“Meeting My Students … on Their Own Ground,” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 62
My first calling to teach children in the Church was to teach the four-year-olds in a small Iowa ward. It has been years since then—back when Primary was held on a week-day after school and we sometimes left Primary in the dark. But I still remember the first time I faced those eight bright faces seated in a circle in our classroom. I was excited—and apprehensive—and I asked each one to tell me something special about himself so we could get acquainted. This proved to be quite revealing until we came to the last child, a pretty little blonde girl. When I asked her to share something about herself, her face did not change expression. It was as though I had not spoken.
Almost in unison some of the others said, “Christine doesn’t talk.” They were right—she didn’t. I noticed later that when we spent the last five minutes doing finger plays, she enjoyed it and wanted to participate but couldn’t quite bring herself to do it. As I watched her walk from the room after class, I knew that somehow I had to reach her and help her feel comfortable in class.
And so I got to know her family. I learned that Christine was the youngest of seven children in a stalwart family. Her mother told me that at home she was a happy, vivacious little girl, but in public she withdrew almost completely. I prayed for guidance to learn how to reach her.
A few weeks later I needed a ride home from church, and Christine’s mother offered me a lift. Christine sat by me in their big van, and as the seats filled I asked her to sit on my lap. She did. I held her and loved her, and gradually she began to talk—the first words I had heard from her. Secure with her family there in the dark, she began to laugh and chatter like the others. I felt I had finally broken through, but when they stopped at my apartment and the light in the van came on, the little girl I said good-bye to was the quiet, unresponsive child of before. I was crushed! I wanted so much for her to know that I cared for her and that she could feel safe with me.
Early in the year the Primary presidency had challenged the teachers to spend thirty minutes in the home of each child in their class. This was to be scheduled ahead of time, with the child knowing that he could choose what he and the teacher would do during that time. Gradually it dawned on me how significant that experience might be, and it remains one of the most vivid and rewarding experiences of my life.
The moments in the van had made a difference with Christine. She had since then been more responsive—in fact, she usually had a twinkle in her eye whenever I looked at her, as though we shared a secret. When I went to her home for our visit, the family had reserved the living room for the two of us; Christine had collected some of her treasures and was waiting to share them with me. As we talked and laughed together, I knew that we had at last established a bond of friendship. She became a delightful addition to our class and to my life. I will never forget her.
These home visits resulted in deeper feelings with the other children as well. I loved them all and they knew it. In the case of my most difficult discipline problem in class, the visits brought an unexpected benefit. Although the boy was a definite challenge, I really liked him, and our contacts outside of class were great. His mother later told me that when he was preparing for my visit he told his family, “My teacher’s coming tomorrow, and she’s not coming to see you or you or you—she’s coming to see ME! I’m going to show her the water tower and the dirty ditch.”
He did just that. In the rain we ran all the way up to the tower and then raced down to the dirty ditch; there he told me all the things he pretended to be when he was exploring. That visit made a great difference. I absolutely loved that tough little guy, and I knew that he knew it. His classroom behavior improved dramatically as he learned over and over that he was special to me.
A year or so ago I was called to teach the Merrie Miss A Primary class, and I decided to make similar individual visits to the six girls I would be teaching. I had never worked with girls this age, and I had a lot to learn. The week before our first class together, I scheduled visits to each of the girls, doing whatever they chose to do.
It was pure delight—I did a bit of everything! I waded through a culvert under a city park, inched across a pipe spanning a ravine, rode a 10-speed bike through sprinklers, played chess and badminton, and climbed monkey bars.
The highlight occurred when one of “my girls” and I approached the playground on our bikes. One of her school friends saw us and said, “Hey Denise—who’s that?” Denise hesitated, not knowing exactly how to explain me and then said, “Oh, she’s my big friend!” As she and I sat in the dirt and talked that day, I knew that a real friendship had indeed begun. It was well worth the cost of babysitters and the time involved to accomplish those visits, because the result was that right from the beginning they knew I did not view them as simply a class—but rather as six special girls, six young friends.
There is much we can do in class, but more can be accomplished in a brief one-to-one encounter outside the classroom than we would ever imagine.