It’s wonderful to be together. We hope you and your families are safe and well. Throughout this year, we have commemorated the 200th anniversary of the First Vision. I am grateful for Joseph Smith and for his example of faith and desire to know the truth, and I am thankful that our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, loved us enough to answer Joseph’s humble prayer. We have felt the power of the words as we have heard “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!”1 I would simply add, praise to Jehovah for again communing with man. I am so grateful for the reality of what Joseph experienced in the Sacred Grove.
Following his vision, Joseph returned home, where he met his mother and told her, “All is well. … I have learned for myself.”2 The pattern Joseph pursued in his search for truth is the same pattern our students must follow. And just as Joseph’s experience helped him learn for himself, our hope is that all our students will learn for themselves that Heavenly Father knows and loves them, that Jesus is the Christ, and that He stands at the head of His Church in these last days.
Since the beginnings of Seminaries of Institutes, much has been said about teaching and learning. From the Charted Course to the current Fundamentals of Teaching and Learning, the inspired guidance we have received has helped us effectively teach the restored gospel as found in the scriptures and the teachings of prophets by the power of the Holy Ghost. We should never stray from these foundations. But we should also not be fearful of learning new things or adding to our understanding of how to best assist our students to learn for themselves.
I’m grateful for the progress we are making. In some ways I feel like we have been climbing a mountain together. We could not have made it this far without the experience and revelation of the past, but we should never become complacent and stop reaching upward. The phrase that comes to mind is what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in the most recent general conference: “[We] did not come this far only to come this far” [Judith Mahlangu (multistake conference near Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 10, 2019), in Sydney Walker, “Elder Holland Visits Southeast Africa during ‘Remarkable Time of Growth,’” Church News, Nov. 27, 2019, thechurchnews.com].3 We are halfway up the mountain, and the Lord is ready to give us even more.
To this end, Elder Kim B. Clark invited us to consider not just what and how we teach but also how we might focus more on the learner and on the process and outcomes of learning. He invited us to ask ourselves, “What experiences do my students need in order to increase their power and capacity to learn deeply?” Combining our remarkable history with recent direction we might ask, “What might we do to be even more Christ-centered and learner-focused?”
Elder David A. Bednar gave us a remarkable example of what it looks like to be learner-focused in our most recent Evening with a General Authority. It was obvious that his intent was not to tell us something but for us to learn something. He asked questions, observed, and listened to be sure that we understood. He also taught us how he approaches teaching when he said, “Instead of thinking, ‘What am I going to tell them?’ the focus should be, ‘What would I ask them?’ And not only ‘What would I ask them?’ but also ‘What would I invite them to do?’”4
Renowned Professor and Rabbi Jacob Neusener once said, “Great teachers don’t teach. They help students learn.” Certainly, there is a symbiotic relationship between effective teaching and learning. But I think Dr. Neusener’s statement suggests we should expand what we think of as effective teaching and focus more not on telling but on helping our students have experiences that invite learning. For us, this means helping our students experience the Holy Ghost witnessing of truth and of God’s love for them. It means we create an environment where they feel safe to ask questions, discover truth, make doctrinal connections, hear testimonies from their peers, and evaluate and verbalize their own thoughts, feelings, and impressions of the truths they are learning. It means we create experiences that inspire them to live the gospel and know how to act in faith, learn from their mistakes, and try again with hope in Christ. This is how they will learn for themselves.
To more fully understand the experiences our students need while they are with us, we decided the best thing we could do was ask them. A research team talked with thousands of young people on four continents. They met with both those who are attending classes as well as many who are not currently enrolled. As we have worked to summarize an incredible amount of data, we have grouped responses into three categories.
The first category we have labeled “Conversion.” The youth and young adults told us that they want and need experiences that help them feel God’s love and strengthen their relationship with Him. They want to deepen their faith and testimony in Jesus Christ and His restored gospel. Of course, that is exactly what we want for them.
The good news is that the research shows that our classes are helping this to occur. Those who consistently attend and engage in learning opportunities significantly strengthen their testimonies and increase their faith in Jesus Christ. This is one of the many reasons we want to invite more young people to participate. As they learn with you, their faith and testimony grow.
Thank you for all you are doing to help them deepen their conversion. We have made a lot of progress as we have immersed ourselves in principles of teaching that help our students learn deeply. And I believe there is still more the Lord is willing to teach us as we ask for His guidance. As you ponder the possibilities, will you prayerfully consider the experiences that students need to increase their power and capacity to understand Heavenly Father’s plan and the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ? Consider how you might help them seek for, recognize, and act on the influence of the Holy Ghost and then act in faith, repent, and make and keep sacred covenants. Ultimately, our hope is that the experiences they have will help them to know and love Jesus Christ and strive to become like Him.
The second category that comes from listening to those who participated in the research we have labeled “Relevance to Personal Spiritual Growth.” Those who were surveyed expressed that classes feel relevant when teachers recognize and value a variety of student circumstances and backgrounds and adapt the learning experience to meet individual needs. They expressed a need for a place where they can ask sincere questions about doctrine, Church history, and social issues that are important to them. They’re not looking to argue about these things. They have honest questions and need a safe, faith-filled, open environment to explore them. They need teachers to respond to their questions not only with faith but also with candor and compassion. They also want to learn how to learn and to become more spiritually self-reliant. They want to develop skills that help them analyze concepts and frame them in an eternal context. They want help to feel more confident in their ability to explain gospel principles and Church policies to others. And they want to develop skills to utilize gospel principles to help with everyday challenges.
What students told us they want and need aligns with the direction we received last year from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. He reminded us that “a student is not a container to be filled; a student is a fire to be ignited.”5
Our role as teachers is to help students cultivate a desire to learn; receive personal revelation; and discover, understand, and live the truth they have acquired for themselves. It is not simply to dispense the knowledge we have acquired from our own study or experience. And we must remember that what seems relevant to us may not be as meaningful to our students, who are in a different stage of life. So we really need to listen to them, be observant, and pray for discernment.
Unfortunately, many youth and young adults, especially those who are not attending, feel that our classes are not sufficiently relevant. They believe we are more concerned with covering our prepared material than we are in meeting their actual needs. They said that our lessons too often focus on the ideal and don’t sufficiently acknowledge the realities of their lives or address their questions.
For example, imagine an institute teacher discussing the doctrine of celestial marriage, feeling that the topic is very relevant to young single adults. The students in the class already believe in the importance of temple marriage, but some are uncertain about how to apply this doctrine in their lives. Some are afraid because they have come from broken homes and are not sure they can make marriage work. Others in the class might be wondering if they can financially afford to marry and raise a family. Others may question if they will ever have that opportunity. Others wrestle with same-gender attraction and wonder about their place in the Church. The lesson goes as planned but does not allow for meaningful student participation. The teacher feels that because of the topic, she has connected with the students in relevant ways. But the truth is, although the doctrine was taught, it was not done in a way that acknowledged the students’ uncertainties, addressed their needs, or connected with the realities of their lives. An opportunity was missed to help them see the importance of the doctrine in their specific circumstances.
A teacher who is thoughtful about the spiritual progress of her students is willing to meet them where they are. She gives them hope and helps them see how living the gospel can bless them and help them progress toward their ultimate goals. She helps them develop confidence that the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets really do provide the answers to the questions of their souls.
To help our students recognize the importance and relevance of the gospel in their lives, will you prayerfully consider how to encourage your students to ask sincere questions and share their insights and perspectives? They need to trust that you know and understand them and that you are willing to adapt to meet their needs. Provide experiences that inspire them to study the scriptures daily and to turn to the scriptures and the teachings of modern prophets for guidance. Help them learn the skills and patterns to acquire spiritual knowledge so they can learn for themselves.
The third category that we came to understand from listening to our students and especially to those who are not attending suggests that they want and need us to create a sense of belonging. Belonging is created through relationships and connections with our Heavenly Father, with the teacher, and with other students in the class. A sense of belonging comes when there is an environment where everyone feels welcomed, supported, needed, and valued. A sense of belonging also increases when students feel they are part of a meaningful cause.
Again I want to thank you. I appreciate so much your response to the “See the One” training and for your individual efforts to help every student feel loved and respected. We need to continue these efforts because a large portion of those who are not currently enrolled still feel they don’t belong. Many of them reported that seminary and institute classes are only for what they see as perfect Latter-day Saints who have never had problems or questions. This false perception causes them to believe they don’t fit in. Some even feel that if they ask a sincere question or share a heartfelt perspective, they will be judged or thought of as less than faithful. They also said they would be more likely to attend if it were a place where everyone was welcome regardless of inward faith or outward appearance.
Recently, Brother Linford saw a young woman standing in front of one of our buildings. He introduced himself and asked if she was enrolled in a class. Her answer was that she was a member of the Church and knew about institute but was not attending. She added, “If you knew me and knew my past, you would know I don’t belong there. I wouldn’t fit in.” Fortunately, this young woman accepted Brother Linford’s invitation to come inside, where she was greeted warmly. She enrolled in a class and immediately started attending. But I’ve wondered how many hundreds, even thousands, of young people have stood outside our buildings, needing exactly what our classes offer but feeling afraid they won’t fit in.
Not only do they need what we have to offer, but we also need them. Teachers who create a sense of belonging genuinely recognize that each student has a contribution to make that will make the class a better experience.
I saw a wonderful example of this when I met a young man in Brother Andre’s class. Michael had come home early from his mission for health reasons. While preparing to return, he was hit by a car, suffered multiple broken bones, and was in the hospital for an extended time. By the time he left the hospital, he had given up on his dream to complete his mission. He threw himself into extreme sports and drifted from the Church. One day, he was alone and decided to free-solo a long slackline across a canyon with no safety net. Once he had crossed, he felt to shout and celebrate, but then he looked down and realized that if he had fallen, it would have ended his life.
At that point, he started thinking about his mother and younger sister and how heartbroken they would be if he had died. His next thought was of the Savior and all He had done for him, and the Spirit filled his heart. He climbed off the cliff and began his journey back into the Church. He came to understand, in remarkable ways, the Savior’s mercy, love, and power to redeem us.
Sometime later, Michael was at the beach and remembered having attended institute before his mission. He went straight from the beach and walked into the institute building minutes before a class was to begin. In that moment, Brother Andre did not know most of what I have just shared with you. What he did know was that Michael needed to be there and that he had a lot to offer. Brother Andre invited Michael to stay, but Michael felt that people would probably not welcome him. He was in a swimsuit and tank top with his arms exposed, showing that his wrists to the tops of his shoulders were covered with tattoos. He said he preferred getting dressed and wearing a long-sleeve shirt before coming to class. Brother Andre’s response was, “No one will even notice.” Michael stayed. But as the other students came in, no one sat by him. After the devotional, Brother Andre asked Michael to come to the front of the class, where he introduced him. He told the other students that he loved Michael, that Michael had a lot to offer, that he had a good heart. He then asked Michael if he would share his testimony. With tears in his eyes, Michael spoke of the love of God, of His kindness and compassion and willingness to forgive. Every one of us who was there that day was blessed by Michael’s testimony.
Brother Andre saw something in Michael that others may not have seen. As a teacher, he values a variety of backgrounds and circumstances and understands that everyone has something to offer. So he creates experiences that allow his students to draw strength from one another and from their shared desire to access the Savior’s peace, healing, and grace. Another highlight came after the class as I watched several students surround Michael to welcome him and to make sure he knew he was needed.
As I mentioned before, another part of creating a sense of belonging is to be engaged in a meaningful cause. Our students have a desire to participate in humanitarian causes and to lift others to lives of dignity, equality, and opportunity. Generally, they do not connect what they are learning or the opportunities they are given to such a cause. And while the greatest cause on earth is the cause of Christ and gathering Israel on both sides of the veil, most do not connect their experiences in seminary and institute to that cause.
Will you consider the changes you could make in your teaching, your interactions, and your classroom settings to be more inviting to all of Heavenly Father’s children? Occasionally, you may even want to wear a blue shirt. But, more importantly, will you prayerfully seek to provide experiences that help students feel Heavenly Father’s love and recognize their divine identity and potential? Help them know you care about them and recognize their individual worth. Help them make connections with members of the class and feel safe and needed. Encourage them to engage in the cause of Christ by helping others progress along the covenant path. As you foster those types of experiences, they will know they belong.
I understand we can’t do all these things every day. But we can be mindful of them in our preparation, our teaching, and our interactions with our students. It doesn’t matter if you are teaching seminary or institute, face to face or online, early morning or late in the evening; incorporating these principles will bless your students and help to provide the experiences they need.
So much good is already happening, and the best is yet to come. Remember, we have not come this far only to come this far. I know that as we sincerely seek for revelation, the Lord will help us know how to bless His children. Individually and collectively, He is ready to help us provide experiences that deepen conversion, are relevant to personal spiritual growth, and create a sense of belonging. He is ready to give us more. May we continue to turn to Him in faith to know how to help our students to truly learn for themselves is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.