Teaching: An Extension of Your Personality


As I look back over the years and try to recall the teachers I have known and the subject matter they taught, I find that in many instances both subject matter and teacher have faded from memory, or, if remembered, they find no place in the part of memory that becomes a guide to current thinking and action.

But some of my teachers stand out in my memory as having greatly influenced both the years that are past and my present sense of values. In analyzing why that is so, I came to a realization of a great truth: Teaching is but the extension of the personality and faith of the teacher to the student. Hence, the teacher becomes more important than the facts taught. He becomes irreplaceable.

Today there are methods of self-study where the student, when tested rather immediately on his memory of facts and figures, seems to have achieved more than have those who sit at the feet of the teacher. However, memorization for immediate recall or for exercises—memorization that is not quickly translated into day-to-day life—often has little effect upon character; and tested in the crucible of time, it is all too often found wanting. An analysis of my relationship with some of the great teachers I remember illustrates this point.

The first teacher to deeply affect my life was a Norwegian convert to the Church. In his middle years, he appeared old to us deacons in the Aaronic Priesthood class. His formal education was meager, and he spoke in broken English.

I do not recall any of the facts he presented to us, the text he used, or any specific passages of scriptures he read to us or commented on, but he touched my budding young mind with a desire to know about the things of God. I could have warmed my hands on the flame of his faith. He knew!—and that knowledge somehow found an echoing response in my soul and started me on a search for an understanding of holy writ. No text or workbook or TV course could have replaced the man. I think of the words of the prophet Nephi:

“And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it into the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Ne. 33:1.)

So it was with me. The Holy Ghost, which he possessed as a teacher, carried a conviction to me as a student.

The second teacher was the principal of an elementary school that I attended. He taught history, or rather, that was the subject of the course. What he actually taught me was much more than that. He taught me to have a respect for liberty and aroused in me a deep feeling of gratitude to God for having raised up and inspired men to write the Constitution of the United States. He instilled within me a feeling of pride in the men and women who sacrificed and struggled for the preservation of the principles that document proclaimed. That part of his teaching has persisted and affected my life.

Here again it was not the text or the memorization of facts and events, but the extension of his personality to me. I shall not forget his interest in his students and his honest desire that we become involved in civil and political affairs to the end that our liberties might be preserved.

Nor did his interest in me end with the classroom. He has followed me through the years with letters and phone calls to encourage me in my work. Only the other day this venerable teacher, a patriarch in his stake, more than ninety years of age, called me long distance on the phone to invite me to visit and chat with him.

The third teacher to touch and mold my life was a teacher of English in the high school I attended. She was Jewish and had that desire for perfection in her work which so often characterizes those of her people who enter the arts.

I was never one who could diagram a sentence into its component parts or write prize essays and poems, but here was a teacher who awakened in me a respect for writing as a means of expression and who recognized in my poor products an expression of myself, to which she gave personal encouragement.

The fourth teacher to stand out vividly in my reminiscences was also a high school teacher, my sociology teacher and debate coach. While I have never lost interest in the field of sociology and went through a real period of indecision before leaving that field in my college work, the effect of this teacher upon me had little to do with the subject matter at hand. He took a personal interest in me and inspired me to go to college.

This teacher’s own ambition to succeed, which in time carried him to the position of state superintendent of public instruction, somehow rubbed off on me and changed a farm boy into some semblance of a student.

The fifth teacher to most effectively touch my life was a teacher of Latin at the university I attended. I stayed with him for two years—not for the subject matter, for I was never a brilliant Latin scholar and have long since forgotten how to read that once vital language, but because here was a college teacher interested in me as a person. He attended university debates in which I was a participant, and he never failed thereafter to draw me into his office and discuss with me my mistakes in word and diction.

And last, but not least, I had the good fortune to be a student of one of the truly great teachers, a member of the Council of the Twelve, who taught me to wait for final answers—to properly weigh theory and hypotheses—and so avoid the pitfalls awaiting the gullible and untrained.

In each case these six teachers who have so molded my life did so because each manifested a personal interest in me as an individual. Each exuded a warmth of personality, an assurance of the good in mankind, a faith in a living God.

Two teachers can say the same things, repeat the same facts, and one will be forgotten and the other remembered. It is the teacher’s faith and commitment that strikes a responsive chord in the student. And this truth I have learned: Even a teacher untrained in the traditional arts of teaching can have great effect upon the individual student if he loves and respects that student and shows a personal interest in him.

I remember that a teacher whom I considered dry and uninteresting met me one day and handed me a book in which he thought I might be interested. I was not particularly interested in the book; it was as dry as the teacher. But on that day I gained a new appreciation for the teacher who showed such an interest in me, and thereafter he was able to reach me.

Once again I come to the basic truth—that good teaching is but the extension of the personality of the teacher to his pupil. The teacher is irreplaceable.

Dr. Berrett, a former vice-president of Brigham Young University, was director of seminaries and institutes from 1963–70. He is patriarch of the Edgemont Stake in Provo, Utah.