Letter to Students

By Dr. Shen Goh

Dear Students,

Does your teacher bewilder you? Are you confused as to why a teacher who is generous with the snacks for class is stingy with the answers to your emails? Do you wonder why a teacher who spends hours preparing fun examples and helpful games for class will not give you a minute in the office?

The answer can be found in the familiar story about a butterfly struggling to emerge from a chrysalis. A child watches the butterfly struggle for hours. At times, the butterfly seems exhausted and is motionless. The child decides to help the butterfly by opening the chrysalis for it. Free at last, the butterfly can fly away. Instead, it limps around and finally dies. What the child does not know is that the long struggle is a natural process that is necessary to force fluid into the butterfly’s wings in order to strengthen them. Misplaced kindness actually harmed instead of helped the butterfly.

The same concept applies to teaching.

Providing snacks during a lecture break helps you to learn because the brain needs sugar as fuel. A lollipop makes for a quick picker-upper without noisily disturbing you like crunchy chips or stickily ruining your notes like melting chocolates. Providing easy answers to questions and quick replies to emails, however, will harm you. The point of teaching is to guide you; not to do things for you. You must learn to search for answers yourselves by following instructions, working through readings, and struggling with assignments. Of course, the search is limited to the materials that are already provided. This is why I reward you when you ask a question to which the answer could not have been found in the materials.

Likewise, fun examples and helpful games are good for you because it makes learning more enjoyable. Smiling and laughing have many health benefits, including the promotion of deeper breathing which results in more oxygen to the brain. Always expecting fun times or relying on teachers, however, is bad for you. The point of learning is to grow; not to depend on someone. You must learn to gain self-confidence by thinking independently, working through the mundane, and overcoming challenges. Although it would be easier to provide quick solutions to whatever problems you bring to me, I have to force myself not to do so in order to give you the chance to discover your own abilities.

The same concept also applies to failures.

Just as parents want to spare their children from hurts and pains, teachers also want to spare their students from disappointment and failures. This is especially true when it comes to children and students who try – again and again – but still fail. At such times, parents and teachers must remember the story about a butterfly struggling to emerge from a chrysalis. While we can try to protect the vulnerable butterfly from being eaten by birds or drowned in a thunderstorm during its struggle, we cannot spare it from the very struggle that will make it strong.

Parents and teachers who allow children and students to fail are sending a powerful message: We believe in you! We believe in you enthusiastically, so we allow you to try and find your own way even if we know a better way. We accept the reality that the better way may not be the best way for you. We believe in you unconditionally, as we know how important it is for you to make and learn from your own mistakes. We acknowledge the fact that you may prefer your own flaw to someone else’s perfection. And, we believe in you unselfishly, because we understand that your lives are yours alone; your lives are not for us to live or to control.

This, it turns out, is the most important lesson that we can teach.

Kind but firm teachers.

Dr. Shen Goh is a Canadian lawyer lecturing in the Faculty of Business at Curtin Malaysia. Prior to Curtin Malaysia, Dr. Shen Goh researched on intellectual property, branding, and international trade while lecturing in the Faculty of Law at York University, Canada.