How to be a Superb Life Learner: First, Identify the True Teachers

Vietnamese Teachers’ Day yesterday made me ponder the definition of a teacher.

Who do you think is a teacher?

Someone who wears spectacles and always seems to know better? Someone has a teaching profession in an education institution? Someone who bestows knowledge to his students by pouring white chalk dust on blackboard during classroom lessons?

As a timid, shy kid in the social order and educational system of Vietnam, I grew up with that perception. I had an elementary teacher who slapped my face and pinched my ear for my inability to write music notes. I thought that was normal.


Now my definition of a teacher has expanded much more - having been a teacher myself, and having learned from countless people who had never worked in education, and actually learned much more from them. Simple, a teacher is someone who teaches – passes on knowledge, in the broadest meaning this word implies – regardless of his occupation.

From this very noble group of people, let us first exclude those who slap our faces, and cram our heads with stuff we don’t need - aka stuff we aren’t interested and curious about – in such an aggressive and tedious manner that they often succeed in killing both knowledge and our love for it. You can’t pass something on by killing it in the process – which disqualifies them from being teachers. I don’t intend to be cynical; it’s not right to condemn them for they were probably taught in that way too.

However a true learner must understand the right definition of teacher in his mental dictionary, and whenever he finds himself in this ridicule,  fight his way out of in order to safeguard his love for learning.

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Unfortunately, many fail this quest. Look around and you will see your friends, neighbors and colleagues who stopped being a pupil just because their formal education had ended. Like a saw no longer get sharpened, their intellect began to rust away. Thus, they will never raise themselves to their highest potential. I think this is sad, for them, and for humanity at large.

As you are reading this, I suppose you are the lucky one. Hence, for you,  my reader and friend who pursues the noble path of lifelong learning, the next challenge is to distinguish further the teachers you may encounter in your life. I have two ways to categorize teachers. They may overlap with each other in some dimension but I’ve found them incredibly helpful.

firstlyA Lettuce Farmer or An Apple Farmer

I learned these two terms in The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan. Even though Brogan uses these metaphors for a completely different purpose, I found them superbly arresting to describe two types of teachers: 

If you want to grow lettuce, you plant you seeds, give a little water, and two or three months later you can make yourself a salad. But that lettuce will spoil soon after it reaches maturity.

It takes about six years for an apple to grow from a seed into an apple-producing tree. You have to take care of that tree during those six years too, with no guarantee it will make it to maturity. Around the six years mark, that apple tree starts producing apples, and with little care and a bit of luck that tree could produce apples for well over a hundred years. And apple keeps way better than lettuce.


Obviously, you become a head of lettuce in the hand of a Lettuce Farmer and an apple tree if you’re taken care by an Apple Farmer.

One leads to short-term benefits, the other to long-term growth. One leads to dependency, the other to independence. One leads to insecurity in the absence of the teacher, the other to confidence even when the teacher’s no longer there.

An English teacher at IELST center for example, is a lettuce farmer, if his goal is to help his pupils to get high scores in IELST. Alternatively, the same teacher can be an apple farmer, if his goal extends beyond the test: to teach his pupil the tools and methods to go on master the English language by themselves without his presence. But he doesn’t stop there, in his pupils he sparks the joy in learning a new language,  and the self confidence that they can study by themselves. To do this, he needs patience, compassion, experience, love for his pupils and for the English language.

If he succeeds, he will grants his student the first-class knowledge: the ability to teach themselves. Many thinkers assert that a person’s greatest teacher is himself. I think it is fair to say a true teacher awake the teacher in his pupil.

secondlyA Filler or An Emptier

Another teaching metaphor I really like is pouring water in a cup: it doesn’t matter how much water you can pour in, what matters is how much remained in the cup.

There are bad self-proclaimed “teachers” who spill water all over the place, or worst, break our cups in the process. There are good teachers who pour with such elegance and accuracy that the cup get perfectly filled without making a mess. And there are great teachers who empty and expand our cups.

I call the last type the Emptier. We must treasure them should we be lucky enough to encounter and recognize them in our short life.  For some incomprehensible karma, I’ve met with so many of them whom I refer to as coach, teacher, mentor. My gratefulness is unbounded.


My first mentor, Colin Roger, used to patiently listen to all my worries, and asked what would I do. After I said I’d do my best, he always told me, forcefully: “You can. And you will!” There was no doubt in his voice. He believed in me so much that I began to believe in myself too. “You can. And you will!” I’ve told that to myself thousands of time.

My mentor Edward Chien often looked at me with great suspicion whenever I rambled about unsolvable problems. Behind his glasses, he would squint his Asian eyes and utter a question; and I would flip. His question forced me to look at the situation through a completely different angle. At that time, we normally met over dinner where the most annoying and nerve-racking thing happened: Edward Chien continued his meal nonchalantly, as if my problem and I weren’t there, until I churn out an answer to his question – which was 90% of the times dead wrong in his opinion.

Tom Bower, who sponsored my trip to Kenya and whom I regularly sought for advice, once stared at me in the face and said “Milena, don’t give me excuse. This is plain laziness. I’m very disappointed.” What he said was true. I could only blame my procrastination. That afternoon I glued my bottom to the chair, wrote the report, and mailed to him – to which he replied “I’m proud of you.” I never forget what it feels to not deliver a promise.

There are countless teachers, dead or alive, whom I found in book, and who never know of my existence. Nevertheless what I learn from them turns my world upside down and breaks open my narrow worldview. They free my mind. For that, I bow to them as my teachers and cherish this intimate connection.

There are so many teachers I’m in debt to that it will take a compendium to write about them and their wisdoms. They are not necessary the most fun to learn from, but they are undoubtedly selfless.

The more I learn, the more I feel humble of my own understanding. Sometimes I’m afraid of death only because there is still so much to learn in this life. And then I quickly realize that death may as well be the greatest teacher.

What about you?

You can find a true teacher in almost any corner of life

Are you learning from them?

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