I’ve been contemplating my role in the classroom, and I decided — not as definition but as meditation — to explore the origins of all these labels we apply to ourselves. While I acknowledge that most of these etymologies have evolved to have entirely different connotations, I enjoy examining the beginnings of words as a way of unlocking or re-examining how we use them today. Some of these terms are more common than others (I, for instance, am a “lecturer,” but I am no longer a “tutor” in the conventional sense), but I’m including anything I can think of related to my role in education so as to better consider what exactly I’m doing. I’ve arranged them in three sections of “non-Sams,” “middlings,” and “Sams,” according to how I feel the etymologies reflect my views of education, but I don’t want to insist that my views are “correct” in any way — there are plenty of teachers whose preferred teaching styles fall into what I’m calling the “non-Sams”; I value their teaching and I’m glad there are different teaching styles to choose from.


  • Educator: From a Latin root for “to rear up” or “raise”; also related to a Latin word for “to lead.” To educate, then, is to raise up a younger student to a knowledgeable adult; also, it suggests that such knowledgeable adulthood is out there, somewhere, and the educator must “lead” the student to it.
  • Guru: Sanskrit for “weighty, grave, dignified.” While I revere gurus in general and while, if I had any formal gurus, I would revere them specifically, I have to include this in the non-Sams because it is the stereotype of the haughty professor who reviles students as pesky novices and who considers him- or herself as the all-knowing font of wisdom to which students must grovel for information.


  • Instructor: From a Latin root meaning “to build, erect, or prepare.” To instruct someone is prepare someone for a life (see “educate”), but the structural uses of the root also suggest that there is in the student an innate foundation on which to “erect” the knowledgeable adult.
  • Lecturer: From a Latin root for “to read.” In essence, to lecture is read to our students, but there does not seem to be anything inherently instructive or interpretive about the act. We would simply be presenting information for the student to hear.
  • Tutor: From a Latin root for “to guard or watch”; a tutor, then, guards a student’s education. I like the protective aspects of this, as though we sincerely have our students’ best interests at heart, but I cringe at the implication that we are guarding not the student but the curriculum — that we are protecting the student against going down the “wrong” path in their education. Even this has its advantages, of course, because in protecting students against their own follies we are helping them effectively navigate their education, but I still worry about the judgmental aspect of “guardianship.”
  • Edifier: From Latin roots that, combined, mean “to make a dwelling.” To edify, then, is to build a house of knowledge, a kind of mental safe haven (see “tutor”). This is related to “instruct,” but by specifying the home as that which is being built, there is a simpler, less elite, and perhaps less imposing connotation here. If it were clearly collaborative, I’d list “edify” below in the “Sams”; since it is unclear who is doing the building, I’ll leave it here.
  • Faculty: From the Latin for “power, ability, opportunity” (see “guru”) and for “resources, wealth”; related to the latter definitions, it is also a form of the Latin for “easily” (see “school”). Much as I enjoy the adage that “knowledge is power,” I abhor the lordly suggestion those with knowledge should enjoy a power over others or over knowledge itself. I also dislike the reference to education’s early (or, okay, continuing) socio-economic elitism. But those are the only reasons this word rests here in the middle. I also like the acknowledgment of accomplishment and opportunity available in education, and I prefer to interpret “easily” as “in one’s own fashion” or “without undo outside pressure to conform.” It’s a loose interpretation, but I’m sticking to it.


  • Teacher: From an old Teutonic root for “token,” meaning something shown; as a verb, it connotes showing or giving, but it is also linked to a conjugation akin to “taken,” as in something received. To teach, then, is both to give and to receive knowledge.
  • Professor: From Latin roots meaning “to put forth” and “to declare”; in this sense, to profess is to make a declaration, as though of the truth. However, in its early religious usages, it meant “to make a public confession,” a connotation I prefer, as it suggests I am admitting to my intellectual biases as well as stating my views.
  • School (the verb, as in “I schooled you”; archaic, but interesting, though I have resisted using the nominative “schooler”): In a very roundabout path through Latin, German, and various Scandinavian languages, from a Greek root meaning “leisure”; as a verb, then, it suggests taking one’s leisure through study, or to have enough leisure time to engage in study. Much as this might support the long-standing elitism of education (only those rich or powerful enough have time and means for study), I enjoy the verb origins of this as an excuse to give my students leisure enough to study in their own way or to explore their own ideas, and to let them enjoy their studies.
  • Mentor: The proper name of a Greek poet; etymologically, it contains references to words for “advise,” “counsel,” “remember,” and “think.” As a “guide” through my students’ education, I prefer this word above all but the next one.
  • Student: From the Latin for “zeal and affection” and the verb connotations of “to be zealous,” “to seek to be helpful,” and “to apply oneself.” I wish my students were in fact more zealous in the pursuit of their education, but I include this here because I consider my role as a student as essential to — perhaps indistinct from — my role as a teacher, and I adore that part of this definition that encourages us to “seek to be helpful.”

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

3 thoughts on “Labels

  1. Dear Student, Sorry I had to right that(thought you might get a laugh). I can honestly say that I don’t like to recieve letters, handouts, etc. that say that. One, it does denote a sense of authority of the teacher over the student, which is not a bad thing, but I see it as negative in the fact that the teacher is looking down on the student. Two, I would rather it address me as an individual. I tend to have a greater interest in reading what has to be said. In that case:Dear Mr. Snoek-Brown, I had to post something after reading that becasue no one else has. I liked the blog. It was very good, and I really enjoyed your interpretations of the definitions. Good stuff.

  2. Fascinating–and I agree. But does the same hold true for the plural: Do you dislike “Dear students” when teachers address an entire class?

  3. I agree with Andrew about the dear students thing. I am way more likely to read something that is addresses to me than dear students. To me it seems like it isn’t important when refered to as dear students. I also enjoyed your blog. Im glad you pointed it out to us in class again. Sorry i didn’t catch it the first time.

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