President David O. McKay was a teacher most of his life. He fulfilled this role in such capacities as missionary, schoolteacher, administrator, Apostle, Church President, and father.
In a message directed primarily to priesthood holders, he shared an experience that relates to all who have the opportunity to teach:
“The other day it was my privilege to drive through the fields in my old home town. I passed through two farms up near the mountain canal. I saw one that had yielded an exceptionally good crop of oats. Notwithstanding the drought, the cold in the spring, and other disadvantages, the farmer had [produced] an excellent yield. Just over the fence was another oat field, but a failure, comparatively speaking. I said to the man: ‘Why, what is the matter? You must have planted poor seed.’
“‘No, it is the same seed that my neighbor has.’
“‘Well, then it was planted too late, and you did not have enough moisture in the ground to bring it up.’
“‘It was sown the same afternoon that he sowed his.’
“Upon further inquiry, I learned that the first man had plowed his in the fall; then he had disked it carefully in the spring, making a mulch on the surface, and by such tilling had conserved the moisture of the winter. His neighbor, on the other hand, had plowed his late in the spring, had left the furrows unharrowed; the moisture had evaporated. Following the sowing of the seed came four weeks or six weeks of [drought], and there was not sufficient moisture to germinate the seed. The first man had made preparation, the proper kind of preparation, and nature yielded the increase. The second man labored hard, but his preparation was poor; indeed, he had made inadequate preparation.”
President McKay used this story to illustrate the influence of teachers. He said: “In God’s great garden have been placed overseers called teachers, and they are asked to nourish and to inspire God’s children. I venture the thought that the Great Gardener in looking over his fields can see some that are thriving in righteous activity and others are starving because of the drought of neglected duty, of the chilling atmosphere of vanity, or the blight of intemperance. Why? Perhaps because the gardeners, the overseers, had not made necessary preparations, or performed their duty well.”2
Whether referring to parents, classroom instructors, or home teachers and visiting teachers, President McKay devoted much of his ministry to helping Church members understand the great importance and influence of effective teaching.
Teachings of David O. McKay
In the Church we have many opportunities to teach others and develop personal strength.
We are a Church of teachers. In the Latter-day Saint home the father and mother are required to be teachers of the word—expressly required so by the revelation of the Lord. Every auxiliary organization, every quorum, is made up of a body of men and women … who are in the ultimate sense of the word, teachers.3
I am grateful for membership in a Church whose religion fits men for the struggle with the forces of the world and, which enables them to survive in this struggle. One of these acting forces is the responsibility of teaching, and the opportunity afforded in this Church for so many to share this responsibility. …
Now in furnishing opportunity for so many to get the development that comes to the true teacher, think what the Church is doing to help this army of teachers as individuals to become strong in the battle against the forces of the world!
First, it places upon them the obligation of teaching their fellow men by example; and there is no better safeguard placed upon an honest man or a sincere woman.
Second, it develops the divine attribute of love for others. Jesus said to one of his Apostles, “Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? … Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. … Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15.) Love should precede the responsibility of feeding those lambs. And these tens of thousands of teachers must have in their hearts the love of teaching, the love of fellow men, and a willingness to accept this responsibility with the divine attribute of love.
Then there is a third requirement, namely: purity of life. I cannot imagine one who has soiled himself, teaching successfully purity to boys. I cannot imagine one who has doubt in his mind about the existence of God, teaching impressively the existence of a Deity to young boys and girls. He cannot do it. If he act the hypocrite and attempt so to teach, what he is will speak louder than what he says—and that is the danger of having doubting men as teachers of your children. The poison sinks in, and unconsciously they become sick in spirit, because of the poison which the person in whom they have confidence has insidiously instilled into their souls. The thought of teachers attempting to teach youth faith in God, when they haven’t it, is irreconcilable with consistency, if not indeed unthinkable. So the third qualification is purity of life and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Finally, it gives them an opportunity to serve their fellow men, and therein magnify the calling which has come to them, and indeed prove that they are real disciples of Christ.4
In the formation of character and guidance of childhood, parental influence is greatest; next comes the teacher’s. … “There is true nobility in the soul of that man or woman who sincerely desires and strives to lead children out of contaminating influences into an environment of high ideals and lofty endeavor.”5
Effective teachers prepare through study, faith, and prayer.
The great obligation upon a teacher is to be prepared to teach. A teacher cannot teach others that which he himself does not know. He cannot make his students feel what he does not feel himself. He cannot attempt to lead a young man or young woman to obtain a testimony of the gospel of God if the teacher does not have that testimony himself or herself.
There are three things which must guide all teachers: first, get into the subject; second, get that subject into you; third, try to lead your pupils to get the subject into them—not pouring it into them, but leading them to see what you see, to know what you know, to feel what you feel.
Every teacher must be prepared on his or her lesson when he or she meets those boys and girls of the class; for, mind you, your presentation of that lesson, your attitude toward the truth in that lesson will largely determine the boys’ and girls’ attitude toward it and their attitude toward Church activity in general. If you turn them away after class with the feeling in their youthful hearts that they have received nothing by coming, you will find difficulty in getting them to come back the following week. But on the other hand, if you have thrilled them, or if unable to do that, if you have given them one thought which has appealed to them, you will find that their intention and desire to return will be manifest by their presence one week later. …
Simply reading the lesson manual before time is not enough. In so doing I have not yet made that lesson mine, and until it is mine, until I feel that I have a message to give to my class members, I am not prepared as the Lord has asked me to prepare when he calls upon me to give his word. It must be mine; what I want to give to the boys and girls is what will count when I meet them. I can make that lesson in a manual mine by study, faith, and prayer.6
To give a lesson well prepared is like mercy—it blesses him that gives and him that receives. It is true in teaching as in life—“Give to the world the best you have, and the best will come back to you.” …
… Teachers, begin the preparation of your lessons in prayer. Teach your lessons with a prayerful heart. Then pray that God will enrich your message in the souls of your children through the influence of his holy Spirit.7
Order and reverence in Church classrooms help young people learn respect and self-control.
I believe that discipline in the classroom, which implies self-control, and which connotes consideration for others, is the most important part of teaching. …
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. …
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.8
Our classrooms are sometimes places of boisterousness. Here is where we need good teachers. A teacher who can present a lesson interestingly will have good order, and when he or she finds students who are rebellious, flipping papers, paying no attention, stumbling, kicking one another, he or she may know that the lesson is not being properly presented. Perhaps it was not even properly prepared. …
In the classrooms children should be taught, should be free to discuss, free to speak, free to participate in classwork, but no member of the class has the right to distract another student by jostling or making light and frivolous remarks. And I think in this Church, in the priesthood quorums and classes and in auxiliaries, teachers and [leaders] ought not to permit it. Disorder injures the child who makes it. He should learn that when he is in society there are certain things which he cannot do with impunity. He cannot trespass upon the rights of his associates.
Let children learn this lesson in youth because when they get out in society and try to trespass against the law, they will feel the restraining hand and probably suffer punishment.
Good order in the classroom is essential to instill into the hearts and lives of young men and young women the principle of self-control. They want to talk and they want to whisper, but they cannot do it because it will disturb somebody else. Learn the power and lesson of self-mastery.9
The Sunday School looks forward to the time when in every class in the Sunday School the principles of punctuality, courtesy, self-control, respect for authority, studiousness, responsiveness, and, particularly, reverence and worship, will … [fill] the atmosphere.10
In our efforts to teach truth, Jesus Christ is our great Exemplar.
In the realm of personality, in the kingdom of character, Christ was supreme. By personality, I mean all that may be included in individuality. Personality is a gift from God. It is indeed a pearl of great price, an eternal blessing.
Fellow teachers, you and I cannot hope to exert, even to a small degree, the personality of our great Teacher, Jesus Christ. Each one’s personality may be to the Savior’s only as one little sunbeam to the mighty sun itself; and yet, though infinitely less in degree, each teacher’s personality should be the same in kind. In the realm of character, each teacher may be superior and be such a magnet as will draw around him in an indescribable way those whom he would teach.
But no matter how attractive his personality may be to the members of the class, that teacher fails in his work who directs the love of the child only to the teacher’s personality. It is the teacher’s duty to teach the child to love—not the teacher only, but the truth also. Always, everywhere, we find Christ losing himself for his Father’s will; and so the teacher, so far as his personality is concerned, should lose himself for the truth he desires to teach.11
The teacher must know whom she teaches, to be able to discern, to a degree at least, the mentality and capability of the members of her class. She should be able to read the facial expressions and be responsive to the mental and spiritual attitude of those whom she is teaching. The Great Teacher had this power of discernment in perfection. He could read the hidden thoughts and interpret the very feelings of the persons whom He taught. In the acquisition of this power the sincere teacher may approach Him only partially. Too few teachers develop this gift, even to a necessary degree; notwithstanding every teacher has the responsibility of determining how best to approach the members of the class in order to make appeals that will be lasting.12
Use the things around you. Show the example of the Great Teacher who sat with his disciples and looked down on the farmers putting in their spring grain. He said, “Some seed fell on good ground, some on stony ground.” [See Mark 4:3–8.] There was a lesson of life. The woman of Samaria who came to quench her thirst at the well is another example. Jesus told her that the water he would give her would be a well of water springing up into everlasting life [see John 4:14]. Gather in experiences, and then illustrate each point. I think that is a lesson to every teacher—you who have a lesson to prepare—not a speech, but a message.13
Worthy servants of Christ, you are! Teachers! Followers of the true Teacher, the great Exemplar of all! On with your noble work! There is none greater; none more righteous! Yours is the joy promised by the Savior.14
Suggestions for Study and Discussion
What are a teacher’s responsibilities? (See pages 188–91.) Why is it important that gospel teachers have personal testimonies?
What blessings have you received as you have taught the gospel? How has your life been blessed or changed by faithful, effective teachers?
In what ways does a well-prepared lesson influence both teacher and student? (See pages 190–91.) What are some of the ways that teachers can prepare? (See pages 190–91.) What resources are available in the Church for the improvement of teaching?
What can we do to promote order and respect in Church classrooms? (See pages 191–92.) How do young people benefit when there is order in the classroom? What can parents do to support teachers in their efforts to maintain orderly classrooms?
What is the difference between “teaching a lesson” and teaching people? How did the Savior exemplify this skill? What else can we learn from Jesus Christ’s example as the Master Teacher? (See pages 192–93.)
What can a teacher do to ensure that class members love “not the teacher only, but the truth also”?
How can we use President McKay’s counsel to improve the teaching in our homes? What ways have you found to effectively teach your children?
“The Teacher,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1951, 622.
In Conference Report, Oct. 1916, 58–59; paragraphing altered.
“‘That You May Instruct More Perfectly,’” Improvement Era, Aug. 1956, 557.
“The Teacher,” 621–22.
Gospel Ideals (1953), 214.
“‘That You May Instruct More Perfectly,’” 557.
Gospel Ideals, 222–23.
Man May Know for Himself: Teachings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss (1967), 337–38.
In Conference Report, Oct. 1950, 164–66.
Gospel Ideals, 221.
“To the Teacher,” Improvement Era, Aug. 1955, 557.
True to the Faith: From the Sermons and Discourses of David O. McKay, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (1966), 251.
“We Believe in Being True … ,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1959, 647.
Gospel Ideals, 135.