“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
I’m more than a couple of weeks late for World Teacher’s Day, but I thought I’d finish up this article anyway.
I once heard someone say that in life, you’ll find teachers, and you’ll find educators. The former teaches you only what’s required in the curriculum, while the latter teaches you way beyond that — From life advice, to insights on how classroom lessons can actually be practiced in our daily lives.
For me, I was blessed enough to find a great educator in my Biology teacher back in boarding school.
For the most part, I loathed the time I spent in boarding school — The schooling part, particularly. I hated feeling like a commodity that was being moved around on a factory conveyor belt, of a business or a goal I didn’t much care about. I thought it was an incredibly toxic environment, where little actual learning happened. Grades were the only thing that mattered — That, and getting the dreaded “number 1 school in the country” title. Weaknesses in any academic subjects were treated as defects, as I remember all of us having to go through an exam-preparatory initiative literally called the “Intensive Drilling Program”.
But I never felt that way in Biology class. My teacher, or “Dr.”, as we simply liked to call him, was kind of a rebel in his own way. He was the only teacher with a PhD, and he was never afraid of taking a different approach in anything, as long as he knew that it was better. He awakened in us a realization about our vast capacity to think, and our own individual talents and strengths. His classes were the only ones in which I felt that I was actually encouraged to think on my own, to truly be curious about whatever I was learning.
If I asked an unusual question to other teachers, I’d often get the typical response of “Why don’t you consider furthering your studies in this field?”. But Dr. was never like that. Just as I did, he believed that life isn’t merely a preparation for a future job or a retirement. Life is right now, and you’re living in it. If it’s knowledge that you seek, then do it today, not tomorrow. And with that, Dr. was probably one of the first people who truly convinced me about my writing. I’m still grateful for the personal assignment that he once gave me — It was my first serious article, in which I wrote about the Prophet (pbuh)’s advice on caring for newborn babies, and how they made perfect sense from a biological perspective. He was so proud of that little piece of writing that he pinned it on his board, excitedly telling all of his other students about it. It might have been a relatively small thing, but it did give me a lasting self-confidence about my calling in life. So thank you, Dr.
After much reflection, here are some of the best lessons I’ve learned from him, and I hope they could be as beneficial to you as they’ve always been to me.
Read a lot
The first two articles I wrote in this blog, Read, Read, Read parts 1 and 2, were actually founded on Dr.’s teaching, because I meant it as a tribute to him. The Qur’an verses that I quoted in those articles were not my idea, as they were what he always talked about. Based on those verses, he taught us not only to read a lot, but to read with a pen — To scribble down your thoughts as you read, to take important note of valuable lines or passages. He’d often show me whatever book he was reading, and the notes that he wrote in them. I soon started practicing the same thing, though the commonplace notecard system that I use now would only come at least a couple of years later. I also learned from him about carrying a book wherever I go, and reading it in whatever small windows of time that I might have throughout the day. Because as what often happens, it can be difficult to find large blocks of time just for reading. Whenever I think of Dr. now, I can’t picture him in the Biology lab without a book and his favorite cup of coffee on his table.
Write everything you learn
I could still remember him saying, “The brain forgets most of what it learns 48 hours after the lesson…Unless you write it down.” And of course I remember him yelling, “WRITE!!!” whenever we would simply stare and listen to him teach. The older I get, the more I realize that he was right. Writer Raymond Chandler once said that “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count”. While I was still in boarding school I started the habit of keeping a pocket notebook, mainly so that I could write down Dr.’s sayings and teachings, and any clever things that I might encounter elsewhere — And be able to retrieve them from my pocket and read them whenever I wanted to, wherever I was. Some of the notebooks that I’ve had over the years are regrettably lost, but I could still remember a lot of what I wrote in them. The same is true for my commonplace notecards — Even though I might not look at them so often, I could still pull a great many of them out of my head, or at least paraphrase them.
Believe in what makes you unique
I think one of the best things about Dr.’s teaching was that he acknowledged that all of us were different. Unlike most teachers who taught in one-size-fits-all approaches, he would bear in mind that everyone has their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. He wouldn’t give corny study tips like how everyone should use mind maps in taking notes. He’d instead tell us to experiment on what works best for us individually — Because hey, to each man his own. Some people remember better in pictures, some could remember huge blocks of text. Some study better in the morning, and some are better as night owls. And of course, he taught us to take pride in our calling, in the things that we genuinely love to do. I remember venting out to him about feeling worthless and wishing that I was as good as the other students in certain subjects, because I just didn’t have the same level of interest. To help me leverage on my own strengths and aspirations, he gave me that personal written assignment, and he also told me to start a blog. Because every one of us has certain things that we’re individually best-suited to do. And consider this : there are traits and experiences that are unique to us that have never happened before in history and will never be repeated again in the future. So why wish that you could be good at competing with other people when you could be way better off by embracing what makes you special?
Possibly the core tenet of Dr.’s teaching style was him having the confidence in our ability to study on our own, that his role as a teacher was merely supplementary. His classes never followed a rigid course outline. They were mostly just Q and A’s, as he expected us to have done the reading beforehand. The rest of that time was spent telling stories and life advice. He wouldn’t care less if we slept in his class, as long as we knew the material and could answer his questions. I remember once thanking him after getting a better grade for an exam. At the time, he was just casually sauntering around the lab with his hands in his pockets — And his response was, “What are you thanking me for? Look at what I’m doing!”. He only had one real requisite for us, however, and that was to have our notes written before entering his lab. As I recall, that was one of the few things he actually got pissed off about. Busy as we thought we were, we would come up with excuses about not having those notes written, even though they might have probably taken about 10 minutes or so to get done. Most of us didn’t follow that requisite, and our notebooks ended up being in the garbage bin, and placed outside the lab. He eventually cooled off and had some laughs about it, but the lesson stayed with me. Some things are meant to be taken seriously.
Find systems that you can tap into
You might have heard about the Pareto principle, or doing the 20% that gives you the 80% gains. I learned from Dr. that you don’t have to make life difficult, if you could just give a little thought into your systems or how you do things. Studying doesn’t have to be a grind where you need to camp in the library for long hours on end, if you could instead allocate just a few hours doing the few things that benefit you the most. For instance, Dr. taught us that in Biology, the three most important things to know are “name, structure, and function”. If you knew those things, everything else will fall into place. Since then, I’ve been a fan of identifying systems and tapping into them every time so I could get the best, consistent results. In preparing for my exams, I’d spend just an hour or two of studying after meal times, take regular 5 minute breaks after studying for 20 minutes, recall the information as if I’m lecturing to somebody so that I’ll never forget it, and going through past-year papers so I’d know what to expect from the exam. There’s a system in my writing too — Have a shower thought or sudden idea, go through notecards, do additional research if needed, outline the article by hand, and finally type it on my computer.
A senior in boarding school once told me that he would pray for God to give him the “blessing of time”, so that he could get a lot of productive studying done in a small amount of time. The point is that he believed that time is in God’s control, and that’s true for everything else in life, right? So if there’s anything you want, ask it directly from God, and then put in the work. Dr. loved to tell us, “Never leave your Duha” — It’s an optional prayer that Muslims could perform in the morning, so that God would give more of His blessing and sustenance for our day. If Dr. saw me at the surau for Duha, he would often buy me lunch. I started showing up every day — Partly for his goodies, but more importantly for a blessed day. It’s a little harder to practice that every day now, when you’re on your own. But I still try my best to keep that habit alive. Another thing I love to do, especially before exams, is to wake up early at 2 or 3 in the morning to briefly go through my notes and perform another optional prayer called Tahajjud. It’s considered a really special prayer, as it’s believed that whatever you ask for during this time is like an arrow that never misses its target. I always like to pray that the exam will go just fine, not only for me, but for everyone in my class — Even if I might not really like some of those people, I’d mention them by their names. More often than not, things do turn out pretty great for everyone.