Teaching, a Noble Work (David O. McKay Lesson 20)

The Ideal Teacher

When I was in a supervisory and an administrative position, it was my responsibility to make appraisals and sometimes render judgments of your contributions as teachers. Sometimes we were heard to say to one another in rendering these appraisals, "He's too strict with his discipline," or, "He places too much emphasis on written work," or, perhaps, "He pays too little attention to the students themselves," or, "He is not systematic enough," or, "He makes too little preparation." Now, in the very saying of "there is too much" or "too little," or "he is too something" or "not enough of something," there is the implication that somewhere there is just enough-that somewhere there is just the right amount of whatever we are talking about. And so the teacher I would like to discuss with you is that teacher we carry in our minds. This teacher, of course, is the ideal teacher. The ideal!

The Ideal Teacher

Now, I would like to bring to your attention some of the things I learned about this teacher. No one of us, I am sure, is quite like him. Sometimes I felt I knew him intimately, and other times I was forcefully reminded how very casual my acquaintance was with this teacher. These are some observations regarding him that I would like to present for your consideration.


I found first that this teacher has a deep sense of loyalty-a naive, simple, childlike loyalty. It is not insincere, and I say that such a loyalty cannot be counterfeited; there is no fabricating it. This loyalty cost him something. If it had not, then he would not have earned it. It cost him viewpoints, it cost him philosophical positions, it cost him that which it takes to humble himself and to commit himself. I never noticed any attempt on his part to search for angles; he is not looking for the angles. I saw very little "I" trouble in him. That "I" trouble is not the kind of eye trouble you see on the physical examination form. It is the other kind. You know the kind. It becomes apparent in an interview with a prospective seminary teacher when one asks, "Why do you want to teach seminary?" Often the answer will be: "I think I would enjoy it; I will get a great deal of good out of it; It will do me a great deal of good; I have always liked..." And then there is the rare exception who says: "There is service to be rendered; my qualifications are not so much, but I am willing to try." I noticed very little "I" trouble in this teacher.

Positive Attitudes

He is positive in his attitudes, and he seems to know-and this is important and I emphasize this-he seems to know that the assignment of the teacher is not analysis; it is synthesis. It is not taking apart, analyzing, and looking for the flaws, the aberrations, the difficulties, the problems. It is synthesis: the putting together, the organizing, the giving of meaning, the working toward wholeness. He is positive, looking for that which is right and, in consequence of his search, finding it-obtaining, just as the Lord has outlined for us in the Book of Mormon, the fruits of his labors and being rewarded according to that which he desires. Every man will be granted according to the desires of his own heart. Those who desire virtue and beauty and truth and salvation shall have it, and those who fail in that desire, or who unfortunately direct their desires in the opposite direction, shall have their agency respected.

Not Perfect but on the Way

My observation of this teacher convinces me that while he is ideal, he is certainly not perfect. I learned that once or twice, even with the best of intentions, he lost his temper, he broke a promise or two, and on a number of occasions he just plain did not do his best. Then he confided in me that he was not free from moral temptations. As a matter of fact, not infrequently unclean thoughts enter his mind. He has learned, however, that the stage of the human mind is seldom bare. The only time the curtains go down is at night in sleep. If on that stage there is not a production that is wholesome, educational, developmental or a light, purposeful, and entertaining presentation-if the stage is left bare, suddenly from the wings steal thoughts of ugliness, darkness, and sin to hold the stage and dance and tempt. But he is ideal in the sense that he has developed the ability to combat this. He has chosen a fine hymn or two, and when these thoughts come he will hum one of these songs. This changes his attitude and his mind. He has learned to change his train of thought-to busy himself. Then if these urges to submit and to indulge are persistent, he has learned to skip a meal or two because he has found that the human body, if it is subdued, becomes obedient. Thereby he practices virtue and purity.

Now everything is not always rosy for this teacher. There are moments of disappointment. In fact, there are moments of despair. But his mistakes, his depressions, his disappointments, and his problems seem to be a source of growth. He finds that they are not merely tolerable, but they are actually necessary. For there must needs be opposition in all things; and after much tribulation cometh the blessings; and whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.


Then I observed that this teacher has a certain presence about him. When I visited the classroom in Idaho or in Arizona, I found it the same. The students refer to him in terms of respect. They call him brother and not mister. He has noticed that students do not need a friend-they have plenty of those. If they want advice from a friend, there are numbers of them around. They need a teacher, a counselor, an advisor. Now this distance that was between him and the students is always there. It is crossed frequently from him to them, but this distance, sometimes called dignity, insures him-both his office and his character and his kindness-against trespass by his students.

A Sense of Humor

I was always grateful, when I met him, to notice that he has a very keen and alert sense of humor. It is just sort of there all the time. Now, it is human enough, and it is plain enough, but it does not depend on the vulgar or the commonplace for its funniness. And never is it the object of his humor to debase or degrade that most sacred and most personal of all human relationships that is so often in the world the center point for all that is presumed to be funny.


I noticed that he has a sincere compassion for his students, that he knows them and loves them, and he cannot help himself. And the less they deserve his love, the more of it there seems to be sponsored within him. He has learned that young people need a lot of love, particularly when they do not deserve it. He just has this characteristic about him. I have come to know, after having watched him operate in the classroom, that this feeling of love was akin to and has a close relationship with discernment-an appropriate power he uses in his work which few other teachers display.

Takes Time Now

Part of the genius of this teacher, I noted, is that he lives each particular day. However much he is searching for tomorrow, he takes time. You know, we often say that if we can just get this done, then we will be free for a few weeks-if we can just get this project over with, if we can just get this thesis out of the way, if we can just get this pageant taken care of, if graduation were just out of the way, then we can relax. Have you not learned yet that it never will be over? that it never will be done? that unless you take time now, it is forever gone, forever forfeited? This teacher, with no slackening of his effort, reminds you, as you drive along, that the sunset is beautiful and that he sees the deer almost obscured by the foliage. He takes time to look at his children and be glad he has them, to love them, to hug them, to build a playhouse. He lives as he goes along. That is the genius of this teacher.

The Ideal Teacher Found in Many Places

Where did I see him, this teacher of whom I speak? One morning I saw him down at Beaver, all covered with smudge, giving a lesson on the First Vision. He was kneeling on the floor in front of the classroom as he demonstrated the First Vision-something I would never recommend to any other teacher. But with him it was supernal. I chanced upon him one Saturday morning scrubbing the floors in the Arimo Seminary. The building was finished and in use, but a janitor had not been appointed, so there he was, in some leftover army khaki coveralls, with a bucket of suds and a scrubbing brush. I watched him lead the singing at Reno, bringing out the untalented students' backward, faltering voices and blending them together to complement weakness with strength to produce harmony and spirituality. I hunted deer with him up Manti Canyon and saw the depth of his soul, the vibrance of his humor, the sincerity of the spirit within him.

I have seen him with his arms around an Indian child in Arizona, oblivious to the fact that this was a child of a different race, unbathed, sorrowful, unkempt, but the object of his love. I watched with reverence up at the Ogden State Industrial School as he gave the gift of gentleness to those students, and I saw in him a heart that was larger than the gigantic body which contained it. I heard him give a lesson over at Dragerton in a garage. It was below freezing. There was no door on the garage, but they had a canvas over it, and they had a little gas heater there. After I had been there for a few moments, I did not know but what we were in the finest classroom. And do you know, he had such blindness that he did not know it either? I saw him in the Pocatello Seminary. The windows were clear glass. Across the street a machine was demolishing a building. Suddenly I noticed that I was the only one who was conscious of what was going on across the street; that every student was conscious of what was happening at the head of the classroom.

I saw him giving guidance to a teenage couple-fretful, out of harmony, in difficulty-in Preston, Idaho. I saw him, the mantle of bishop still upon him, and with the depth of his inspiration always apparent. I have ridden in his Chevrolet with him (not without cost). I saw him with his arm around a wayward boy up in Oakley, Idaho, bearing testimony, assuring this lad that if nobody else loved him, he did. I have knelt in prayer with him at 380 Maeser Building, over in the Smoot Administration Building, in the head office of this department, and I felt his spirit. It has been a choice, rewarding association. You see, he sits here with you, next to you, behind me here on the stand, this teacher of whom I speak.

Hidden Qualities

Now, as I met this teacher from time to time, I have sensed that there are some things about him, some depths to him that one from the outside can never probe and that he himself will never reveal. He, alone, knows the sincerity of his prayers, the honesty of his repentance, the reality and actuality of his love for other people, the sheer drudgery he has endured, and the struggle it has been to overcome and to improve. Only he knows the disappointments and the joys that are all a part of this truly great soul. Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little, he works with you and me and improves others.

Paid for in Advance

A quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Spiritual Laws" suggests to me this teacher:

There is no teaching until the pupil is brought into the same state or principle in which you are; a transfusion takes place; he is you and you are he; then there is teaching, and by no unfriendly chance or bad company can he ever quite lose the benefit.
And because I believe that—that a transfusion does take place and that he is you and you are he, that there is teaching—I also believe that the image each of us presents should be most like this ideal teacher.

I said at the beginning that no one of us is quite like him, but I find much of him in many of you. We may ask these questions: What makes him ideal? Can we find whatever this is? If we can find it, can we isolate it, can we get hold of it? I suggest that there is the simplest and most basic of all explanations for it-and that is faith. He has it. I repeat, he has it! You see he is willing, without any assurance of any promotion or financial improvement or any assurance of betterment of his circumstances, to go ahead with faith and do that which he is assigned to do. He orders his life first. If I were to tell you one of the most important laws of life that I have learned, I should say this: The good things-that which is desirable, that which tends to elevate, glorify, and exalt-must be paid for in advance. (The opposite items can be paid for afterwards.) Good must be earned.

The Image of the Master Teacher

The attributes which it has been my choice privilege to recognize in you brethren and sisters are no more nor less than the image of the Master Teacher showing through. I believe that to the degree you perform, according to the challenge and charge which you have, the image of Christ does become engraved upon your countenances, and for all practical purposes, in that classroom, at that time and in that expression and with that inspiration, you are he and he is you. And the transfusion takes place. By no unfriendly chance or bad company can you ever quite lose the benefit of it.

Faith, the Transfusion

How do we achieve this transfusion? First, we ask for it. We pray that we might be ideal. We seek. Now I differentiate between saying prayers and praying. I would like to draw an example which some of you have heard. It is so commonplace. We have a cow. (We live on a little farm just a few miles north of here.) I had not been home in daylight hours for three weeks. One day before catching a later plane, I went out to see the cow. She was in trouble. I called the vet, and he looked at her, tested her, and said, "She has swallowed a wire and it has punctured her heart. She will be dead before the day is over." The next day the calf was to come, and the cow is important to our economy. Also, she kind of "belongs"; you know how that gets to be. I asked him if he could do anything, and he said he could, but it would likely be useless, money down the drain. I said, "Well, what will it cost me?" He told me. (And it did.) I told him to go ahead. The next morning the calf was there, but the cow was lying down gasping. I called the vet again, thinking the calf might need some attention. He looked the cow over, and said she would be dead within an hour or so. I went in to the telephone directory, copied down the number of the animal by-products company, put it on the nail by the phone, and told my wife to call them to come and get the cow later in the day.

We had our family prayer before I left to go to Salt Lake to catch the plane out to the Gridley Stake. Our little boy was praying. It was to be his calf, you see, and in the middle of saying his prayers-after he said all that he usually says, "bless daddy that he won't get hurt in his travels, bless us at school," and so on-he started to pray. There is a difference, and this is the point I should like to make. He then said: "Heavenly Father, please bless Bossy so that she will get to be all right." He said "please," you see. While I was in California I remembered that story, and when we were talking about prayer, I told of the incident, saying, "I am glad he prayed that way because he will learn something. He will mature, and he will learn that you do not get everything you pray for just that easy. There is a lesson to be learned." And truly there was-but it was I who learned it, not my son; because when I got home Sunday night, Bossy had "got to be all right."

Now, pray for this transfusion to take place; work for it. Work that you become worthy of it-morally and spiritually worthy.

I leave my blessings with you, and tell you of the love I have for you. You mean much to me. I tell you how much the Master Teacher among you has influenced me. Now that my companionship with Him has become more intimate, more certain, I bear witness that He lives, that He is all that we know Him to be, and that the work in which we are engaged is at His instance and has His approval.

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