Guidance of a Human Soul—The Teacher's Greatest Responsibility

by President David O. McKay

The Instructor, September 1965

[341] The most important responsibility that can come to man or woman, not only in the Church, but also in life, is the responsibility of training and teaching children and youth, and in that training to avoid giving any impression that might misdirect or incriminate any one of those boys or girls.

Standing in front of our old home in Huntsville are several stately poplars. One, when a sapling, had [its] bark injured. The scar remains in that stately tree to this day, though over half a century has passed since the scar was made. Such is the effect of early impressions upon childhood. Of what impressible importance is the calling of a teacher who produces impressions which only death can obliterate, and mingles with the "cradle dream that shall be read in eternity!"

"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

"Train" means to form by instruction, discipline, drill—to establish good habits by teaching or discipline. To initiate or instruct. Training in ways selected for him, in the way he should go, and habitually walk therein.

Discipline in the Classroom

I believe that discipline in the classroom, which implies self-control, and which connotes consideration for others, is the most important part of teaching. Note these two elements.

The best lesson a child can learn is self-control, and to feel his relationship to others to the extent that he must have respect for their feelings. Self-denial is so important and self-control such a valuable quality in human nature, that one man has said truly that the worst education that teaches self-denial is better than the best which teaches everything else and not that. Therefore, let us consider the importance of order and discipline in the classroom, with these two great elements in mind.

Education begins with life. Before we are aware, the foundations of character are laid; and subsequent teaching avails but little to remove or alter them. Said Benjamin Franklin:

"Educate your children in self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future lives and crimes from society." Daniel Webster, who gained his education through the self-sacrifice of his father and mother, in the height of his influence in our great country said [the following]:

"Knowledge does not comprise all which is contained in the larger term of education. The feelings are to be disciplined; the passions are to be restrained; true and worthy motives are to be instilled; and pure morality inculcated under all circumstances. All this is comprised in education."

Associated with this thought of self-mastery and self-control is the word self-abnegation—"a rare virtue," says Holmes, "that good men preach, but good women practice."


Three Sources of Disorder

What are the sources of disorder in a classroom? Disorderly conduct should not be permitted in any class in the Church or in any class in public schools.

A disorderly environment, one in which disrespect is shown to the teacher and to fellow pupils, is one that will stifle the most important qualities in character.

What are the sources of this disorder? I name (1) the presence of a hoodlum. What is a hoodlum? He is a spoiled brat. And a brat is an ill-mannered, annoying child. (2) Lack of interest. (3) An unprepared teacher. How shall we eliminate these three sources of disorder?

First, regarding the child who probably comes from a home that has neglected to teach him the importance of self-control: Parents have failed to impress upon him the need of consideration for other members of the family, the first consideration of parental care. There is a phrase that has just come into use which probably we could use, and that is a word they call empathy—not sympathy, but empathy—which means an imaginative projection of one's own consciousness into another being; or better, the ability to appreciate another person's feelings.

It may be wise before condemning this disorderly boy—strangely enough, you very seldom have a defiant girl—to understand what his home life is. You can get acquainted with the conditions. You may have to appeal to the parents later. But before condemning the child too much, just try to put yourself in his place and find out just what is motivating him. Perhaps he has been permitted to develop in the home a selfishness, a desire to be recognized in the home.

I think you will find, if you go into that home, that his parents seek to make him the center of it when visitors come. He is the one who must be noticed, and they have developed in him a desire to be the center of attraction. He is the one to whom visitors must listen. In the home perhaps that child really has been taught not to control himself, but to do everything to make himself the center of attraction.

An Example To Teach the Hoodlum

That might help you, and perhaps aid you in influencing him, not by force, but by giving, in a surprising way some morning, a lesson to show how he should consider others. You might change the lesson and give the story entirely for his benefit. Suppose he is building up the thought that he is going to do as he pleases; that he is not going to serve others nor have any consideration for them. It may be that you can approach him by telling the story of Sidney Carton, one of the characters in Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Sidney Carton was a brilliant lawyer, but he was dissolute; he had little if any concern for others. He cared for himself alone. No, there was one for whom he cared, and that was a sweet woman with whom he had fallen in love years before. He spent his life indulging in his own interests, taking everything he could get for himself, never thinking of the welfare of others. Finally, when he sat in the presence of a 78-year-old man, Sidney realized that he had wasted his life. He said to his old friend: "Yours is a long life to look back upon, sir."

"Yes, I am 78 years," said the old gentleman.

"You have been useful all your life, steadily and constantly occupied, trusted, respected, and looked up to."

"Oh, I have been a man of business ever since I have been a man. Indeed, I may say that I was a man of business when I was a boy."

Sidney said: "See what place you fill at 78. How many people will miss you when you leave it empty!"

"Oh," said Mr. Lorry, "I'm only a solitary old bachelor. There is nobody to weep for me."

"How can you say that?" Wouldn't she weep for you?"—referring to the one girl Sidney had loved. "Wouldn't her child?"

"Yes, yes, thank God. I didn't quite mean what I said."

"Ah, it is a thing to thank God for," said Sidney. And then he pictured himself in these words: "If you could say with truth to your own solitary heart tonight, 'I have secured to myself the love and attachment, the gratitude, or respect of no human creature; I have won myself a tender place in no regard; I have done nothing good or serviceable to be remembered by.' If you could say that, your 78 years would be 78 curses, would they not?"

"You say truly, Mr. Carton. I think they would be."

If you have the attention of that disturbing boy by that time, perhaps you could close by saying: When Sidney Carton offered his own life for the husband of the girl he loved, there was an enlightening halo in his face, which seemed to say, as Charles Dickens puts it: "This is the happiest moment of [343] my life. I am doing something that has made my life worthwhile."

If you fail to reach him that day, you can make an appeal to class loyalty. "Let's make our class the best in the entire stake. Let's have our record the best in the stake so that I may report to our stake president that our class has not disturbing influence."

I think you may be able to appeal to that spoiled boy. You can make him the leader, probably—a leader in class loyalty. If that fails, then you can make an appeal to the parents, and you can say: "If his misconduct continues, we shall have to put him off the roll." That is the extreme action. Any teacher can dismiss a boy; you should exhaust all your other sources before you come to that. But order we must have!—it is necessary for growth, and if one boy refuses, or if two boys refuse to produce that element, then they must leave. Better one boy starve than an entire class be slowly poisoned.

The second cause for disturbance is lack of interest. That can be increased probably by having a social. Invite them to your home. I have noticed through the years when I have met classes of Sunday School children how proud the children are to say, "This is our class—see these two are our teachers." They came together; the children know of the interest of the teachers. You can have them in your home. You can gain their confidence that way.

Third: We can overcome that disorder by the teacher's preparation. I know of nothing so important. Once you have their confidence, then what you say is a guiding influence in their lives. Your life itself, your personal appearance, your presentation of your lesson, emphasizing a definite truth in the lessons prescribed by the general board—all contribute to guiding their lives. I suggest that you make your own outline of the lessons, so that you will have it in mind, so you can emphasize some truth that will be applicable to the boys and girls you teach.

True Teaching Demands Personality

But remember in the presentation of your lessons, yes, and in the preparation for presentation, that no matter how well prepared you may be, those children's interest will depend upon the personality which you place in that lesson. There is no teaching of morality without personality. Note the parables of Jesus. Many of them refer to plants, to the field and the soil, fishermen, and so on; but most of them will introduce personalities. The life of Jesus is the life of a personality. He did not write a line, except with his finger in the sand, and no one knows what He wrote, but His life, which He gave for our salvation, our eternal exaltation, is still living. It is the impressive, the inspiring element throughout the gospels—His life! Introduce personalities. Have an illustrative story. The children will follow you as you give it.

The Greater Power Which Every Teacher Needs

With these three things in mind, I believe that we can eliminate from our classes the disorder that is causing you so much worry and concern.

But there is one more thing most important, and that is that you cannot do these things of your own skill, of your own ability, no matter how much training you have had, nor how much study you put into your lesson. There is a greater power which every teacher needs, which he must have, and that power comes from above. I know from experience of the efficacy of prayer. As a child I thought I would have to kneel always before I could say a prayer, and there is virtue in kneeling. You cannot imagine offering a prayer if you take the position of a pugilist; position of the body has something to do with prayer. We kneel. One man said: "If you are going to pray, go into the room and kneel in the center, and just think for a minute or two of what God has done for you and what your needs are, without saying anything." I think this is a good idea.

There is never a moment in life when you cannot pray. If you are studying as a student, you can offer a silent prayer, for "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed."

Every Sunday School teacher—I think every teacher in the world—should offer a prayer before he meets his students. The teacher, sensing his responsibility, should realize his dependence upon a greater power.

Teachers have the greatest responsibility of anyone in the world—the guidance of a human soul! As I stated in the beginning, a scar might remain throughout life, but so will the virtues remain throughout life and all eternity.

McKay, David O. "Guidance of a Human Soul—The Teacher's Greatest Responsibility." The Instructor (Sept 1965): 341–343.