As homeschoolers, we are always tempted to wonder whether we measure up to “real teachers.” Which leads to the question, What are the essential qualities of an outstanding teacher? Many things come to mind, including knowledge of subject area, ability to communicate with students, commitment to preparation, and consideration for the needs of individual students. Everyone has a list of essential qualities of excellent teachers, but there is one surprising ingredient that few would include in the short list—“surprising” because it has a Biblical guarantee, and “surprising” because it is so rarely considered. Intrigued? Then read on.

As a follower of Jesus, I have found that reading the Scriptures can be an enlightening experience, to say the least. In fact, it might be far more truthful to say that, from time to time, reading the Bible is a brilliant, flashing, neon-light experience. Years ago, in the midst of the everyday homeschool pressures and hectic demands of juggling a home with one husband, three kids, and assorted animals—at one time it was three dogs, two cats, one rooster, two ducks, one sheep, one donkey, two horses, and two goats!—I opened my Bible one day and was astounded by the significance of Proverbs 16:21 for teachers: “The wise in heart shall be called prudent, and sweetness of lips increases learning.”

Sweetness of lips increases learning??! I had read many books and heard many speakers describe the various tools, strategies, and philosophies in education, and my husband was a public school teacher, but no one to my knowledge had ever connected learning to “sweetness of lips.” It was a startling thought, to say the least, and one that caused me to stop and ponder my own statements to my children.

What did that phrase mean? What kind of sweetness was the author describing? If it was a honeyed and superficial sweetness, then I was in deep trouble! Growing up in various east and west coast cities, my childhood culture was not one that taught young ladies to be “sweet.” I had no educators as role models when it came to this concept. They were, by turns, interesting or boring, demanding or lethargic . . . but sweetness of lips was never a foremost characteristic of my teachers.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I had known people (both men and women) who had superficial sweetness, but when crossed, the sweetness was discovered to be only a mask. What waited beneath the surface was quite different—often a nasty knockout punch of aggressive and angry words. With this in mind, the question to answer is, Where does this sweetness begin, since it’s not merely a cultural attitude?

So, as detectives searching for clues, let’s consider what this word actually meant in the original language. Written in Hebrew, the word metheq could also be translated pleasantness of discourse. It is derived from the primary root, mâthaq, which means literally “to suck, by implication to relish, or be sweet.” Imagine a chocolate shake or a caramel macchiato or anything sweet that you would relish drinking. That is a picture of the kind of “sweet” statements that the Bible says will increase learning—words that cause us to relish, to eagerly drink.

Obviously, this treasure hidden in Proverbs 16:21 is referring to sweetness that goes far beyond being merely polite and agreeable, where people say, “Oh, isn’t she sweet?” This amazing verse opens up for us an incredibly powerful ingredient to help our students grow.

However, it is not cheaply purchased. Jesus said that it is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Whatever is inside us will, given the opportunity and pressure, come out and be clearly seen. This is the part where the rubber meets the road . . . where the “ouch” of our lips—our anger, selfishness, shaming, and other unpleasant outbursts—can drive us to our knees in repentance. When we have a humbled and repentant heart, our lips will reflect it, and it will become evident to all, especially those in our families.