Four Attributes of an Influential Teacher

Contributed By Maria Covey Cole and Stephen M. R. Covey, Church News contributors

  • 20 November 2015

Article Highlights

  • 1. He was a student before a teacher.
  • 2. He was passionate about his subject.
  • 3. He was a powerful storyteller.
  • 4. He asked poignant questions.

Truman Madsen (1926–2009) was a magnificent teacher in every sense of the word. He truly loved to share the gospel with all those around him and help them apply it to their lives. In the classroom, as well as in a family setting, he stood out as a teacher because of the following four attributes:

1. He was a student before he was a teacher. Brother Madsen was a student all of his life, always allowing himself to learn from and be influenced by those around him. He developed a deep knowledge of his topic through his own personal efforts to seek truth wherever he could find it: from the scriptures, from conversations with others, from asking the right questions, and, most important, directly from the Lord.

He prepared himself to teach, and he had a comprehensive understanding of the material he presented. Brother Madsen memorized and recited long quotes from the prophets and other leaders in order to provide context and inspiration for his students. He truly loved learning and was committed to getting answers to his questions through study and prayer. And he inspired his students to do the same.

Truman G. Madsen

2. He was passionate about his subject. Brother Madsen’s passion was to teach about the Restoration of the Church and the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Once our brother David said to him, “Did you know that Joseph Smith had seven brothers?” Brother Madsen countered: “I’ve studied Joseph Smith my entire life, and he only had six brothers!” David responded, “No, there was Alvin, Hyrum, Samuel, Ephraim, William, Don Carlos, … and Truman!” Brother Madsen was absolutely thrilled to be included in this group of brothers because no one loved and admired the Prophet Joseph more than he did. Anyone who read his teachings or heard him speak came away not attesting what a magnificent teacher Truman Madsen was, but declaring that Joseph truly was a prophet of God. The true mark of a gospel-centered teacher is not to create disciples of one’s own, but to lead one’s students to the Lord and His prophets.

3. He was a powerful storyteller. A principle is only as good as its application. On one occasion, our family was in Israel at the BYU Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Truman wanted us to understand more about Jesus Christ and the Atonement and what it meant for us in our daily lives.

He took us outside to see the olive press that was there in the garden and pointed out its symbolism. He picked one of the olives from the olive tree and had our brother Sean taste it. It was bitter and repulsive, and Sean quickly spat it out. Then Brother Madsen asked a penetrating question: “How can you take something so bitter as this olive and make it into something so sweet as olive oil?”

He then shared the experience of being in this same spot with one of the Brethren when he was visiting Israel. Brother Madsen asked him, “How can you take something so bitter and turn it into something so sweet?” With tears running down his face as he contemplated the question, this brother answered, “Pressure.” Brother Madsen continued to illustrate: “Isn’t it interesting that in Gethsemane, which literally means ‘place of the olive press,’ the Savior took on the pressure of all the world and of all its sins? Because of that Atonement, He can take a heart that is bitter and turn it into something sweet. He can transform a person who is broken into someone whole.”

We have never forgotten the principle that even the most bitter and tasteless of us can be redeemed by our Savior, Jesus Christ, and transformed into something beautiful.

4. He asked poignant questions. Again, when in Israel as a family, we were at the Mount of Transfiguration. Truman posed this question: “Why did the Lord have His servants go to the mountains for spiritual experiences?” After wrestling with this question and conversing amongst ourselves, we finally concluded that God had three purposes for sending His servants to the mountains: 1. The higher you go, the closer you get to the heavens. 2. The higher you go, the thinner the air, and perhaps also the veil. 3. The highest mountains were the least inhabited and most accessible. They were pure and undefiled and had not yet been corrupted by the world. We could have guessed the first insight, but Truman’s question sparked the answers to the next two.

Brother Madsen taught as the Savior did: with stories, with questions, with passion, and with power. He learned early on that when a person teaches true doctrine with conviction and testimony, the Spirit of the Lord bears witness to the truth of his words. We will forever be grateful for the example of Truman Madsen as a master teacher.

Truman G. Madsen influenced a generation of students at BYU as well as members throughout the Church as he taught and lectured on gospel topics. Photo courtesy of Deseret News Archive.