To teachers, with love...

From Socrates and Plato to da Vinci and Michelangelo, teachers have always played a vital role in igniting the imagination of students and inspiring them to learn. Ahead of Teachers’ Day, Lakshmi Palecanda applauds the role of teachers

Sun God Surya shared an endearing relationship with his pupil Hanuman

“Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system,” said Sidney Hook, a philosopher whose contribution to education is vast.

Even while we acknowledge the truth of this statement, we have to remember that the idea of education is truly most ancient, harking back, perhaps, to evolution itself. To survive, every generation of the human species found it necessary to pass on its accumulated knowledge, skills, values and traditions to the next generation in order to ensure the survival and success of clan and culture. However, the methods used to pass on the knowledge were not formalised for a very long time.

In the earliest times, when man was a hunter-gatherer, observation and play was all the education that children must have got. But then, farming and cultivation began, and long hours of relatively unskilled repetitive labour were required. Children began to work either in the fields, with the livestock, or in the homes, so their time at play was drastically cut. Then came the feudal system, which saw children being inducted as servants to the higher classes. This meant that obedience, suppression of their own will, and loss of playtime became their lot. This situation worsened when the industrial revolution began and all hands were needed to feed the factories.

Interestingly, it was religious leaders who first identified the need for education. To learn about their faith, people had to read the scriptures. And to read, they needed education. This led to the idea of universal, compulsory education in formal settings called schools. At the time, children were considered adults by the age of seven, and made to work in factories and mines. It was then that a German named Friedrich Froebel realised the significance of preschool education in the lives of children. He discovered that the development of the human brain was most substantial between birth and the age of three and founded the concept of the kindergarten. Another great educator, this one from Czechoslovakia, John Amos Comenius, is famously called the ‘Father of Modern Education’. He espoused the use of practical education and began the usage of pictures in textbooks.

Socrates was instrumental  in shaping Plato’s career

Socrates was instrumental in shaping Plato’s career

Breathing in life

But long before schools became universal, the importance of teachers was recognised. Aristotle, the philosopher from Ancient Greece, famously said, “Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those, the art of living well.” In other words, parents just make babies. It’s teachers who turn them into people.

All of us know the truth in these statements. The love and respect we give our parents is automatic, but a teacher has to earn our love and respect. However, once a teacher finds a place in a student’s mind, he lives there all life long and beyond.

Teachers may carry only a book in their hands, but they wield tremendous power. They can inspire a life-changing love in a subject, or a death-defying hate of it. They can make a confident and eager learner, or a bitter person with low self-esteem. They can make the learning years fun-filled and memorable, or an exercise in sadism. In short, they can make or break a person.


Great motivators

Yet, there cannot exist a good teacher without a student who is wishful of learning. Hence the adage, 'When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’, meaning that when a student acknowledges that he lacks knowledge and wants to acquire it, he will open his mind to the teacher who is willing to give it. A ready student is as important as a good teacher, because indifferent students will cause a teacher, however dedicated, to burn out.

There are many examples of great teachers and students throughout history, if we but pause to look. In fact, any talk of great teachers must surely begin with Socrates of Greece.

Socrates, the founding figure of Western Philosophy, lived in ancient Athens during the time of Pericles. Though he was a good soldier, he became most famous as the questioner of everything. It is said that he would not convey knowledge, but persist in asking one question after clarifying question until his students dissected their own thoughts and motives and arrived at their own understanding. He wrote nothing himself, so all that is known of him comes from the writings of two of his outstanding students, the historian Xenophon, and philosopher Plato. Interestingly, when the Delphi oracle declared him to be the wisest man in Athens, he didn’t accept it, until he realised that he was the one man who was very aware of his own ignorance.

The best

To Plato, Socrates was an idol, mentor and teacher. He called him “the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known.” It was Socrates’s teaching methods that prompted him to write his Dialogues, the greatest philosophical works of western antiquity. Interestingly, he was not present at Socrates’s death, because of illness. When viewed through the perspective of a student losing his beloved teacher, his ‘illness’ can perhaps be interpreted as grief. The world would have known no Socrates without Plato. What better homage could any pupil render his master?

Later, Plato himself became a famous teacher, establishing his own academy of philosophy. It was a fraternity where rich young men studied mathematics, astronomy, law, and philosophy. It was unique in that women were also allowed to attend. It later became the centre for Greek learning for almost a millennium.

One of Plato’s famous pupils was Aristotle, even though the two disagreed on many points. Aristotle had very broad interests like Leonardo da Vinci, in physics, math, and biology, just to name a few. He established his own school of philosophy in Athens in a set of buildings called the Lyceum. He too had a very famous pupil, a 13-year-old boy from Macedon, whom he taught for four years. The boy came to be known later as Alexander the Great.

Alexander was an apt pupil to Aristotle, acquiring his love for classics, investigation, and discovery from him. He also stayed in touch with his teacher, sending him specimens of plants from the places he was conquering, since Aristotle maintained a herbarium of plants.

Da Vinci
Da Vinci

For the love of learning

Aristotle was also the teacher of Claudius Ptolemy, who became pharaoh of Egypt. His teacher had conveyed the love of learning so well to him that he established two institutions of learning – a museum and a library – in his city of Alexandria.

Great artists of the Renaissance were also good teachers. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and others had students and apprentices who trained under them, finishing their pictures, and at times even making copies of their masters’ works. For instance, the large group of artists who studied under da Vinci is called the Leonardeschi. The Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, exhibits a painting of Mona Lisa, which was executed by one of da Vinci’s students, who must have painted the same subject simultaneously with his teacher. Michelangelo too had his own students, but one of his most famous students is a man who he never met - Peter Paul Rubens. Years after he died, Rubens travelled to Italy, where he fell under the spell of the great artist. Much of his work came to be influenced heavily by the man who became his teacher of sorts.

Another famous teacher-student duo can be seen in the world of music. Joseph Haydn, the renowned music composer, at one time, taught Ludwig von Beethoven. Though they parted ways, they always retained a soft corner for each other.

Anybody who has read the book Tuesdays with Morrie knows the special bond that author Mitch Albom shared with his teacher and mentor Morrie Schwartz. The teacher’s lessons on how to live gracefully and die with dignity certainly found fertile ground in the mind of his student.

No story of teacher and pupil will be complete without a mention of Ann Sullivan and Helen Keller. Appropriately called ‘the miracle worker’ by Mark Twain, the 20-year-old Anne Sullivan took a blind and deaf girl who could not even go to school and helped her graduate with a degree from Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.



While Western culture respected its teachers, Indian culture revered them as gods. Stories of the teacher-student bond are enshrined in Hindu mythology, revealing that education of children was sacrosanct in ancient India. The importance of the teacher’s role must also have been deemed very high, as the act of giving guru dakshina, or an offering to the teacher, was glorified in the stories.

The Ramayana speaks of Hanuman having been the pupil of the Sun God, Surya. He endeared himself so much to his teacher that Surya refused to accept any guru dakshina, saying that the pleasure of teaching such a dedicated student was a fee in itself.

The hero of the epic, Rama himself, was taught by Sage Vasishta. Ridding the sages of the troubles caused by sages was the fee he paid. Tales from the Bhagavata state that Lord Krishna and Balarama were students of Guru Sandeepani. The guru dakshina he asked of them was to restore his son who had been lost at sea. The brothers saved him from the demon Shankhasura who had imprisoned him beneath the ocean and brought him back.

The Mahabharata tells us that Bhishma was taught by the great sage, Parashurama, who had taken a vow never to teach Kshatriyas. But Bhishma was such a righteous man that Parashurama broke his own vow.

The Mahabharata also extols the role that Dronacharya played as a teacher to all the Kauravas and Pandavas. However, he had a special relationship with Arjuna, the third Pandava, whom he loved over all his other pupils. The guru dakshina which he asked of his pupil was the humiliation of his one-time friend Drupada, who had insulted him. Of course, there is the story of Ekalavya, the ultimate pupil, who willingly and uncomplainingly gave Drona, the man he deemed his guru, the very thing that made him a great archer – his right thumb.

In the Indian milieu, talk of teacher-pupil duos is incomplete without the mention of a few stellar examples. Chanakya, an astute economist, philosopher, and statesman, discovered Chandragupta at a young age and helped him become an emperor. He was his mentor, helping him create the formidable Maurya Empire.

In the study of divinity, can we ever forget Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda? Swami Vivekananda said of his teacher, "All that I am, all that the world itself will someday be, is owing to my Master, Shri Ramakrishna…” He formed the Ramakrishna Mission to foster the Hindu way of life. And in the history of India, if young Mohandas Gandhi had never met Gopal Krishna Gokhale, we might never have had a Mahatma.

In Indian classical music and dance, the guru-shishya parampara is paramount. To give just one example, K J Yesudas, an extremely popular singer, trained under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. Yesudas’s reverence for his guru was so great that he sponsored a statue of him situated at Chembai Gramam, Palakkad.

Tapping potential

Mentoring in sport is also an extremely important facet of teaching. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, once said, “A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life.” One such coach was Ramakant Achrekar, who was Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket coach. Achrekar took the 11-year-old Sachin under his wings and helped him realise his potential. Achrekar had a unique way of coaching this genius. He would place a one rupee coin on the top of the stumps. If a bowler dismissed Sachin, he got the coin. If Sachin managed to last an entire session without getting out, he got to keep the coin. Sachin has 13 of these coins, which he treasures even today.

Another great coach is Pullela Gopichand. The mentor of P V Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Srikanth Kidambi and many others, he underwent many hardships to get his Gopichand Badminton Academy going. Though the land for the Academy was granted by the Andhra Pradesh government, he had to mortgage his own home to run it in the initial years. But the fine crop of world-class players that have emerged from this academy has made this guru’s sacrifice worth its while.

In 1976, athletics coach O M Nambiar recognised and appreciated the talent of a young girl named P T Usha, who later came to be known as the ‘Queen of Indian Track and Field’. Fittingly, he won the first Dronacharya Award for excellence in coaching.

There are those who consider teaching to be a low-paid and thankless job. Little do they know of the sacred bond that exists in the hearts of teachers and their pupils. Education is the only way to a good life, so teaching is indeed a noble profession. Henry B Adams expressed it best when he said, “A teacher affects eternity; he (or she) can never tell where his influence stops.”

Happy Teachers’ Day to all the teachers out there, and to the students who make it all worthwhile!


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