Only a Teacher
January 1990

“Only a Teacher,” Ensign, Jan. 1990, 2

First Presidency Message

Only a Teacher

Often we hear the expression, “Times have changed.” And perhaps they have. Our generation has witnessed enormous strides in the fields of medicine, transportation, communication, and exploration, to name but a few. But there are those isolated islands of constancy amid the vast sea of change. For instance, boys are still boys. And they continue to make the same boyish boasts.

Some time ago I overheard what I am confident is an oft-repeated conversation. Three very young boys were discussing the relative virtues of their fathers. One spoke out: “My dad is bigger than your dad,” to which another replied, “Well, my dad is smarter than your dad.” The third boy countered, “My dad is a doctor”; then, turning to one boy, he taunted in derision, “and your dad is only a teacher.”

The call of a mother terminated the conversation, but the words continued to echo in my ears. Only a teacher. Only a teacher. Only a teacher. One day, each of those small boys will come to appreciate the true worth of inspired teachers and will acknowledge with sincere gratitude the indelible imprint such teachers will leave on their personal lives.

“A teacher,” as Henry Brooks Adams observed, “affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This truth pertains to each of our teachers: first, the teacher in the home; second, the teacher in the school; third, the teacher in the Church.

Perhaps the teacher you and I remember best is the one who influenced us most. She may not have used a chalkboard nor possessed a college degree, but her lessons were everlasting and her concern genuine. Yes, I speak of Mother. And in the same breath, I also include Father. In reality, every parent is a teacher.

President David O. McKay reminded us that “the proper training of childhood is man’s most sacred obligation,” for a child comes from the Father pure and sweet, “‘a creature undefiled by the taint of the world, unvexed by its injustice, unwearied by its hollow pleasures, a being fresh from the source of light, with something of its universal luster in it. If childhood be this, how holy the duty to see that in its onward growth it shall be no other.’” (Improvement Era, May 1930, p. 480.)

Such a thought may have prompted the poet to pen the words:

I took a piece of plastic clay

and idly fashioned it one day—

and as my fingers pressed it, still

It moved and yielded to my will.

I came again when days were past;

The bit of clay was hard at last.

The form I gave it, still it bore,

And I could change that form no more!

I took a piece of living clay,

And gently fashioned it day by day,

And moulded with my power and art

A young child’s soft and yielding heart.

I came again when years were gone:

It was a man I looked upon.

He still that early impress bore,

And I could fashion it never more.

—Author Unknown

Prime time for teaching is fleeting. Opportunities are perishable. The parent who procrastinates the pursuit of his responsibility as a teacher may, in years to come, gain bitter insight to Whittier’s expression, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” (John Greenleaf Whittier, “Maud Muller.”)

Dr. Glenn Doman, a prominent author and renowned scientist, reported a lifetime of research in the statement: “A newborn child is almost the exact duplicate of an empty electronic computer, although superior to one in almost every way. What is placed in the child’s brain during the first eight years of its life is probably there to stay. If you put misinformation into his brain during this period, it is extremely difficult to erase it. The most receptive age in human life is that of two or three years.” (“How To Teach Your Baby to Read,” Life, Nov. 27, 1964.)

Children display uncanny understanding. I remember hearing an account of a little boy who came up to his father. Dad had just come home from work and he was tired. Little Johnny approached Dad and said, “Daddy, tell me a story,” as he tugged his dad’s pant leg.

But you know and I know what we sometimes tell little Johnny. Dad said, “Johnny, you run on for a little while, and after I have read the sports page you come back and then I’ll tell you a story.”

You don’t get rid of little Johnny that way. He tugged again. “Daddy, tell me a story now.”

Dad looked down at Johnny and wondered what in the world he could do to shake him just for a few minutes. Then he looked on the end table and there was a magazine, and he had an idea. On the front cover of the magazine was a picture of the world. He tore the cover off that magazine and shredded it in about sixteen pieces. He handed it to little Johnny and said, “Johnny, let’s play a game. You take these pieces and go in the other room and get the tape and you put this world together, and when you have put it together properly, then I will tell you a story.”

Johnny accepted the challenge, and off he ran, and Dad settled back very pleased with himself. He knew that he could now read the sports page. But only a moment had passed, and here was Johnny again tugging at his pant leg.

“Daddy,” said Johnny, “I have put it together.”

Dad looked down and saw those sixteen pieces, each one in its proper place. He felt that he had a genius in the household. He turned to his little boy, and said, “John, my boy, how in the world did you do it?”

Johnny sort of ducked his head and replied, “Well, it wasn’t too hard, Dad. Turn the picture of the world over.”

And as Dad turned the magazine cover over, Johnny said, “You see, on the back of the cover is the picture of a home. I just put the home together, and the world took care of itself.”

When we put our homes together, the world will largely take care of itself. Fathers, we may be the head of the home. Mothers, you are the heart of the home, and the heart of the home is where the pulse of the home is. I would trust with all my heart that you recognize your significant position in the home.

Ann Landers, the popular American columnist and human relations adviser, receives many letters from persons asking advice. Perhaps few illustrate so vividly the tragedy of parents who fail to appreciate their position as the following letter she received:

“Dear Ann Landers: A year ago our two-year-old son, Earl, had difficulty breathing, so we took him to a doctor. We learned Earl is allergic to cigarette smoke. My husband said we both had to quit smoking right then and there. He hasn’t touched a cigarette since. I went back to smoking that same night.

“My husband doesn’t know I smoke. I have to sneak around and smoke in the basement. And it is making a nervous wreck of me. Do you think it would be wrong if we let a nice couple adopt little Earl—a nice couple, who don’t smoke?

“The only problem is that my husband is crazy about the boy. I love him, too, but I am the more practical type. What do you think, Ann?”

“Dear Mrs. ___________: I think a lot of people who read this letter are going to say I made it up. It’s utterly fantastic that a mother would put cigarettes ahead of her own child. Don’t present your wild idea to your husband. I wouldn’t blame him if he decided to keep little Earl and unload you.

Mothers and fathers, do you realize that we are making the mold into which the lives of our youngsters will be cast? To teach our children, we must be close to our children, and the place to get close to our children is in the home. We have a responsibility to set before them the proper example.

I think that I have never read a more scathing denunciation by the Lord than that found in the Book of Jacob in the Book of Mormon, wherein the Lord said: “Behold, ye have … broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them.” (Jacob 2:35.) If our Lord would give unto us such a denunciation for setting a poor example, isn’t it logical to assume that he would give us his approbation if we set before our children a proper example? And then we can look back, as did John, when he declared: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” (3 John 1:4.)

If any parent needs added inspiration to commence his God-given teaching task, let him remember that the most powerful combination of emotions in the world is not called out by any grand cosmic events nor found in novels or history books—but merely by a parent gazing down upon a sleeping child. That glorious biblical passage, “created in the image of God,” will acquire new and vibrant meaning as a parent repeats this experience. Home will become a haven called heaven, and loving parents will teach their children “to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.) Never will such an inspired parent fit the description, “Only a teacher.”

Let us consider next the teacher in the school. Inevitably, there dawns that tearful morning when home yields to the classroom part of its teaching time. Johnny and Nancy join the happy throng which each day wends its way from the portals of home to the classrooms of school. There a new world is discovered. Our children meet their teacher.

The teacher not only shapes the expectations and ambitions of her pupils, but she also influences their attitudes toward their future and themselves. If she is unskilled, she leaves scars on the lives of youth, cuts deeply into their self-esteem, and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if she loves her students and has high expectations of them, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop, and their future will be assured.

In the present turmoil of events, with crisis following crisis, it is especially important that master teachers look ahead and exercise their important functions as builders of the future. In two fleeting decades, those who are now kindergarten children will be young men and young women who are either assets to society or liabilities. The influence of teachers in fashioning personality and in shaping careers can hardly be overestimated. It makes no difference whether or not she or he is teaching literature or mathematics or science or any other subject of the curriculum. The teacher must win from students the faith that moves mountains. When the teacher succeeds, near-miracles happen. Suddenly a pupil is awakened to an enthusiastic interest in some aspect of learning and begins to read widely without being urged. Another discovers in himself powers that he did not know he had. Another decides to seek better companions. In a flash of inspiration, still another makes a decision that leads to a lifetime career.

The impelling force, the dynamo, in that room is very often a quiet, gracious personality with love in her heart for her young charges, a love never directly referred to, but there always. A citation to such a teacher could well read, “She created in her room an atmosphere where warmth and acceptance weave their magic spell; where growth and learning, the soaring of the imagination, and the spirit of the young are assured.”

Unfortunately, there are exceptions to such teachers. There are those who delight to destroy faith rather than build bridges to the good life.

In the words of President J. Reuben Clark: “He wounds, maims, and cripples a soul who raises doubts about or destroys faith in the ultimate truths. God will hold such an one strictly accountable; and who can measure the depths to which one shall fall who fitfully shatters in another the opportunity for celestial glory?”

Since we cannot control the classroom, we can at least prepare the pupil. You ask “How?” I answer: “Provide a guide to the glory of the celestial kingdom of God, even a barometer to distinguish between the truth of God and the theories of men.”

Several years ago I held in my hand such a guide. It was a volume of scripture we commonly call the Triple Combination, containing the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. The book was a gift from a loving father to a beautiful, blossoming daughter who followed carefully his advice. On the flyleaf page her father had written these inspired words:

“April 9, 1944

“To My Dear Maurine:

“That you may have a constant measure by which to judge between truth and the errors of man’s philosophies, and thus grow in spirituality as you increase in knowledge, I give you this sacred book to read frequently and cherish throughout your life.

“Lovingly your father,

“Harold B. Lee”

I ask the question: “Only a teacher?”

Finally, let us turn to the teacher we usually meet on Sunday—the teacher in the Church. In such a setting, the history of the past, the hope of the present, and the promise of the future all meet. Here especially, the teacher learns it is easy to be a Pharisee, difficult to be a disciple. The teacher is judged by his students—not alone by what and how he teaches, but also by how he lives.

The Apostle Paul counseled the Romans: “Thou … which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?

“Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?” (Rom. 2:21–22.)

Paul, that inspired and dynamic teacher, provides us a good example. Perhaps his success secret is revealed through his experience in the dreary dungeon which held him prisoner. Paul knew the tramp, tramp of the soldier’s feet and the clank, clank of the chains which bound him captive. When the prison warden, who seemed to be favorably inclined toward Paul, asked him whether he needed advice as to how to conduct himself before the emperor, Paul said he had an adviser—the Holy Spirit.

This same Spirit guided Paul as he stood in the midst at Mars Hill, read the inscription “to the unknown God,” and declared, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

“God that made the world and all things therein … dwelleth not in temples made with hands; …

“He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; …

“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; … For we are also his offspring.” (Acts 17:23–25, 28.)

Again the question, “Only a teacher?”

In the home, the school, or the house of God, there is one teacher whose life overshadows all others. He taught of life and death, of duty and destiny. He lived not to be served, but to serve; not to receive, but to give; not to save his life, but to sacrifice it for others. He described a love more beautiful than lust, a poverty richer than treasure. It was said of this teacher that he taught with authority and not as did the scribes. I speak of the Master Teacher, even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind.

When dedicated teachers respond to his gentle invitation, “Come learn of me,” they learn, but they also become partakers of his divine power.

It was my experience as a small boy to come under the influence of such a teacher. In our Sunday School class, she taught us concerning the creation of the world, the fall of Adam, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. She brought to her classroom as honored guests Moses, Joshua, Peter, Thomas, Paul, and even Christ. Though we did not see them, we learned to love, honor, and emulate them.

Never was her teaching so dynamic nor its impact more everlasting as one Sunday morning when she announced sadly to us the passing of a classmate’s mother. We had missed Billy that morning but knew not the reason for his absence. The lesson featured the theme, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Midway through the lesson, our teacher closed the manual and opened our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the glory of God. She asked, “How much money do we have in our class party fund?”

Depression days prompted a proud answer: “Four dollars and seventy-five cents.”

Then, ever so gently, she suggested: “Billy’s family is hard-pressed and grief-stricken. What would you think of the possibility of visiting the family members this morning and giving to them your fund?”

Ever shall I remember the tiny band walking those three city blocks, entering Billy’s home, greeting him, his brother, sisters, and father. Noticeably absent was his mother. Always I shall treasure the tears which glistened in the eyes of all as the white envelope containing our precious party fund passed from the delicate hand of our teacher to the needy hand of a grief-stricken father. We fairly skipped our way back to the chapel. Our hearts were lighter than they had ever been, our joy more full, our understanding more profound. A God-inspired teacher had taught her boys and girls an eternal lesson of divine truth: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

Well could we have echoed the words of the disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Did not our heart burn within us, … while [she] opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32.)

I return to the dialogue mentioned earlier. When the boy heard the taunts: “My dad is bigger than yours,” “My dad is smarter than yours,” “My dad is a doctor,” well could he have replied: “Your dad may be bigger than mine; your dad may be smarter than mine; your dad may be a pilot, an engineer, or a doctor; but my dad, my dad is a teacher.

May each of us ever merit such a sincere and worthy compliment!

Ideas for Home Teachers

Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussions:

  1. A teacher affects eternity: he can never tell where his influence stops. This applies especially to parents, school teachers, and Church instructors.

  2. Parents who procrastinate their teaching responsibility may deeply regret their inaction.

  3. Home can be a haven called heaven where loving parents teach children to “pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.” (D&C 68:28.)

  4. A teacher shapes expectations and ambitions of others, influences their attitudes toward their future and themselves, and helps fashion personality. When teachers succeed, near-miracles happen.

  5. Teachers are judged not alone by what and how they teach, but also by how they live.

  6. There is one teacher whose influence overshadows that of all others. When we respond to His call to “Come, learn of me,” we become partakers of His divine power.

Discussion Helps

  1. Relate your feelings about the role of being a teacher. Ask family members to share their feelings.

  2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?

  3. Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the bishop or quorum leader?

Photography by Craig Dimond; photo styling by Shauna Horne