By Rafi M. Ali, M.D. Director of DarusSalam’s Tadris Integrated Highschool Program
A printed version of this book may be purchased here: https://store.bookbaby.com/book/excellence-in-teaching.
Excellence In Teaching: Reflections on the Art of Teaching & Learning
Table of Contents
Begin with the Name of Allāh
The Efficient Teacher
The Struggling Student
The Status of Teachers
Commitment to Teaching
When Giving a Talk at Harvard, Remember Icarus
How do you Recognize Genius?
Lord of the Ghetto
Positive Reprimanding: Yes-No-Yes Technique
An Excellent Teacher is an Optimist
Teacher as Student
Sir William Osler (1849 – 1919 C.E.)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips!
Administrators and the Teachers as Second-Class Citizens
Know Some Rules of Probability
Do, or do not. There is no try
Halsted and Cushing
Jan Baptista van Helmont
Joe Frasier, George Foreman, and The Greatest
“Why do you go to school?”
The Missing Incentives for Education
The Strength of the Empiricist
False Notions of Prestige
Things of Beauty
The National Archives
Lessons from Apollo 11
Career Advice for Students
Goals of Education
Life is Not Meant to be a Bed of Roses
Parental Involvement in a Child’s Education
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين، والعاقبة للمتقين، ولا عدوان إلا على الظالمين، والصلاة والسلام على المبعوث رحمة للعالمين، محمد بن عبد الله الصادق الأمين، وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين، وعلى التابعين لهم بإحسان إلى يوم الدين.
I consider it a great honor that my dear friend, Dr. Rafi M. Ali, requested me to pen a few words as a foreword for his collection of essays on the art of teaching and learning.
Dr. Ali is the visionary behind the Tadris Integrated High School Program for boys and girls at DarusSalam Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He has worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition. His concern was that students generally finish their Hifz al-Qur’an during their middle school years of 6-8th grade. Furthermore, DarusSalam was only offering a full-time, seven-year Alim program that catered to high school graduates. At the time, the Seminary did not have the resources to manage a program for students to complete their high school education. So, Dr. Ali feared that these young huffaz would enter into public school and never return to finish their Islamic Studies and become Ulama.
To this end, he volunteered countless days and nights planning, teaching, and managing the high school program so that the students can transfer seamlessly from the Hifz program into the Tadris Integrated High School Program along with the Alim course. With unparalleled dedication, passion, and zeal, he prepared thousands of slides for his various classes in a multitude of subjects, ranging from biology to advanced mathematics and history.
Being involved in education for several decades, first as a student, then as a teacher, and then as an administrator, I can say without exaggeration that Dr. Ali is one of the most dedicated teachers that I have ever encountered. He has earned the highest level of love and respect from his students and colleagues. All of the wisdom and beautiful advices that are conveyed in this book are present in his noble personality. He is a man who practices what he preaches and preaches what he practices.
He is not only a teacher and principal to his students, but is also their mentor, their guide, and their friend. On numerous occasions, despite his busy schedule as a practicing physician and a family man, I have seen him going out of his way to visit sick students who needed encouragement or driving for hours to Chicago’s North Side to drop off students who did not have transportation. The closer one gets to Dr. Ali, the more one will be amazed that such truly selfless individuals still exist. He stubbornly insists that each student must succeed; and no matter how great and numerous the challenges may be, he does not accept failure as an option. He is a true source of inspiration for all of us. May Allah reward him, protect him, and preserve him.
Coming to the topic of education, the first and greatest teacher is Allah the Almighty himself. As He said in the beginning of the Revelation:
اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنْسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
“Read and your Lord is the Most-Generous! He who taught with the pen; He taught Man what he knew not.” (Qur’an, 96:1-5)
And then, the second greatest teacher is our noble master and beloved Prophet Muhammad who said:
إِنَّمَا بُعِثْتُ مُعَلِّمًا
“I have been sent as a teacher.” (Sunan Ibn Majah, #229)
The Qur’an and Sunnah are replete with golden advices for teachers. The scholars of Islam have written specific treatises on this important subject. One noteworthy contribution of the past century is: “al-Rasul al-Mu’allim wa Asalibu hu fi al-Ta’lim,” written by the eminent Levantine Hadith scholar, Shaykh Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghuddah. The work was translated into English by Maulana Mohammad Mohammady under the title: “Prophet Muhammad : The Teacher and His Teaching Methodologies.” In this work, many narrations that detail the teaching methodologies adopted by the best teacher ever, the Prophet Muhammad, are cited.
Dr. Ali’s “Excellence in Teaching: Reflections on the Art of Teaching and Learning” is unique in many aspects. Firstly, there are the qualifications of its author. And secondly, if one reviews the bibliography, they will observe many references that were cited. This indicates to the hundreds of volumes that the author must have read on the topic. Besides the Qur’an and Sunnah, he quotes from many Western sources. This reminds me of a hadith of the Prophet :
الْكَلِمَةُ الْحِكْمَةُ ضَالَّةُ الْمُؤْمِنِ فَحَيْثُ وَجَدَهَا فَهُوَ أَحَقُّ بِهَا
“The wise statement is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he is more worthy of it.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi, #2687)
In other words, just like one who lost a valuable article will search for it in order to recover it, the true believer is always in search of words of wisdom. Moreover, wherever he finds it, he will never discard it even if it comes from sources outside of his tradition; rather, he will benefit from it as he regards it as worthy. Thirdly and lastly, it is a thoroughly enjoyable work to read as the natural wit and engaging style of the author will not allow you to put the book down.
I conclude by sincerely praying to Allah that He accepts this work and makes it a means of inspiration and guidance for teachers and parents and whoever is in a position to make a positive impact on the next generation.
وَآخِرُ دَعْوَانَا أَنِ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِيْنَ
Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed
Principal, DarusSalam Seminary
إِنَّ الْحَمْدَ لِلَّهِ نَحْمَدُهُ وَنَسْتَعِينُهُ وَنَسْتَغْفِرُهُ وَنَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ مِنْ شُرُورِ أَنْفُسِنَا وَمِنْ سَيِّئَاتِ أَعْمَالِنَا مَنْ يَهْدِهِ اللَّهُ فَلَا مُضِلَّ لَهُ وَمَنْ يُضْلِلْ فَلَا هَادِيَ لَهُ وَأَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ وَحْدَهُ لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ وَأَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا عَبْدُهُ وَرَسُولُهُ
Praise be to Allāh, we seek His help and His forgiveness. We seek refuge with Allāh from the evil of our own souls and from our bad deeds. Whomsoever Allāh guides will never be led astray, and whomsoever Allāh leaves astray, no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no god but Allāh, the One, having no partner. And I bear witness that Muḥammad is His slave and Messenger.
In general, I am neither eager nor inclined to offer unsolicited advice. Leadership responsibilities, however, are weighty upon the mind and a constant threat to equanimity. Accountability prompts me to distill in words what I appreciate to be some aspects of Excellence in Teaching. What is at stake is not just the academic future of our students, but opportunities to transform the lives of youth yearning for guidance in a seemingly chaotic world — guidance that could be the solace of their hearts, and a compass that would help them navigate the storms of life.
There are perhaps as many ‘types’ of great Teachers as there are teachers. Individuality is not easily constrained by artificial dictums of behavior. This effort, therefore, represents only compiled ideas that might prove useful to some. Some are reflections on etiquettes that embellish our actions — etiquettes for which I strive. Others are simply words of encouragement.
A sound philosophy of education is essential in establishing a culture that promotes not only the necessary intellectual growth but also the spiritual prosperity of the students. Education is not an exclusive matter of the pedagogue. Home is the always the first classroom. A supportive community protects the young. A cooperative school administration facilitates the teacher. Nurturing individuals for success and value, therefore, undoubtedly requires efforts at home, in the community, in the entire school, and in the classroom. Negligence in any arena handicaps the student.
Teaching is a mighty responsibility. But, let us not get discouraged! Our compassion must serve all, including ourselves. Learning from our mistakes without suffering dejection must be one of life’s first lessons to learn, and thus one of the first lessons to teach. An opportunity to teach is an uncommon gift — a chance to improve the future, and to create the smiles that, we hope, will light the world long after our shadows are gone. Undoubtedly, it is among life’s greatest gifts to be a teacher.
Although Islamic ideals shape the outlook of this book, the reader will also appreciate that the pages of this little book are plentifully decorated by stories rooted in the Western tradition. In the brotherhood of humanity, virtue forms bonds of kinship between strangers.
Finally, I do not claim any mastery in the Art of Teaching. Some of what I share here are lessons I have taken from my mistakes — experiences that I would have rather avoided. Afterall, we are all students.
In the name of Allāh, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Begin with the Name of Allāh
A generation ago, a survey conducted at a high school suggested that the seven biggest behavioral challenges found amongst the students were: talking out of turn, chewing gum, being disruptive/making noise, cutting in line, running in the halls, dress code violations, and littering. A more recent survey at the same high school suggested that their seven biggest problems are now: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, robbery, teen pregnancy, assault, rape, and suicide.
It is clear to me that our society is failing to nurture healthy young adults. Various pernicious ingredients fuel the outraged crucible where children are nurtured in our times. One ingredient is a struggling educational system. The failure of the educational system is appalling considering simply the number of hours children spend in school. The question remains: is there a root cause of such failures?
Human frailties side with the ways of the majority, by a process akin to natural selection, thinking them the best ways to the end — despite the moaning sick and the silent dead peppered by the roadside. There is comfort in embracing the collective opinion, even if it is wrong.
Our Prophet advised us to begin all matters in the name of Allāh . You might think it trite or even somewhat condescending to offer such a seemingly simple suggestion. Apologies to the reader for creating such a misunderstanding. How many Muslim classrooms, however, are deprived of such beginnings? A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step., You must be sure that the first step is in the right direction. An individual suffers erosion of confidence and energy if he is not true to his foundational beliefs. You cannot give that which you do not have.
No doubt, only the way of Allāh as taught to us by our beloved Prophet Muhammad leads to an Abode of Peace! One who seeks for root causes must ponder carefully.
The Efficient Teacher
As teaching is not simply a mundane transfer of facts, a teacher must strive to create an amiable rapport with students so that the process of education is facilitated. Sustained student attention is difficult to achieve otherwise. To establish this working relationship, an instructor must dedicate a considerable amount of time and energy in the classroom to benign small talk. A student that is able to sense the humanity of the teacher is more likely to pay attention.
To suggest small talk is not to suggest contrived disingenuous soliloquies, but rather to endorse the importance of engaging the student in a genuine conversation so that we may understand them. It is also not to suggest a degeneration of the classroom into a reprehensible comedic show, a model often forced upon the teacher in our times, or worse, jettisoning of decorum and nobility that is the hallmark of the best teachers. Instead, I am suggesting that it is important to engage the student in a conversation. Sharing stories creates bonds. It is, in a sense, an exercise in a teacher’s paternal instinct.
The Struggling Student
Any teacher who has suffered the heat of the classroom will have encountered the one student whose ambition seems to challenge the infinite patience of the most patient of teachers…the student that might have made Malcolm X of Gandhi, and a Joan of Arc of Mother Teresa. There is also the one student that adds layers of meaning to a “deer in headlights” experience. It is tempting to succumb to our weaker instincts when faced with such trials and judge these students harshly as distracting obstacles in the classroom. That would be a tragic mistake.
It is entirely possible that the least of the students today will become humanity’s great benefactor tomorrow. History is replete with examples of great men and women who were deemed failures by their unenlightened, and now forgotten, pedagogues.
Generally, families of gravely ill patients have difficulty letting go of their loved ones. I remember one poor alcoholic patient, however, whose family seemingly got fed up with him. He would be hospitalized when deathly ill, resuscitated, rehabilitated, and discharged…only to return to drinking and subsequently return to the emergency room with a trailing shadow of death. After several such hospitalizations and near-death experiences, though his recovery seemed plausibly imminent, his family asked, “What’s the point doctor? We know what he’s going to do.”
Withdrawal of care is reasonable, perhaps, with a terminal illness courting death and little hope of meaningful recovery. In this case, however, this poor patient’s possible immediate outcome was positive. I would like to reassure the good reader that my response to the family’s query was compassionately polite despite my initial imperfect thoughts, “Perhaps that is why he goes back to drinking. How little faith you have!”
Such is also the case with difficult students. Perhaps, it is not they who fail. Indeed, the existence of the inner genius of every student is not some theoretical or poetic construct, but a real phenomenon. The ability to see this in every student is a virtual vision test of a teacher.
The Status of Teachers
The Art of Teaching is in real danger of not surviving the assaults of the Industrial Age. As with many aspects of our times, our hubris and overconfidence in the toys of our making have fleeced the philosophy of teaching from the gentle hands of thinkers and thrown it at the careless mob of “tinkerers.” One only simply ask the policy makers as to what ought to be the purpose of education to understand the enormity of the danger. Responses will fall silent after the predictable slogans have been exhausted.
The trite “Children are our future,” is perhaps more poignantly restated, “Children are our future voters.” Perhaps instead, we should consider, “Children are our most sacred responsibility, and our hope for redressing the wrongs we have hitherto so egregiously committed.” Responsible teaching is the thoughtful bridging of the gap between the innocence of childhood and the mature and optimistic understanding of the seemingly tragic human condition. Indeed, teaching is our most important collective responsibility. All who shape the world of our children’s imagination must reflect upon and be held accountable for this solemn responsibility.
Teaching as a profession lays the foundations for all other professions. Teachers, therefore, can be transformative figures in a society. They ought to be our best talent, receive our best attention, and our most genuine gratitude. Their input should be valued when planning the educational experience of our children. A teacher’s status is high…very high. Those who do not appreciate this jeopardize the success of the students. Was not our beloved Prophet sent but as a teacher?
Commitment to Teaching
Effective teachers are gifted with compassion and an unfailing commitment to their student’s welfare…a commitment that is not confined by the narrow perimeter of a paycheck. Lacking this, it will be difficult for one to breach the threshold separating the commonplace good from the uncommon great teachers. As with all matters, the matters of the heart are, as the reader undoubtedly appreciates better than the author, in the hands of our Creator. In this, we find comfort, for Allāh is ever Giving and Merciful. It is to Him that we turn to soften and revive our hearts.
Students are inspired by uncommon commitment. This is the oft overlooked reason for the success of great teachers. Such teachers do not sleep easy. The death of our beloved Prophet , humanity’s greatest teacher, was an unfathomable catastrophe for the generation of the best students. His bond with them was unimaginably strong.
A lesser, yet still great and touching example, will illustrate the power of this bond. Socrates sacrificed his life for his principles. Plato describes the death of Socrates thus:
“Then holding the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept over myself, for certainly I was not weeping over him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having lost such a companion. Nor was I the first, for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up and moved away, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone restrained his calmness.”
Tears, perhaps, submit the greatest tribute. Even in death, Socrates was teaching by example. Plato, of course, would go on to teach Aristotle, and these men would shape history. Common efforts lead to common results; uncommon efforts lead to uncommon results. History does not remember the average. Let us strive for uncommon excellence.
When Giving a Talk at Harvard, Remember Icarus
As is well known, positions of authority are fertile grounds for the most dangerous human emotion — pride. In teaching, pride ruins everything it touches. A prideful pedagogue, in blissful ignorance, wrongly removes moral integrity from being a fundamental aspect of an educated personality. In other words, a prideful teacher assaults the goals of education at the very alter where they ought to be venerated.
Students are justifiably repelled by overtly arrogant instructors. Such ogres should receive our most profuse encouragement to consider retirement. More commonly, however, it is the less overt victim of pride, sufficiently intoxicated by knowledge and hubris, yet insufficient to register on the self-disciplinary radar, that perpetuates damage in a classroom and poisons the souls unawares. We must be aware of all such encroachment of danger and check our own impulses to elevate ourselves to a station undeserved.
Malcolm X relates the following episode in his autobiography:
“I was the invited speaker at the Harvard Law School Forum. I happened to glance through a window. Abruptly, I realized that I was looking in the direction of the apartment house that was my old burglary gang’s hideout.
It rocked me like a tidal wave. Scenes from my once depraved life lashed through my mind. Living like an animal; thinking like an animal! …But Allah had blessed me to learn about the religion of Islam, which enabled me to lift myself up from the muck and the mire of this rotting world…Standing there by that Harvard window, I silently vowed to Allah that I never would forget that any wings I wore had been put on by the religion of Islam. That fact I never have forgotten…not for a second.”
Humility is the hallmark of an Excellent Teacher.
A man lavishes genuine affection upon his children, but his indifference, disregard, or open hostility for his spouse disheartens the children and frustrates the loving efforts of both parents. Can such a man be considered a nurturing father?
Similar is the case of the pedagogue who enjoys the classroom play, but mistreats his co-workers and superiors. Indeed, the classroom is the sanctuary of the students, but the school is their home. To create a truly nurturing environment, much effort is required outside the classroom. I have witnessed, thankfully only rarely, physicians who deride and offend their colleagues in the name of patient-care. A comprehensive understanding of patient-care mandates propriety even in the context of legitimate clinical disagreements. Squabbling physicians compromise patient-care in the present, and endanger the care of all subsequent shared patients.
Lasting friendships are borne from mutual toleration of idiosyncrasies. That is, a compassionately wise individual is able to humor the imperfections of others without a condescending pride. In truth, as many take its meaning, tolerance is a repulsive idea. If toleration is “putting-up” with others, then it stems from false pride and an assumption of one’s relative perfection. Such tolerance is not virtue. Ignorance is invisible to itself. All glass homes where souls seek shelter have defects. No one needs to be tolerated when everyone is respected.
This task is not difficult if we remain lifelong students of life. We are all ignorant about something, as so much remains to be learned from others. Such an outlook fosters respect of our colleagues, and then we look forward to going to work. A happier work environment facilitates the work of teaching.
How do you Recognize Genius?
Biographies of great individuals often recall some facial features or mannerisms that may have betrayed the inner genius of the individual. Some intensity in the eyes, perhaps, or a smile that captivated the beholders. One does not live long, however, before realizing that the face of genius is nearly always unassumingly ordinary. A realization, of course, that is wrong.
All Honor belongs to Allāh , the Owner of the Heavens and the Earth. Man tends to underestimate the innate abilities, or ‘genius’ as some call it, gifted to him by his Generous Creator. The truth is, without a doubt, there are no ordinary men. This is of the greatest lessons of history. Time and again, so-called ordinary men accomplished extraordinary feats — for they were never ordinary, they just believed they were. The difference between those who fulfill their innate potential given favorable circumstances and those who fail, is the difference between those with cognitive understanding of the nouns and verbs of this sentence versus those with deep self-awareness of the message it proclaims.
The beauty of faith is that it cares little of deputized geniuses. It aims higher and has better things to do. It is sufficient for us to know that our Creator favored us. To Him we belong and to Him we shall return.
Lord of the Ghetto
There is social hierarchy, I understand, even in the slums of Mumbai. The Lord of the Ghetto is an individual of some intelligence, often a mediocre thug who is jaded and scarred from experience. He presides over the poverty-stricken realm, doling out favors which he received from the government officials. In evenings, after supper and some relaxation, the lordship emerges from his domicile to entertain petitions and complaints from the slum citizens — an audience suffering a wait for some time. His mastery of the science of humiliation inspires him to wear, not his nice clothes, but a tattered kurta and disheveled lungi as he waddles apathetically to his throne. As he seats himself, he has already succeeded in his intention — though it seems impossible, the ghetto audience suddenly feels worse about itself.,
Much can be communicated without speaking a word. It is a cardinal sin for a teacher to be habitually tardy to his class. Students are not fooled. As with the ghetto audience, it takes little erudition to appreciate when you are being told that you do not matter.
An Excellent Teacher is the First to arrive to class.
Positive Reprimanding: Yes-No-Yes Technique
If you have always enjoyed the good graces of your teachers, consider yourself especially favored by circumstances. Few things are more mortifying for a student, and I speak from experience, than censure before an audience of peers. Tragically, perhaps even the reader may attest, some teachers display mastery of their subject by belittling the struggling student. Others, perhaps overwhelmed by their own burdens of life, use the classroom for catharsis. This is most unfortunate.
I learned early in life never to belittle anyone’s intelligence or their appearance. These arrows dig deep. Perceptions of one’s intelligence and beauty relate to the core of an individual’s identity. To expose such vulnerabilities before their peers has little value and best avoided.
Sometimes, however, there are instances when a student needs to be scolded publicly: the loquacious interrupting commentator, the habitually and remorseless late-comer, the “I know more than my teacher, therefore I shall antagonize” junior-Einstein, etc. There are many methods that may help mold behavior so that such students do not derail their own education while they are disrupting the education of others. It is also best not to jump to conclusions. As Sherlock Holmes would say, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.” Always give the little rascal a chance to explain.
In our times, one must even hesitate to consider if any form of reprimand is appropriate or justified in a classroom. Like parenting, however, teaching must carry a certain compassionate authority for an educational system to function. Juvenile delinquents are not born; they represent accumulated lost opportunities that might have helped a struggling soul. It is best to learn life’s lessons in the safety of the classroom. Thus, an excellent teacher must employ appropriate tactics to help the challenging students. I shall suggest two guiding principles that I have found useful.
Firstly, in my mind, one relinquishes the right to reprimand a student if such an effort does not come from a compassionate heart which has already invested much time and effort in rectifying the matter otherwise. Secondly, as a last resort, here is a technique that I have found extremely useful when reprimanding a student: The “Yes-No-Yes” technique., The idea is to cushion the unpleasant reprimand between two positive statements. I nearly always remind the student of either their higher purpose or some of their otherwise good qualities. A serious formal tone serves well.
“You know, I think you are possibly one of the most intelligent students in the class. If you would only come to class on time, you would probably succeed far beyond what you likely expect from yourself presently. Right now, your recurrent lateness is hurting you. And it’s hurting me. You are better than this. Kindly come to class on time. I really like to see you succeed. I know you can, Insha’Allah.”
It needs only a little practice.
An Excellent Teacher is an Optimist
In times when it is fashionable to be “jaded,” an optimist is an outcast. From time to time, because of an optimistic outlook on things, I have been charged as being a simpleton pseudo-philosopher divorced from understanding the practical necessities of life. This charge usually comes after an observation of my conspicuous inability to express the obvious without burdening it with the obtuse. A befuddled, cluttered imagination borne from too much book learning is the curse of higher education.
Pessimism dissipates with deep reflection. The trouble is, not everyone wishes to think deeply. The extreme pragmatics, who often employ preemptive mockery as a distraction, are threatened by the thought of the burden of thought. What distinguishes man from beasts if not thought? A life without the nobility of ideals is the life of a rodent scurrying in the dark alleys of history.
Some find it increasingly difficult to be optimistic in our times. Pessimists flourish when their senses are assaulted with all things negative without the advantage of a positive thought framework. When Allāh announced to the angels His intentions of a vicegerent for earth, their reply was a succinct summary of their perception of what would be the human story, “Will You place thereupon one who will spread corruption therein, and who, (moreover), will shed blood, while we ever exalt You with all praise and hallow You?” Corruption and bloodshed abound — pessimists would agree. But Allāh ’s response suggests more than what is superficially apparent, “Indeed, I know what you do not know.” The scum of human events captures the masses’ imagination. Abundant good, the thread of the fabric of society, which cushions the daily lives of people rarely makes the news. Our focus determines our perception of reality.
Optimism is the natural state of a believer. For indeed, we are promised that after every difficulty, there is ease. Optimism and teaching must be synonymous. Pessimism is a poison to the soul that saps energy and can derail a student’s education by a cascade of unfortunate events that might have been avoided by a more cheerful disposition. No teacher can afford to be a pessimist. Besides, optimists have more fun! Indeed, not all those who wander are lost.
“Indeed, with hardship, comes ease” (Qur’an, 94:6). 
Teacher as Student
It is easy to declare oneself a lifelong student, offering it as a testimony of our humility, but it is much harder to live such ideals. Living such ideals requires graciousness in the face of embarrassment, humility to concede one’s ignorance, and willingness to learn from those we thought we surpassed. One who masters this lesson has truly been gifted one of life’s greatest blessings.
Malcolm X again shows us how it’s done. He states in his autobiography, “…I had either directly established, or I had helped to establish, most of the one hundred or more mosques in the fifty states.” How many mosques have you established? Soaring on such accomplishments, Malcolm X was then shocked when he was detained at Jeddah airport and not allowed to enter Mecca.
“I had to go before the Mahgama Sahria, he (the judge) explained. It was the Muslim high court which examined all possibly nonauthentic converts to the Islamic religion seeking to enter Mecca. It was absolute that no non-Muslim could enter Mecca.” A young man guided him to a room where he would have to wait among others from different parts of the globe until the time came for him to go before the council. “I followed the aid in his skull cap, long white gown, and slippers. I guess we were quite a sight…(later) with gestures, he indicated that he would demonstrate to me the proper prayer ritual postures. Imagine, being a Muslim minister, a leader in Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and not knowing the prayer ritual…After about an hour, my guide left, indicating that he would return later.
I never even thought about sleeping. Watched by the Muslims, I kept practicing the prayer posture. I refused to let myself think how ridiculous I must have looked to them. After a while though, I learned a little trick that would let me get down closer to the floor.”
Malcolm X understood well that “Teacher” and “Student” are but titles, and all are but slaves before Allāh.
Sir William Osler (1849 – 1919 C.E.)
Dr. Osler was a patient and gifted teacher. He taught by example. Here is a story about him, although undoubtedly romanticized in my mind:
Well intentioned biographers of great men dedicate themselves to extensive study and research so that they may present their subjects in the truest light, even if it were to expose some blemishes. Sir William Osler’s biographer, Michael Bliss, writes that he, like many others who despite their best to find the worst, failed in unearthing anything that could tarnish that image of the great doctor. Osler, the Father of Modern Medicine, literally wrote the textbook on medicine, and towered over all his contemporaries. Many aphorisms flowed from his pen, such as, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
Once, early in his career, the good doctor is confronted with a terribly ill patient. Osler recognized in the poor victim a case of hemorrhagic or black smallpox, a horrible incurable disease. He received the patient in his typical grace, advised hospitalization after suggesting that he feared the patient would get quite ill.
And so, it happened. The poor man fell ill quickly. Medical knowledge in those times had outpaced therapeutic options (of which there were hardly any) except for the balm of opiates. Osler stayed by the patient’s bedside for hours on end. One can imagine him comforting the patient into the long hours of the night when time seems to stretch and silence speaks its mind.
“…and at the patient’s request he reads to him from the Bible. The man occasionally mutters prayers, and his doctor helps in one further way: ‘As the son of a clergyman…I performed the last Office of Christian friendship I could, and read the Commendatory Prayer at his departure…’”
As the reader appreciates, teaching is more than conveying the subject matter. On the desk of a student, one finds books, paper, and pencil. Behind the desk — a person of great importance.
As in life and all professions, teaching is as noble as one makes it.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips!
The fictional Mr. Chipping, ‘Mr. Chips’ as he was affectionately known to his students and colleagues, was the consummate teacher at Brookfield High, the all-boys boarding school. Mr. Chips started his tenure in 1870 as an awkward 22-year-old, an easy prey for pranks and mischief. With time, he grew wiser, armed with a ready rebuttal for all conceivable pranks as yet unconceived. He married late, but seemingly grew younger, only to prematurely lose his blissful life and perfect love to a random illness. Never the same person again for the remainder of his long life, Brookfield became life for Mr. Chips. Loved and esteemed by all, and crowned with the best accolades, he was finally forced into retirement by the cruelty of age. Even in his retirement, living in visual proximity of his beloved school, his parlor frequently hosted stray students and old friends, drawn by the offerings of milk and cookies, and a good conversation.
Then, word went around that the old master was dying. The news spread far and fast. On the fateful night, throngs of former students, many with their sons and grandchildren, came to say their final goodbye to their beloved Mr. Chips. As he lay on his bed, a frail old teacher with crumpled skin and cotton hair, whispers roamed the dimly lit room. One such whisper found its way to the ear of the old master, “Pity the old man didn’t have any children of his own.”
Mr. Chips, more to correct than to reprimand, ever so slowly, opened his eyes, and looking at no one in particular, gave one final lesson to his former student and answered the whisper with its equal. “I thought I heard you saying it was a pity…pity I never had any children. But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them. Thousands of them…and all boys.”
Indeed, an Excellent Teacher’s concern for the welfare of his students is enduring.
Administrators and the Teachers as Second-Class Citizens
It is generally observable that people sometimes treat their pets better than they treat other people. Kindness to animals is important. Our Islamic history is abundantly rich with stories encouraging it. One would think that we would have learned our lessons — all the lessons. Here are some additional examples for inspiration:
“According to Rabbi Eliezer ha-Kapar, a Talmudic sage, no one should buy a domestic animal, wild beast, or bird unless he or she is able to feed the animal properly. The duty to feed an animal first is so great that a person must interrupt the performance of a rabbinic commandment if one is not sure animals have been properly fed…”
“Rabbi Abramtzi was a man full of compassion for all living things. He would not walk on the grass of the field lest he trample it down. He was very careful not to tread on grasshoppers or crawling insects. If a dog came to the door of his house, he would instruct the members of his household to feed the animal. In winter he would scatter crumbs of bread and seed on the window sills. When sparrows and other birds arrived and began to pick at the food, he could not remove his gaze from them and his face would light up with joy like that of a little child. He looked after his horses far better than his coachmen did. When traveling and the coach had to ascend an incline, he would climb down in order to lighten the load and, more often than not, he would push the cart from behind.”
Here is a Christian tradition narration: St. Kevin had a blackbird lay an egg in his hand and he stayed motionless until it had hatched.
It is generally believed, and possibly true, that teachers are not duly appreciated, treated as second-class citizens, and rewarded for their loyalty with onerous non-sensical tasks that interfere with their noble high-purpose. They feel unfairly treated. Thus, many teachers walk the hallways with saintly notions of self-sacrifice, silent suffering, and martyrdom. It can only be hoped that they do not have pets.
Have such pedagogues reflected on the morass of student trouble, the stench of complaints, the black-hole of delinquencies, and sheer volume of people that their administrators are subjected to manage? Even a classroom is sufficiently difficult to lead. Are not the administrators but people? Do not life’s burden weigh upon them? Have we stopped them recently and asked them about what aches their heart?
The bridge that exists between the administrators and teachers is only partly created from a philosophy of education that devalues the high station of teachers. A good part of it is (perhaps created a little on both sides) from an unfortunate human proclivity for treating animals and people with appalling disparity.
An Excellent Teacher collaborates with the administrators towards a common goal.
Know Some Rules of Probability
Some of my medical school rotations required considerable road time to reach the destination. Thankfully, there is no significant traffic on Chicago highways.
Most heart attacks occur in the morning. Mondays are popular. Armed with this knowledge, I decided early in life that I would allow myself plenty of time to get to my destinations. If I was to be on the road a lot, there was no way I was going to subject myself to daily traffic induced hypertension.
Similarly, if a student is late once every twenty days, it doesn’t seem so bad. But if there are twenty students in the class, it is highly probable that one will be shepherding an excuse. Some teachers are exceedingly irked by student tardiness. That would make for bad Monday mornings. Tardiness needs to be addressed but not at the expense of the instructor’s blood pressure.
An Excellent Teacher doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Small disappointments of life are not harbingers of failure.
Do, or do not. There is no try.
Few sages have uttered truer words than little green Yoda when he said his famous lines, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Anyone who begins an action, however begrudgingly, may be said to be trying. The lethargic try. The indifferent try. The irresolute try. The spiritless try. There is nothing special about trying. The successful individual does not try: he does, or he fails while doing.
You might think that this is a trivial distinction. I remember the following patient as vividly as if the incident occurred yesterday, although some years have elapsed since. The poor soul, through much marauding of his body by alcohol and neglect, was in the intensive care unit and deathly ill. Before my eyes, as I was examining him, he started to throw up blood — a bad omen. He started choking in his own blood. Then, his heart stopped. He stopped breathing. Alarms started ringing. A “CODE BLUE” was broadcasted via the hospital speakers. Chaos ensued. Seemingly, the entire hospital staff assembles in one patient’s room during these emergencies.
This patient would need an emergency procedure to stop the bleeding, although the odds of his survival were slim — very slim. The patient’s bewildered and anxiety-stricken wife was waiting in the hallway a few rooms removed. I went to give her an update and to request consent for the urgent procedure.
She pleaded, “Doctor, you must save him! He is all I got!”
It is tempting in such circumstances, when odds are stacked against you, to preempt your failure by foreshadowing its possibility and say, “We will try our best ma’am.” In my mind, that would be the wrong thing to say.
Who wants to be told that you will try?
An Excellent Teacher establishes goals that are worth striving for, however difficult they may seem. Then, they find a way of accomplishing them. Excellent Teachers Do; they do not try.
Halsted and Cushing
There was a time when the merit of a surgeon was appraised by their surgical speed. Faster surgery meant less agony for the patient from the surgical knife (or saw). With the advent of anesthesia and aseptic techniques, surgeons could be more methodical, taking care to ligate bleeding vessels, and operating while respecting the exquisite anatomic map of the human body. Butchery evolved into an art, complications plummeted, and outcomes improved.
William Steward Halsted, the Michelangelo of surgery, essentially reinvented his profession. Halsted’s surgical techniques became the standard. He also broadened the scope of the surgical profession, performing operations that were previously thought impossible. Unfortunately, later in his career, Halsted became addicted to cocaine while studying its anesthetic properties and using himself as a subject. Consequently, he would often be tardy, or absent for days at a time. You wouldn’t know this, however, by observing his students. Harvey Cushing, a student of Halsted and a towering physician in his own right, relates that even in his mentor’s absence, his pupils wouldn’t think to slacken. They respected their mentor, they enjoyed their studies, and their work ethic was unchanged in the absence of their teacher.
The teacher disrespect seen in some classrooms today is a new and not necessarily a universal phenomenon. It is thought that curtailing student freedoms to safeguard a degree of propriety towards the teacher may thwart their creativity. Meanwhile, American children continue to struggle academically. Perhaps an alternative student-teacher relationship paradigm should be considered. The giants of former days have something to teach us still. Perhaps our teachers merit a genuine culture of respect.
An Excellent Teacher expects a classroom culture of dignity, respect, and self-directed learning.
Jan Baptista van Helmont
Scientists have delineated the exquisite and complex details of the process of photosynthesis. At a biochemical level, photosynthesis may be described as a process where certain cells harness light energy to produce energy rich compounds, such as glucose from water and carbon dioxide. Frequently, the equation is written thus:
CO2 + H2O + light energy à glucose + O2
However, in the long series of chemical reactions of photosynthesis, it is light that gets things started, and then the little water molecule that follows almost immediately. Carbon dioxide comes in much, much later. Thus, when it comes to the precursor molecules of photosynthesis, water should get its due credit.
light energy + H2O + CO2 à glucose + O2
Jan Baptista van Helmont was a contemporary of such legends as William Harvey, Galileo Galilee, and Francis Bacon. In 1600 C.E., van Helmont performed one of the most elegant and important experiments of all time. He took a willow tree sapling, weighed it, and placed it in a tree-pot with a measured amount of soil. He watered his sapling for five years and after five years the healthy sapling had gained 164 lbs.! The revealing observation, however, was the following: the amount of soil had remained essentially the same. In five years, the soil had lost only 57 grams. From this, Jan Baptista van Helmont concluded that the willow did not grow from the materials of the soil, but rather, it was the water added to the tree-pot that was transformed into the tree. Allah tells us in the Qur’an, and I mention it to suggest the implied emphasis on water:
And We have made every living thing from water.
There are many instructive lessons in this story. For me, one lesson is in von Helmont’s natural curiosity that inspired his elegant experiment. How many trees have we passed by in our lives? How many questions did we ask? In the scientific community, it is expected for an aspiring scientist to embrace an inquiring attitude. Indeed, a student of knowledge without a thirst for knowledge, is like a willow tree not thirsting for water.
An Excellent Teacher lets their expectations known: students must nurture an inquiring mind. The teacher can only take the students to the water…
A Willow Tree
Joe Frasier, George Foreman, and The Greatest
Muhammad Ali was proud of his Muslim name. Clay, Ali considered, was a mark of shame, a name given to his ancestors by their master, like branding of cattle. During one pre-fight weight-in, his opponent Ernie Terrell refused to acknowledge Ali’s new name and insisted on calling him “Clay.” A furious Ali punished Terrell in the ring with his punches, all the while taunting and yelling to his face, “What’s my name?!!” BOOM! “What’s my name?!!” BOOM!!
Well before he refused induction into the armed forces, Muhammad Ali knew that celebrities like him would not have to serve in the front-lines of a battlefield. Perhaps he would have to give speeches, be a goodwill ambassador, or hold exhibition fights to boost troop morale. He would never have to see a real bullet racing across a battlefield. Nevertheless, he refused because it was against his religious beliefs. In the prime of his career, he was stripped of his World Heavyweight Championship title and not allowed to fight anywhere in the United States. He lost all his earnings fighting legal battles.
Ali’s boxing genius was in his amazing reflexes and the lightning speed of his punches. A boxer, however, doesn’t have many prime years. After the Supreme Court exonerated him, nearly four years later, he returned to regain his title—the title that he had never lost in the ring. He climbed the ranks and finally got a shot to fight the reigning World Heavyweight Champion: Joe Frasier. Frasier was tough. It didn’t go well for Ali. He lost—having to pick himself up from the floor after a brutal left-hook. All said that the former heavyweight champion was not what he used to be. Ali wanted a rematch.
Meanwhile, a young upstart boxer was making big news. George Foreman challenged Frasier for the World Heavy Championship. This was bad news for Frasier. This was an uneven fight and difficult to watch. The great Joe Frasier who had floored Ali, was thrown around the ring as if he were drunk, and was knocked down three times just in the first round. Foreman didn’t just beat his opponents, he crushed their bones with each punch. His powerful arms were like massive steel pistons.
If Muhammad Ali, now aged 32, wished to be the world champion, he would have to beat the fiercely brutal twenty-five-year-old George Foreman. Foreman had never lost a fight. Most didn’t give Ali a chance. Even his close associates voiced concern. Many just hoped that he wouldn’t get killed in the ring.
On October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire, the world watched what is considered perhaps the greatest fight in boxing history. “Get off the ropes, Ali!! Get off the ropes!!,” his trainer kept shouting in frustration as Ali kept taking Foreman’s punishing punches. BOOM! BOOM!! BOOM!! “GET OFF THE ROPES!! GET OFF THE ROPES!!!” BOOM!!! BOOM!!!
In the end, Foreman was no match for Ali’s speed and reflexes — and uncommon determination. With less than ten seconds remaining in the eighth round, the exhausted Foreman met a series of Ali’s lightening and perfectly timed punches, and for the first time in his life, plunged to the floor. No one would ever see Ali the same again.
Sometimes, a fighter is better after a loss. Sometimes, few if any are by your ringside. Except as Ali said in his post-fight interview, “And regardless of the world and pressure, I made it an easy night, because Allah has Power over All things! If you believe in Him, nothing, even George Foreman will look like a baby.” Muhammad Ali used to say, “Allah is the greatest! I’m just the greatest boxer.”,
In teaching as in life, there are times when we must take a stand for our principles — even if we stand alone. If Allāh is on our side, then no goal is beyond our reach.
“Why do you go to school?”
I have posed this question to countless young men. Most of them simply do not have an answer. Some reluctantly reply, “For a better future,” though they seem unsure of the meaning of the phrase. The brave ones say, “So I can make more money!” Not bad, but to this I query, “So you go to school, to college, and perhaps more, give up years of your life, so that someday you can have a high paying stressful job in a cubicle?” We wait for pins to drop.
I then suggest the following. “Look, I have nothing against a cubicle job, if you are happy doing that job, and you know why you are there. What I am suggesting is, it is important to know, or have a good reason of your own, as to why you go to school. Why would you engage in an activity for eight hours a day or more, five days a week, whose purpose you do not know?”
“Allow me to suggest to you — the pilgrims that landed at Plymouth in 1620 and built Harvard in 1636 valued education and they knew what purpose it served them. If you visit Harvard today, you can read an inscription on one of its gate arches, ‘Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart to Better Serve Thy Country and Thy Kind.’”
I continue. “Our purpose is to serve our Creator, yes?” They agree thoughtfully. “And you serve your Creator by serving His creation, correct? Allāh would not disadvantage us by placing our happiness and wellbeing somewhere elusive. Therefore, I believe the pilgrims were right. The purpose of education is to acquire wisdom and knowledge so that we may become complete human beings, and to acquire skills to complement our character so that we may serve our community. In so doing, we live a life of meaning. And meaning, precious young students, is always more important than happiness. Happiness is hollow without it. And your best chance of finding happiness is to strive for meaning.”
The Missing Incentives for Education
The majority of children with the worst academic and social outcomes are from broken families. Some 43%, or over 20 million children live without their fathers. Seventy percent of high school dropouts are from fatherless homes. Those children lucky enough to live with their father still see their dads from a cultural disadvantage. Over 70% of depictions of men in the media show them in a very negative light. Here are some current descriptions of men as seen in media: dumb, bumbling, disconnected, careless, clueless, uninvolved, silly, comedic. I have spared the reader the worst. Men couldn’t find their socks if it weren’t for some women showing them where to look. Male role models are vanishing. No wonder that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young men., Who would want to embrace the role of the rejected?
It is clear that women are outperforming men in academia. In all fifty states, more girls are graduating high school than boys; the disparity amounting to 10% to 25% in eighteen of the fifty states. Despite consistent evidence that a college degree confers a substantial income advantage, only about 37% of college degrees are awarded to men. “Where have the men gone?” is the outcry. Perhaps boys are spoiled in the worst possible ways. They grow up with perpetual entertainment from video games, internet, social media, and easy living on the wealth of their parents. Perhaps, however, these are only symptoms of a deeper problem — a lack of incentives for boys to mature into men.
Why is there such male-bashing? In the fight for gender equality, our society has seemingly indicted all men living for the patriarchal injustices of all men that ever lived. Boys must re-invent themselves in light of new egalitarian ideals. This is an amazing burden to place on a small child. In the binary world of the myopic, speaking on behalf of boys is often perceived as an affront against women. In the gender wars of attrition, children are the innocent victims, and they are sacrificed by the millions. Were there no decent men in history? It is of the most tragic of human weaknesses to equate reality with the muck that occupies the front page of human imagination.
Of course, it is inconceivable to the western mind, shaped in the crucible of its gender wars, to consider an alternative paradigm of gender relations; one where men are to lower their gaze, and women are to lower their gaze, where women are to be honored, and men to be respected. And paradise is at the feet of the mother. Such has been the weakness of the West, hitherto dominated by the male perspective. Perhaps women of the West can do better? On that happy day, if they choose to study Islam in full seriousness, perhaps they can first consider:
…And the male is not like the female! (Qur’an 3:36)
Boys matter! They want to be acknowledged as the uniquely special individuals that they are, and acknowledged for the important contributions they can make to society as men. In the tradition of all great men, they want to serve, lead, create, and share. Let’s cherish our children, both girls and boys.
The Strength of the Empiricist
Smartphones are harmful to children’s education. What is the evidence?
Charles Dickens understood the weakness of the anesthetized “scientific” approach to pedagogy. His novel, Hard Times, begins with the empiricist pedagogue ranting, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” 
Dickens goes on to chart the effects of such principles on the “animals” subjected to them. He illustrates how the innocence of childhood is robbed and how the seeds of bitterness are sown! Hard Times is a difficult book to read as a parent. Here, a grown Louisa is venting her anguish to her father.
“I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny…How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O Father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.
There are three recurrent challenges with regards to data: it does not exist, it exists but is inconveniently inaccessible, it exits but is inexact. The challenge with the empiricists insistence on data to guide all policies (especially those that do not suit their sentiments) is that “data” always arrives on the scene a little too late — after the damage has been done — after the divorces, after the drop-outs, after the suicides, or after the gardens are laid waste. Empiricists boast a superb hindsight.
When the data is available, yet poses inconveniencies, it is often relegated to the haystack of superfluous irrelevancies. For example, according to the 2015 American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media, “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.” Yet, this is not common knowledge. Indeed, by age eighteen, “a U.S. youth will have seen at least 40,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television alone.”
Data usually does exist, though in inexact fragments. Such is the case with “smartphones.” Our challenge is in navigating life’s vicissitudes with grace, despite this disadvantage. Sufficient data exists, for example, to correlate aggression with violent video games. However, it is difficult to prove that this leads to violent behavior. Cause-effect relationships are difficult to establish in complex human systems. To wait for such definitive data is to wait for a generation’s social autopsy.
Our weakness is our proclivity for ease. It is easier to pacify a small child with hypnotic cartoons than to clean up the mess they would make if given other toys. Some shortcuts, however, extort long-term dividends. Expediency does not absolve the burden of responsibility.
Regardless, the problem still remains that without sure data, all arguments merit equal consideration. However, our Lord is Merciful. There is a framework presented to us to judge the merit of all human endeavors, and it comes with certainty:
This is the Book (of God). There is no doubt therein. It is guidance for the God-fearing…
Technology that is palpably toxic to the wellbeing of the student by all dictums of common sense should be avoided, or at least used with great caution. Just as the burden of proof of safety of a medication cannot be placed upon the patient, the burden of proof of harm of technological gadgets cannot be placed upon the parents, teachers, or the educational system.
Finally, dogmatic reliance on technology to solve humanity’s woes, which are largely failings of the heart, is a disservice to the future of our children. Sometimes there are no short-cuts to life’s challenges. No technology is needed to encourage a child to show kindness to parents, respect to teachers, and goodwill to all.
An Excellent Teacher is cautious about technology’s intrusion into the classroom.
False Notions of Prestige
It is a great mercy of Islam that it allows a spectrum of acceptable outward costumes. Yet, many precious Muslim youth try to hide their identity by camouflaging their appearance. Some such souls will live out their lives in fear of the opinion of others — fear of malignant looks, of insults, of dangers lurking behind shadows that do not exist, and shadows that do. Fear and peace cannot co-exist in the mind. Our capacity to rationalize is immense.
An Englishman once criticized Gandhi for his “rejection” of English attire. Gandhi responded thus:
“…having taken to the occupation of weaving and agriculture and having taken the vow of Swadeshi, my clothing is now entirely hand-woven and hand-sewn and made by me or my fellow workers…The fact is that I wear the national dress because it is the most natural and the most becoming for an Indian. I believe that our copying of the European dress is a sign of our degradation, humiliation and our weakness, and that we are committing a national sin in discarding a dress which is best suited to the Indian climate and which, for its simplicity, art and cheapness, is not to be beaten on the face of the earth and which answers hygienic requirements. Had it not been for a false pride and equally false notions of prestige, Englishmen here would long ago have adopted the Indian costume.”
In a society that tolerates men with nose-rings, grotesque tattoos, ripped jeans, and same-sex marriages, no modest man need be self-conscious. Gandhi did not reject European dress; he was beyond such pettiness. He simply affirmed his equal right to stand tall upon God’s earth. No blade of grass may claim the ground upon which it stands, nor shall it be a tyrant upon its neighbor. It is also possible that we underestimate our fellow citizens, and that they may be more accepting than we think.
Nevertheless, no man is truly free until his beliefs and actions agree. There is little respect for the one who flees from shadows. Who wants to live forever, and that in fear? Better a Day of Freedom than a thousand such years. I must also remind myself, lest I judge myself harshly, that the least of the Muslims is still great in the sight of Allāh .
We are pleased with Allāh as our Lord, and with Islam as our religion, and with Muhammad (peace be upon him) as our Prophet and Messenger.
Things of Beauty
Many years ago, I remember watching an episode of Little House on The Prairie where Charles (husband of Caroline Ingalls) causes great stress to his family by spending an inordinate amount of time at work for reasons that do not seem to add up. At the end of the episode, he gifts a beautiful china set to his relieved and overjoyed wife (“My Lady” as Charles would say). The china set was bought from the extra wages.
The episode ended with voice-over concluding remarks from their little daughter, Laura. “We used the new dishes for supper that evening, and every supper after that. That’s because Ma said special dishes aren’t for special times, they’re for special people, and family all together is the most special of all.”
I have been fortunate to have been invited to many beautiful homes, veritable mansions, where the impeccable china seems never to have been disturbed — imprisoned in a glass cage. It is an unfortunate common phenomenon that people who should matter most to us seem to occupy little interest in our imagination. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then boredom, emotional fatigue, apathy, or an unjustifiable indifference. Yet, is not a rose a rose forever? In the better words of Keats:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing…
Over time, blessings tend to clutter in the periphery of our imagination. It has been suggested that the fastest cure for ingratitude is loss. Best to learn some lessons without such trials. Periodic reflection on the real possibilities of such losses keeps the warmth of gratitude afresh in our hearts, and the doors of hospitality open for all. Familiarity also cements bonds of friendship. Let us strive to not take our families, friends, and colleagues for granted.
Such are the aspirations of Excellent Teachers. If we are not careful, it is easy to get accustomed to our surroundings and forget the charm that they once inspired.
The National Archives
If life submits to you an opportunity to visit the wonderful city of Washington, D.C., and then if time permits, I recommend you visit the National Archives. Its majestic outside only complements the quiet beauty of its inner chambers which hearken to the glory of Athens and Rome. In the solemn, dimly lit rotunda, between two ornate columns and encased in titanium frames, you shall find the Constitution of the United States. Time has eased the burden of ink on the pages, but not the weight of its words. For those words were forged in some of the best of dialectic traditions ever played out in human history. Every inch of the document was an intellectual battlefield where every word was scrutinized and cross-examined, and every verb and adjective most carefully and deliberately selected.
The Constitution, as the reader is aware, outlines the structure of our government — the roles and responsibilities of its three branches and the checks and balances each enjoys over the other two. If I were there with you as you leaned forward to examine the document in that quiet room, I would bring to your attention the fourth and final page. On this page, which enjoys the signatures of those who produced it, you shall find Article VI. And if you then wished, you could read:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
Read carefully: “…but no religious Test shall ever (author emphasis added) be required as a Qualification to any (author emphasis added) Office or public Trust under the United States.” The founding fathers knew the frailties of men. Hearts may change over time. Thus, they were as unambiguous as possible, that there shall be no religious qualification to hold any government position in the nation they envisioned…ever.
I hope that the Excellent Teacher conveys to every student the importance of Article VI of the United States Constitution.
Lessons from Apollo 11
October 4, 1957 found the communist Soviet Union rejoicing over their Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. If our foes controlled Earth’s skies, they could shower atomic missiles upon us. America could not afford to lose the space race. Yet, the Russian space program celebrated consecutive successes while Americans faltered. In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space. Indeed, at the dawn of the turbulent 1960’s, American prestige was eclipsed and the merits of capitalism and democracy were no longer self-evident.
This year marked the 50th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on July 20, 1969, as he became the first man to step foot on the moon. For space visionaries and friends of humanity everywhere, the story of Apollo 11 is a kaleidoscope of inspiration. But, have we learned its most transcendent lessons?
President John F. Kennedy intended to change that. He was the spark that ignited NASA’s reach for the moon. Only four months after taking office, Kennedy addressed Congress in May 1961, and boldly challenged America to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. Experts had said that it couldn’t be done for another twenty years.
President Kennedy’s challenge didn’t stem from youthful optimism, but rather from a rare understanding of humanity’s true potential, and the precarious global political scene of his times. He understood that only an incomprehensibly singular feat far beyond the prevailing expectations of his world audience would definitively settle the super-power race. The moon landing offered a peaceful competition. Kennedy believed in America and its potential when united and inspired. He would stake his name and legacy on this understanding of life. The President need not worry. America responded.
NASA scientists worked around the clock. Massive rocket spacecrafts had to be built to cross the nearly quarter-million miles to the moon. Astronauts had to be protected from the dangers of space travel. Even if we reached the moon, any glitch before or during take-off from the moon could leave the astronauts stranded. There could be no rescue mission.
Armstrong was Captain America if there ever was one. He was the mission commander of Apollo 11, sharing the adventure with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Of Armstrong’s many endearing qualities, his quiet humility stands out. For example, Armstrong took dozens of photographs of Aldrin, yet the only complete profile of Armstrong on the moon is captured as a reflection on Aldrin’s visor — an oversight from excitement. When questioned about this, Armstrong’s magnanimous reply was, “I don’t think Buzz had any reason to take my picture, and it never occurred to me that he should. I have always said that Buzz was the far more photogenic of the crew.”
Communism no longer presents to us the same threat. Today, democracy might instead be suffering from neglect. Some dangers still court the horizon. Civility of discourse, the soul of democracy, seeks rescue. Our children yearn for the warmth of intact families. Hispanics, Muslims, and our black brothers seek greetings without suspicion in this land of the free. Poverty still beckons millions. The sick fear the burdens of cure.
A nation that once dreamed of stars, seems to be struggling with its compass. Yet, the symbol of hope still glows in the sky. We must aim high. No doubt, humanity is greater than the sum of its challenges. Apollo 11 showed the world that much more can be accomplished together. Let us rededicate ourselves to the principles that we love and cherish. Among these and above all, that all are Created Equal. Let us live for meaning. Let us better ourselves and help others, so that we may do great things. Let us strive to live in the reflection of others. Indeed, if each takes this one small step, it would be a giant leap for Mankind.
There are many great lessons in the story of Apollo 11. Perhaps one of the most important lesson is that more can be accomplished together!
Career Advice for Students
- Career satisfaction is more a reflection of one’s life perspective than the chosen career. Happiness is primarily a state of mind that is largely independent of external circumstances.
- Service to humanity is the worthiest career goal. This is not just a nice thing to say; it makes a difference between a wholesome life of tranquility versus pathology.
- Aim to excel in whatever you do. Otherwise, your soul will suffer a disquiet. Most college students fail because they are more concerned about their peer’s opinion of them than their own intellectual progress. This can include how they look rather than how they act, and their social status rather than their grades as a measure of their intellectual growth.
- Sometimes you can have it all, but usually you can’t. Some things you just cannot have lest you wish to fail.
- Always remember that it is all about the  Do not just pay lip-service to Allāh . Remember Him and He will remember you. Life is difficult as it is, don’t make it harder.
- Always keep your parent’s input in your decision-making algorithm. Repay their love with gratitude.
- Never boast about your career. “Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.” Never belittle a person’s career by which they make their livelihood.
- Aim to leave a positive mark in the world and know that you may not always see the fruits of your labors. Do good for the sake of good.
Goals of Education
No one should confuse schooling with education. The latter is learning to live a complete life, developing moral rectitude, and exploring one’s talents so they complement our efforts to improve the human condition.
“To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” Theodore Roosevelt 
A student is misguided if he focuses more on his grades than on his character. Education is a waste if it does not make one a better person. One cannot be a good person without first being a good son or a good daughter. These are life’s much neglected great truths. My students know that I measure their educational success by whether or not they take the garbage out without being told to do so. Is it really that difficult? Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.,
Most of us have been unwittingly conditioned to see heroism everywhere but where it must be — home. Strengthening or mending the essential life-giving relationships, i.e., familial bonds, must be the primary focus of all education. No civilization survives that neglects the family. Valor is, without a doubt, in perfection of what most consider the mundane.
Standardized tests, though they have utility, are schooling. As Gandhi put it, “Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning.” A purpose driven education is our best chance of ensuring comprehensive wellbeing of our students. Material opulence alone is a pathetic substitute for happiness.
Another sure measure of the educated is the ability to remain silent. As Frost rightly stated, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” Impatience betrays character imperfections that yet remain to be sculpted. Amateurs like myself must strive on. No one can be considered educated if they are incapable of facing differing opinions without ruining everyone’s day.
We all wish our children to be happy. If we wish to be true to our intentions, then we must reflect deeply about the meaning of education. Disingenuous efforts fail our children.
An Excellent Teacher does not lose sight of the goals of education.
Life is Not Meant to be a Bed of Roses
The Spanish poet and playwright, Miguel de Cervantes is best known for his novel Don Quixote. His statement here, I believe, represents a near universal truth about human experience. Except for the blessed few, life only infrequently gifts us moments so profuse with joy that we are able to forget our sorrows completely. Those who desire life’s difficulties to be an anomaly rather than modus operandi, or worse, those who expect it so, make their lives unnecessarily difficult. Life pampers no one. Difficulties of life set the stage for the human drama. The protagonists embrace their challenges, and by doing so, become the agents of good.
“It seldom happens that any felicity comes so pure as not to be tempered and allayed by some mixture of sorrow.” Miguel de Cervantes, 1547 – 1616 C.E.
Also, as is popularly understood, one is pretty much as happy as one makes up his mind to be. Indeed, our focus determines our perception of reality. As Gandhi said, “in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.” Life also gives us rainbows, snowflakes, sunsets, roses, and countless other gifts that are hardly noticed by most. In the words of Longfellow:
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day…
An Excellent Teacher appreciates that Life need not be perfect to be enjoyed.
Parental Involvement in a Child’s Education
An educational system’s best efforts do not, of course, guarantee academic success. The school, society, and the home constitute three important collaborative or competing forces in a child’s welfare.
Parenting is made more difficult by the distracting social and cultural norms that prevail in our society. The ubiquitous commercialism and the oppressive peer-pressure culture can make parenting a nightmare. Further, the internet has allowed the tentacles of social ills to reach children’s bedrooms. Some parents, it appears, have forfeited. Once, children were warned against accepting candy from strangers. Today, filth is dispensed wholesale through YouTube and social media, yet parents even gift their young children “smart-phones” for birthdays. Have you ever seen poison shared with such little forethought?
One cannot caution against intrusive technology without facing some justifiable skepticism. Technology is a gargantuan spectrum of human output with varying degrees of impact on the society. The faithful toaster is relatively harmless. No one will confuse the social impact of a toaster with that of a smartphone. Technology that directly affects human interactions and undermines familial bonds is in a class of its own. A parent’s job is as much to thwart the impact of social ills that invade the privacy of homes to devour children, as it is to provide their children with shelter and food.
Thus, parents today contend with a culture where forethought frequently lags behind the repercussions of follies. To add to their burdens, parents also suffer peer pressure. It takes courage to be a good parent. Every parent must feel comfortable saying “No” when a no needs to be spoken. The school and community must be supportive of such parents.
We must also question the fundamental assumptions as to what constitutes a normative childhood. For example, we are indoctrinated to believe that teenage years are rebellious. This is a great and destructive untruth. It is told and retold, enacted and reenacted, in all forms of visual media. Falsehood oft repeated takes the semblance of truth. Truth, however, has an intuitive universal appeal. Young people can be a great positive force in the world. Teenage years can be wonderfully productive when this false paradigm is dispensed.
Home as an institution may either be a sanctuary of hope, or a provisional detention center for future misfits. Children’s views of the world are first shaped by their observations of the parents. Parent’s must ensure, therefore, that what the children see is that which inspires good. A turbulent home sabotages a child’s success, academic or otherwise. If parents wish to see their child improve their grades, then they must focus on self-rectification and self-effacing dedicated efforts to rehabilitate their marriage. A child’s performance in life is not divorced from the lessons learned at home, their first classroom. How many precious children are denied their childhood by bickering parents?
Parenting skills can be learned. The best efforts of the teachers and the educational system are handicapped if they are not complemented by parental efforts at home. We must encourage and support parents as they reclaim their nurturing leadership roles. We must strive to understand their challenges. Parental motivations stem from an unfathomable wellspring of Love. Our compassion must encompass all. Afterall, every parent was once a child.
An Excellent Teacher collaborates with parents towards a common goal.
The best thing to give to your enemy is forgiveness; to an opponent, tolerance; to a friend, your heart; to your child, a good example; to a father, deference; to your mother, conduct that will make her proud of you; to yourself, respect; to all men, charity.
I would like to thank: the world (in case I forget to mention someone). Specifically, I would like to thank my departed parents whose love continues to nurture me. My sisters and brothers, who have taught me (too) many things: Amatul R. Azam, Asadullah Riaz, Mohammed Sibguthullah Rehan, Muhammadi Rizwana (miss you), Mohammed Abdullah Razi, Rukhsana Fadalullah, Dr. Rafia Ali, and of course, Dr. Ruqia Ali (love you all). My mother-in-law, who continues to inspire the entire family. My brother-in-law, Dr. Mohammed Tahseen, who teaches by example. Rodney Telomen, who taught me, among other things, how to be a friend. The parents of my students for placing their trust in me. Br. Usman Chaudhary for his exceptional dedication and invaluable help. Maulana Justin Poe for trying to teach me the Chicago Style and whose love of literature inspires me to read more. Br. Saadath Afzal for his beautiful cover design. Mufti Minhajuddin Ahmed for his gracious foreword. Mufti Azeemuddin Ahmed for having faith in me. The beloved Muftis deserve an Acknowledgement section of their own and gratitude which I cannot adequately express. How blessed we are to have them, Alhamdulillah!
I would like to thank my wife and children (the first and the last editors) for their support, patience, and love.
May Allāh shower His Choicest Blessings upon all the wonderful individuals mentioned above. Ameen!
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Hilton, James. Goodbye, Mr. Chips. New York: Laurel-leaf Books, 1982.
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Khurana, Simran. “These 10 Fiery Muhammad Ali Quotes Are a Total Knockout.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo, February 24, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/fiery-muhammad-ali-quotes-2833421.
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All Praise Belongs to Allāh, the Lord of the Worlds.
. : The most glorified, and the most high.
. Richard M Eyre and Linda Eyre, The Turning: Why the State of the Family Matters, and What the World Can Do about It (Sanger, CA: Familius, 2014), 30 -31.
. : Peace be upon him.
. Attributed to Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism.
. BBC World Service, Learning English, Moving Words,| BBC News (BBC), http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/movingwords/shortlist/laotzu.shtml (accessed September 30, 2019).
. A paycheck, of course, is important. Most teachers are overworked and underpaid.
. Charles W Eliot, ed., Plato Epictetus Marcus Aurelius (New York: P. F. Collier, 1937), 112-113.
. Malcolm X et al., The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015), 313 – 314.
. The reader may appreciate the exquisitely similar description and more in Katherine Boo’s novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
. Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (New York: Random House, 2014), 21.
. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004), 1:189.
. This is something that I have extrapolated from a wonderfully important book I read many years go titled, The Power of a Positive No.
. William Ury, The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes (New York: Bantam, 2008).
. Aḥmad Zakī Ḥammād, The Gracious Quran: A Modern-Phrased Interpretation in English (Lisle, IL: Lucent Interpretations, 2009), 9.
. Ḥammād, 9.
. Ḥammād, 1050.
. Virtue decays with self-assertion.
. Malcolm X, 317.
. Malcolm X, 357.
. Michael Bliss, “On Doing an Osler Autopsy,” in William Osler: A Life in Medicine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), xiii.
. Roy Porter, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), 144.
. Michael Bliss, The Making of Modern Medicine: Turning Points in the Treatment of Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 9.
. James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (New York: Laurel-leaf Books, 1982), 47.
. Richard H Schwartz, Judaism and Vegetarianism (New York: Lantern Books, 2001), 21.
. Rabbi Goldie Milgram, “Eco-Kosher: Jewish Spirituality in Action,” Eco-Kosher: Jewish Spirituality in Action, Reclaiming Judaism, http://reclaiingjudaism.org/teachings/eco-kosher-jewish-spirituality-action (accessed September 30, 2019).
. Irish Saints’ Tale: St. Kevin and the Blackbird. Celtic Mythology, legends, Saint Keivin, http://www.luminarium.org/mythology/ireland/stkevin.htm (accessed September 30, 2019).
. Sarcasm (for those unfamiliar with Chicago traffic)
. Salynn Boyles, “Heart Attacks in the Morning Are More Severe,” WebMD (WebMD, April 27, 2011), https://www.webmd.com/heart-disease/news/20110427/heart-attacks-in-the-morning-are-more-severe#1.
. StarWars.com Team, “The StarWars.com 10: Best Yoda Quotes,” StarWars.com, September 12, 2014, https://www.starwars.com/news/the-starwars-com-10-best-yoda-quotes.
. CODE BLUE is announced in patient emergencies such as a cardiopulmonary arrest to summon the team of health care providers assigned to the CODE BLUE team.
. Note: this story is not meant to be an endorsement of the STAR WARS franchise.
. Michael Bliss, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 253 – 255.
. This was before the dangers of this drug were fully appreciated.
. Ḥammād, 533.
. One must be careful, however, to not fall into the other extreme. Too often, our culture encourages students to question everything. A questioning mindset is healthy only if it is complemented by a thirst for answers and a commitment to diligent study. Otherwise, it is an irrational absurdity.
. Ali changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. to Muhammad Ali in 1964.
. Muhammad Ali, The Greatest Collection, DVD, HBO Home Video (New York: HBO Studios, 1999).
. Simran Khurana, “These 10 Fiery Muhammad Ali Quotes Are a Knockout,” ThoughtCo (ThoughtCo, February 24, 2019), https://www.thoughtco.com/fiery-muhammad-ali-quotes-2833421.
. Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen. Ali, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
. Emily C Ingram, “Enter to Grow in Wisdom: Opinion: The Harvard Crimson,” Enter to Grow in Wisdom, Opinion, June 3, 2008, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2008/6/3/enter-to-grow-in-wisdom-span/.
. Tom Ostapchuk, “Breakdown of US High School Graduation Rates,” The Huffington Post (TheHuffingtonPost.com, December 7, 2017), https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tom-ostapchuk/breakdown-of-us-high-scho_b_9265724.html.
. “The Extent of Fatherlessness,” National Center for Fathering, http://fathers.com/statistics-and-research/the-extent-of-fatherlessness/ (accessed October 1, 2019).
. “Statistics.” The Fatherless Generation, April 28, 2010,
. “Men Become the Main Target in the New Gender Wars,” Phys.org (Phys.org, November 27, 2006), https://phys.org/news/2006-11-men-gender-wars.html (accessed October 11, 2019).
. The leading cause of death is accidents (the third leading cause is homicide).
. “FastStats – Adolescent Health,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/adolescent-health.htm (accessed October 1, 2019).
. Ḥammād, 88.
. Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York: Barnes & Noble Books Classics, 2004), 9.
. Dickens, 209.
. Mark Appelbaum et al., “APA Review Confirms Link Between Playing Violent Video Games and Aggression,” American Psychological Association (APA Task Force On Violent Media, Aug 13, 2015), https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.
. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: a Call to Action against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence (New York: Harmony Books, 2014), 15.
. Ḥammād, 3.
. Mohandas K Gandhi, “Third Class in Indian Railways,” ReadCentral Smart Reader, https://www.readcentral.com/SmartReader/Mahatma-Gandhi/Third-class-in-Indian-railways/007 (accessed October 1, 2019).
. John Keats, “From Endymion by John Keats,” Poetry Foundation (Poetry Foundation), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44469/endymion-56d2239287ca5 (accessed October 1, 2019).
. Jessie Kratz, “New Web Exhibits Explore the Inside of the National Archives Building,” National Archives and Records Administration (National Archives and Records Administration, November 13, 2013), https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2017/11/13/new-web-exhibits-explore-the-inside-of-the-national-archives-building/.
. “The 6th Article of the U.S. Constitution.” National Constitution Center – The 6th Article of the U.S. Constitution, https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/article/article-vi (accessed October 1, 2019).
. James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018), 508.
. “File:Adrin Apollo 11 Original.jpg – Wikipedia,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Aldrin_Apollo_11original.jpg (accessed September 29, 2019).
. “Bruce Lee Quotes,” Largest Collection of Bruce Lee Quotes, February 3, 2013, http://www.bruceleequotes.org/showing-off-is-the-fools-idea-of-glory/.
. Jerome Angel and Walter D. Glanze, Pearls of Wisdom (New York: Perennial Library, 1987), 100.
. Precisely: “Everybody wants to save the Earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.” P.J. O’Rourke.
. Akham Hemabati Devi, Gandhi’s concept of education and its ethical perspectives for the development of Peace: Articles – On and By Gandhi, https://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/g_edu.htm (accessed October 2, 2019).
. “Education is Acceptance, Not Antagonism,” Sunwords.com by Sunny Bindra, May 23, 2016, https://sunwords.com/2014/08/31/education-is-acceptance-not-antagonism/.
. Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993), 295.
. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.” Poetry Foundation (Poetry Foundation), https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44644/a-psaml-of-life (accessed September 29, 2019).
. Especially the bewildering challenges of the single-parent.
. Benjamin Franklin, “112 Benjamin Franklin Quotes That Light The World,” KeepInspiringme, https://www.keepinspiring.me/benjamin-franklin-quotes/ (accessed October 3, 2019).