Teaching with Righteous Principles

Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Satellite Broadcast • August 5, 2014


I have been touched by the messages we’ve heard today, and I am grateful to be with you today. I love associating with all the people who serve so diligently in the seminary and institute program. Jill and I were students in the same seminary class over 40 years ago, and in addition to learning more about the gospel in that class, I also learned more about her and became interested in her. It is one additional reason I have fond feelings for seminary. My mother and father became acquainted through the institute program when they were attending the university, and after their wedding they even held a reception in the institute building. The fact that they got to know each other through institute is one more reason I love that program.

Jill and I are also very grateful for the influence S&I has been on each of our children. We have nine children. All are married, except our youngest, who will return from her mission in about two weeks. We are definitely in a different situation now than when all nine lived at home and we were trying our best to teach and raise them. I am so glad there were no such things as webcams back in those days. It would have been quite a sight to have a 24-hour-a-day “Johnson Cam” running at our home.

Since we have been so involved in parenting for much of our lives, I have been interested to observe other parents and analyze parenting. After all those years you would think I would be one of the top experts on parenting, but I’m not. However, I would like to focus briefly on two things that those who are trying to be great parents tend to do. These are parents who have as a top priority raising children in righteousness.

The first observation is that parents with that goal make decisions based on the long view. In other words, their decisions aren’t based on what is easiest now but what will be most helpful to their children later in life and even in the eternities. They seem to have a sense about what is best to do now to help their children become all that they should become. These parents seem to be able to help their children begin to take the long view of their own lives as well.

Often, parents are tempted to make decisions based on what will make the parent look better at the moment or what will be easiest for the parent to do in the short term. When I was a young boy, I stole some candy from a small neighborhood store. I must have looked guilty because my mother soon discovered what I had done. The easiest thing for her to do would have been to tell me not to do it again and scold me for stealing. But she wanted me to learn a lesson that would last a long time, so she took me back to the store and had me tell the owner what I had done and that I would work for my mother to earn money to pay for the candy I had stolen. The store was owned by my mother’s cousin’s family, so I’m sure it was a little embarrassing for my mother to take me in there to confess that I was a criminal. But she was more interested in what I would be like years down the road than what her cousin would think of her at that particular moment.

It seems that some parents end up doing much of their children’s schoolwork and school projects. While we want our children to do well in school, a parent who does the work designed to help the student learn will actually cripple the child’s learning and put them at a disadvantage in the future. Sometimes that pressure to be able to brag about how well our children are doing in school or in other activities or what awards they have received can blind us to what will actually help them learn and grow.

I also believe children can sense—even if they can’t articulate it—whether a parent is motivated by selfishness or by what the parent truly believes is best for the child. I feel grateful I was born to parents who were righteous people, who, like all of us, weren’t perfect, but they tried to be devoted parents. A number of years ago, I had a strong desire for my children to grow up to be good people like my parents. As I pondered about this and wondered what I could do to help this happen, I realized that the development of character my parents experienced and the wisdom and knowledge they gained were the result of facing and overcoming the challenges in their lives and their struggles and efforts in working through those difficult things. I realized that my own children would face challenges and that I couldn’t and shouldn’t artificially protect them from all the painful consequences of life.

We can help our children see the long view in their own lives. Possibly the most powerful way to do this is by being the type of people we want them to become. It is natural for a small child to want to be like his or her parents, and being the type of person we hope our children can become can be strong motivation. If they see us trying to be Christlike, they will be more likely to try to emulate Him too.

The why and the how we handle situations is so very important. The second key I have observed is that great parents use true principles of teaching and guidance. I think the best summary of these principles is in section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The verses refer to principles of priesthood leadership, but they also apply to parenting. We learn in these verses that “the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.”1 If we “exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, … the heavens withdraw themselves; [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved.”2

Fear, force, manipulation, and unrighteous dominion won’t affect changes we want in our children. These tactics may bring results, but not the results we want because the powers of heaven are not brought into the equation. Control, force, manipulation—these things can produce compliance, but they won’t promote conversion. If there is any real progress with the child, it is in spite of any compulsion, not because of it. Unrighteous dominion doesn’t yield real spiritual growth because that only comes when a person chooses to do what is right, not when he or she is forced or coerced to some behavior. Forcing children to do the right things can actually foster rebellion.

President Boyd K. Packer said: “Leaders invite, persuade, encourage, and recommend in a spirit of gentleness and meekness. Members respond freely as the Spirit guides. Only this kind of response has moral value. An act is moral only if it expresses the character and disposition of the person, that is, if it arises out of knowledge, faith, love, or religious intent. Fear and force have no place in the kingdom because they do not produce moral actions and are contrary to God’s gift of … agency.”3

Great parents I have observed are motivated by love for their children and not by vain ambition or pride or an effort to cover their own sins. They base their interactions on principles of righteousness that are connected with the powers of heaven: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and pure knowledge.4

Using these righteous principles, we can help children see their potential. They will trust us rather than fear us, and we can help them be excited to become what they are destined to become.

These two principles of parenting—taking the long view and using true principles of teaching and guidance—are as applicable to teachers as they are to parents. I would especially like to consider them in light of our efforts to elevate learning with the new requirements for graduation. These requirements are designed to help us accomplish the S&I Objective with our students.

I cringed recently when someone told me that one reaction to the new requirements was “Good. We finally have something with some teeth in it.” We want these requirements to inspire and help students, not bite them. You will play a key role in helping students elevate their learning as they fulfill these requirements.

My biggest fear when I left for my mission was learning another language. I wasn’t so scared of going to another country or getting along with companions or even teaching the gospel. But English had been my worst subject in school, and I didn’t speak another language. I wondered if I could do it.

I had a teacher at the Language Training Mission (what today we would call the MTC) that truly inspired me. He took the long view and helped me see beyond memorizing words and figuring out grammar. He helped me see the importance of learning that language so I could bless other lives. He had high expectations for me and the other missionaries but helped us reach for those expectations through his unfeigned love and persuasion. Because of his encouragement and faith in me, I was driven to learn that language, not driven by him but by my own desire. That desire was fostered by both the Lord and by this teacher, neither of whom used force. This language teacher’s influence on me was one of the main reasons I decided to become a teacher.

My father had a teacher that had a great impact on his life. Though my father passed away several years ago, we recorded him telling about his life. I want to play an excerpt in which he talks about this special teacher. Notice how differently he responded to each of two teachers. Dad attended a small, rural grade school with his older brother, Don.

Brother Johnson: “When I went to first grade, Don and I were up there together, and I thought it was neat going to school with Don. And I exercised my free agency to get up and roam around the room a little, and I thought that was neat—school was.

“Miss Olsen had four grades, and I guess I really ran her patience to the limit. And she says, ‘You take your seat.’ So, obediently I went to the seat, and she popped my head with some force against the lip on that little first grade desk. And I could just feel [my] lip pulsate and swell. And I got a very, very negative attitude in my first day in school. And I thought, ‘If this is what school’s about, if this is what teachers are about, I’m not going to do a thing in school from now on.’ Mother made me go to school, and I did—and I did it with a rebellious attitude.

“And so, for the first three years of school—first, second, and third [grades]—I didn’t learn to read. I didn’t learn to write. I didn’t do anything. I was just kind of a nonparticipant with a bad attitude.

“So, when I got in the fourth grade, Ross Coombs came to Collinston to teach. And he saw that I didn’t read and I didn’t write. I didn’t do anything. And he called my mother in. And he kept me with him and said, ‘Mrs. Johnson, this boy doesn’t do any of the work, and I think we’re going to have to put him back.’ But I watched him closely. (Ross was a very sensitive person.) He says, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him mentally. I have got a special notebook’—and it was written in his handwriting. I can still see it today, and it’s been a good many years ago. And he said, ‘Mrs. Johnson, I want you to read this to him and see how long it takes him to learn the concepts, and then I want him to come back. And I believe he’s got a good mind, and I think that he might be one of the smartest kids I’ve got in the whole four grades here.’

“That’s the first positive feedback I ever heard or I think my mother ever got from the first three years. So, when I went back the next day or two—I don’t know, it was a very short period—I went back, and I couldn’t read, but I had it memorized. And he said, ‘Let me see how you do on this.’ And I gave him page-for-page what he had on that notebook. And he just put me right in his hand, and he said, ‘This is a bright boy, and he’s going to do well in school.’”

My dad did become a good student. He did very well at the university and graduated from dental school. He was always interested in the education of his children. I have wondered many times how things would have been different without a teacher like Ross Coombs coming into my father’s life.

Did you notice how Ross Coombs helped my father see what he could do and that he didn’t use force? He helped my father decide to try and to succeed. It took extra effort on Mr. Coombs’s part. It would have been easier to let my dad languish along, but he reached out and helped. We can do the same with our students. Some may feel inadequate. Some may be rebellious, like my father was. Our best chance to help all our students is by basing our actions on those true gospel principles as we interact with them and teach them.

Sometimes we are tempted to do things that we think will make us look good but aren’t the best for the students. I first started teaching in a one-person seminary. I remember a class that was particularly large, energetic, and rowdy. One day a teacher from another seminary was coming to pick up some materials from me and would arrive at the seminary during this particular class. I was embarrassed to think he would see that things weren’t completely under control during my class, so I told that class that we were going to have a visitor and that we should make this class look like a perfect class. They agreed to play along.

This other teacher came, and the students played their roles with extra energy. They all raised their hands when I asked a question, and their answers were good. One student surprised me when, unprompted, he asked, “Brother Johnson, can I bear my testimony?” I told him that he would have to wait until the end of class like all the other students.

This other teacher got a glimpse of an amazingly focused class, but it wasn’t real. It was a show so I wouldn’t be embarrassed for him to see what the class was really like. My motivation was about me, not about blessing the lives of the students.

By the way, that backfired on me later in the year. I had a surprise visit by Stan Peterson, who was the administrator for S&I at the time. It was after school, and I was talking in my office with some students when Stan walked into the seminary. The students began to leave the building because they could tell that Stan wanted to talk with me, but one student lingered near us. After a minute or two I asked her if she needed anything. She said, “Brother Johnson, can I bear my testimony before I leave?” I turned red, and she smiled as she walked away.

Sometimes we are tempted to shift from gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned to compulsion or manipulation because we don’t see the progress we would like with students. But it is important to remember that compulsion or manipulation doesn’t lead to conversion. For example, one of the requirements for graduation is reading the scripture text for the course. Our approach to helping students do this will have an impact on their reading experience. We want them to read, but we want them to read and ask “with real intent.”5 It isn’t enough that they have read something or learned some factual knowledge in institute or seminary. We strive for the spiritual growth that is so core to our objective.

Karl G. Maeser was a great educator in the late 1800s and a major influence on the Church Educational System. In a description of him, a biographer wrote:

“He was a teacher, but a teacher with a profound impact. He loved his students and had an uncanny ability to inspire them to become more than they could imagine of themselves. …

“… His rules were not rigid, but his expectations were demanding. He did not require compliance to his will, but he provoked in his students the desire to be more than they were.”6

I would like to be a teacher like that. I hope we can all take the long view and help our children and our students become more than they imagine of themselves. I hope we help our children and our students progress by adhering to righteous principles that are connected with the powers of heaven. We need the powers of heaven in this sacred work. It can’t be done without them.

I love you and am grateful for all your efforts and your love for the young people. I know our Heavenly Father lives and that His Son, Jesus Christ, lives. They have a perfect view of us, our children, and our students, and they only use principles of righteousness as they deal with each of us. May we all strive to be more like Them as parents and teachers, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

© 2014 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved. English approval: 1/14. “Teaching with Righteous Principles.” English. PD10051052 000

Show References



    1. Doctrine and Covenants 121:36.


    2. Doctrine and Covenants 121:37.


    3. Boyd K. Packer, quoting General Handbook of Instructions (1963), in “That All May Be Edified”: Talks, Sermons, and Commentary by Boyd K. Packer (1982), 253.


    4. See Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42.


    5. Moroni 10:4.


    6. A. LeGrand Richards, Called to Teach: The Legacy of Karl G. Maeser (2014), xxvi, xxxi.