Life continues to present us with teachers even as we leave the realm of school and university, and there is much to learn if we adopt the attitude of being open to new ways of seeing, learning and knowing. We must, therefore, not limit our learning to the realm of the intellect and imagination.
I am grateful that in the past year I have had the opportunity to get to know two Malaysian ex-athletes and champions, Dr Farah-Hani and Sharon Wee, who devote themselves to cultivating the new generation of sportsmen and women in their respective fields, channeling their success into creating a better Malaysia for all.
From them I learnt the struggles our athletes face, even after achieving success and glory for Malaysia at prestigious international sporting events. Struggles that include dealing with depression , adapting to life after the high of a victorious and glamorous career, eating disorders and a plethora of complex issues that deserve the nation’s support and attention. Malaysia is blessed to have these women, whose achievements would take many paragraphs to capture in their entirety, as role-models for our youth.
In an age where digital content is being continuously tailored to be as aggressively addictive as possible (thus keeping we, the people, and our young ones glued to the screen even in our leisure time), we forget how finding that perfect sport or athletic activity is a perfect vehicle to become healthier and happier in body, mind and spirit, and our relations with others too.
Truly, I could go on and on. For, in my experience and reality, as a nation, we are blessed with inspiring teachers and mentors from all walks of life. They, more than any fictional superhero on the silver screen or mythical figure, are the producers of miracles. They shine a light on our awareness and consciousness of what is possible, of what we are capable of, and of what we can make real, with just a bit of spark, enthusiasm and determination.
Last but not least, I turn to my two children. Who, despite being young in their years, have become my teachers.
They teach me to see the world with new eyes, to wonder and question, to be curious and to be filled with a thirst to learn. They have taught me that the very young are capable of great insight, ideas and wisdom and we should open our eyes and ears to what they have to share with us.
If we have the right mindset, could we not say that every person we encounter has something we can learn from? Is not every experience we share, potentially one of learning? In short, we are masters, and eternal students.
Happy Teachers’ Day.
Sarah Joan Mokhtar is a member of the Panel of Productivity Culture, MPC, Regional Advisor for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, and a co-founder of UnNamed