kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

More than a mentor

The best teacher-student relationships go beyond books and blackboards, writes Kerry-Ann Augustin

Petrus Gimbad (right) with Brother Columba in Ireland visiting the grave of his old teacher Brother Fridolin.

I DETESTED school. It was a series of inconsequential afternoons - whatever the teacher told us to do, we did. Sit down, shut up, memorise this, copy that. It didn’t matter if you understood it; your report card determined your worth as a student. That changed when I entered college and sat in Miss Mullen’s class. She would spend the first 5 minutes asking us simple questions; questions that I think many of us were never asked in our 11 years of schooling: How are you? What are you up to this weekend? What is your passion? How’s your family?

And on the occasion she spotted the glaze of sadness shrouding our young faces, she’d tell us to “come hang out” in her office after class - that was casual Canadian for “I’d really like to know what’s bothering you.”

Miss Mullen cared and that made her more than just a teacher.

The phenomenal role teachers play, and the endless contributions they make in society is why the age-old profession is celebrated every year on Oct 5. World Teacher’s Day was first commemorated in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) and today, it is observed in over 100 countries worldwide.


Dadabhai Naoroji was Gandhi’s greatest mentor. They shared such a close bond that the Father of India’s Independence referred to Naoroji as his dada.

Oprah Winfrey cited her fourth grade teacher, Mary Duncan, as one of her most important influences. In Tom Hanks’s poignant Best Actor Oscar acceptance speech for the film Philadelphia, he publicly thanked his high school drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth. And if not for Mrs Flowers who encouraged a young, sexually abused Marguerite Annie Johnson to read the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare and Poe, we would not have the magnetic prose of Maya Angelou.

“Mr Edmundson reminds us of the power strong teachers have to make students rethink who they are and who they might become,” writes Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University in his review of Mark Edmundson’s book, Why Teach. “That is what real education is all about.”

True teacher

“Brother John was the first person who really changed the way I thought about things,” says Petrus Gimbad, the former head of advisory for the Indo-China branch of Ernst & Young.

Gimbad is an alumni of St. Mary’s secondary school in Sandakan, Sabah where he met Brother John D’Cruz, a Lasallian brother.

“When we made a mistake, unlike other teachers who scolded or punished us, Brother John never criticised us. Instead he would ask us to explain why we said or did certain things. He challenged the way we thought and that fascinated me. He was always interested in what we thought. He was interested in us as people,” he said.

Gimbad, who grew up in a family of eight, said most of his time after school was spent helping his parents on the farm they lived on. Neither he nor his siblings had the time to study. But the emphasis on education, he explains, didn’t revolve around books.

“The Lasallian brothers made us all-rounders. Of course they were strict, but they wanted us to leave school as a person, not just a student,” he recalls, adding that the closeness he shared with the Lasallian brothers made him feel like they were an extension of his already large family. “Of course for me Brother John stood out because he did things differently. He took us on trips — that was his way of allowing us to appreciate nature. No one had done that before!”

There is unmistakable joy in Gimbad’s voice when talking about his beloved teacher, a man he refers to as a “larger-than-life” person.

“He loved music and that was why we joined the choir. He play guitars to church. At that time people were still playing the pipe organ, you know. So it was unheard of to play guitars, which we young people liked. He connected the youth to things that mattered. He wanted us to feel involved with the community,” he says.


“You’ve got to connect here,” explains Brother John D’Cruz, pounding his chest. The lanky, silver-haired former principal of St. George’s Institution (SGI) confides that a simple revelation from a Taiwanese speaker at a teacher’s conference made him understand his role differently.

“This guy walked up and said: If you want to teach John math, you must first understand John,” he says looking down, shaking his head.

“Wow! I thought to myself. After 17 years of being a teacher, it really turned my world upside down!”

From that day on, D’Cruz visited the home of every student he taught in a bid to get to know them, as people. “I found they were capable of learning if we could relate to them and what was happening in their lives.”

The affable man whose eyes dance when he talks about his life as a teacher (he prefers the term facilitator) stressed that a school should operate like a family unit. “The school staff, from the canteen operator to the gardener to the principal and teachers have to work together as a family. And the child has to be at the centre of the learning. This is their second home.”

His sentiments are echoed by Che Su who, until three years ago, headed the Taiping Convent Secondary School in Perak (today knowned as SMK Convent Taiping).

“A school is a family unit — students need somebody to guide them. I saw my role and the role of the teachers in the school as second parents,” she says. “We were all so close to our girls. They called me Mama!” she says, breaking out in laughter, full and hearty like her 31 years of service.

She believes the strong bond she shared with her students was built on the ability to communicate. “They could talk to us about everything. And they did. Of course, we discouraged them about boys. We would always tell them ‘it’s not the time, it’s not the time!’,” she says, letting out a cackle. “In retrospect, I think I spent more time on my students than my own three kids!” she jokes.


“Mr Lee Weng Fong was my form teacher in my first year of junior college, and he taught me literature,” says Edwin Goh, a teacher at Serangoon Garden Secondary School in Singapore. Goh, who now teaches literature, will add music and choir master to his resume next year.

The 30-year-old explains how Lee influenced his interest. “He was candid, laid-back, approachable, and had a dry sense of humour. What was most memorable about him was that he formed a rock band with myself and few other students. I got my first taste of performing in a gig (it was for a school event) because of him.”

Goh has been teaching for the last six years and knows this is his calling. “ I’m not cut out for many other jobs out there in the market (such as banking or medicine) and I know that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher either.”

However, he feels that his age may be the reason why students look up to him as more of a big brother, rather than a fatherly figure.

“Young teachers can be a lot more open-minded than our more experienced colleagues."

Che Su was so closed to her students they called her mama

“Young teachers can be a lot more open-minded than our more experienced colleagues. Of course, this is a generalisation to say the least, but I do feel that normally younger teachers are open to new ideas. I also think it’s a lot easier for students to identify with a teacher who is closer to their own age group, and that helps me to establish rapport with the kids a lot easier.”

Though she came from a family of teachers, Che Su confides that having teachers who felt like sisters played a big part in her decision to enter the profession.

Her teachers in Parit Buntar Methodist School were very caring, she says, and they never judged the students on race or colour. “In fact, they were so nice, I was hoping one of them would become my sister-in law!” she says with a giggle, thinking of Ms Wong, a former teacher she speaks fondly of.

D’Cruz, who left his position as principal at SGI to set up the La Salle Learning Centre for impoverished children, regards his time as a student in St. Xaviers as the reason why he joined the Brotherhood.

“You know, they were the kind of teachers who, after they walloped you, you’d want to thank!” he sniggers, his boyish charm still trailing in his speech. “What they did was out of pure dedication. It was a service. I learnt that education was about formation, not information.”

William Arthur Ward, the famed writer once wrote “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires”.

“Teachers who have been moved by great works have been moved to pass the gift on,” reads an excerpt of Edmuson’s book, a quality Gimbad believes in. “When I started working, my office became like a class,” he admits, practising what he had learnt from D’Cruz.

“In school, Brother John made all the incorrigible kids prefects and he would invite those who could not speak English, to read passages from Shakespeare loudly.” It took a while before Gimbad realised those students were the ones in need of care. “He always had the 3L’s in mind - the Last, the Least and the Lost. That sense of loving all human beings is something I have passed down to my kids,” he says of his daughters who are both fiercely passionate about issues concerning the welfare of the less fortunate.


After 40 years, D’Cruz and Gimbad still meet up and talk. Goh is young but hopes that he and his students will form the kind of bond he has with Lee whom he considers a close friend till this day. Che Su is no exception.

“Some of my students have become big shots in KL, and they always ask me to come down so they can take me out. There’s nothing more rewarding than feeling appreciated,” she admits clearing her throat, her voice breaking a little.

For those who are lucky enough to have been under the guidance of educators like these, their teachers are more than just mentors. They are our soundboards, life-long friends and most of all, they are family. I’m proud to call Miss Mullen the sister I never had. KERRY-ANN AUGUSTIN - NST Lifestyles 5 OCTOBER 2014 @ 8:02 AM
Tags: mentor, teachers

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