What President Oaks remembers best about his seminary teachers 70 years ago — and how it can help teachers today

In a time where youth and young adults struggle to navigate the pressures of worldly ideas and values, contentions in society and the isolation brought on by the pandemic, the Church’s second-most senior leader expressed his love, appreciation and a blessing to those who strive to teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“I bless you as His servants, as His teachers, and as fathers and mothers in Zion, as worthy servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, to fulfill your responsibilities, to keep His commandments, to be great models of righteousness and teaching of true principles,” declared President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency. 

Speaking during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, President Oaks was joined by his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks, and other top administrators in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion to offer words of counsel and encouragement to the more than 55,000 teachers throughout the world. Friday night’s devotional was translated into roughly 20 languages. 

Among other topics, the group discussed the role of the Holy Ghost in the classroom, how to deal with contention or differences of opinion among students, helping students navigate the many influences of the world, how to best address difficult questions, what to do about cellphone use in the classroom and how to ensure that a classroom is a haven of peace and safety.

Power of love

In his introductory remarks before participating in a group discussion with Chad H. Webb, the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes, and Adam N. Smith, the associate administrator for instruction in Seminaries and Institutes, President Oaks addressed the power of love. 

“Why is love of God the first great commandment?” he asked. “It is first because it is fundamental to understanding and following God’s plan and His commandments for His children.” 

What does President Oaks remember best about his seminary teachers in Vernal, Utah, from 70 years ago? 

“I can’t even remember the subject of the classes they taught, but I remember that both of them loved me and cared for me as a person,” President Oaks recalled.

Love must be the motivating power when teaching, he said. “Love has power: power to understand the atonement of Jesus Christ, power to understand the plan of salvation, and power to explain God’s commandments.”

If love is not understood, everything else about the gospel is weakened or contradicted by the temptations of the adversary and power of worldly values, he said.

President Oaks then discussed the relationship of teachers to the gospel subjects they teach.

Unlike teachers of secular subjects, who set themselves up as experts of a subject matter, religious teachers should not set themselves up as authorities on some aspects of the gospel of Jesus Christ, President Oaks said.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, speaks during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“The authority is the Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, who has the function of testifying of the Father and the Son in leading us into truth.”  

Religious teachers should never take credit or act in the classroom or anywhere else in a way that interferes with the faith or teachings of the Savior Jesus Christ. “We should never cast a shadow of self-interest over any subject we are teaching,” President Oaks taught.

Teach out of love for Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ and with love for His children, he encouraged. 

Read more: Expanded online opportunities have created silver linings for Seminaries and Institutes during the pandemic

Lessons of the pandemic

President Oaks, Webb and Smith took the opportunity to express gratitude for teacher’s efforts during a difficult time.

“We have teachers who are trying to teach face to face, and learning to teach online, they’ve worn masks that are sometimes uncomfortable, they’ve put themselves at risk at times. And [they’ve] done it with such great love for their students, and for Heavenly Father, with such great commitment,” Webb noted.

Smith said the pandemic has accentuated the ministering element inherent in gospel teaching. “I think we’re getting better at listening to students, at determining their needs and abilities, and meeting them, and loving them where they are, and finding creative ways to help them come closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

The pandemic has also highlighted how divine help attends the teacher who really tries to love God, love their students, and do their best, Smith said.

On behalf of the First Presidency, President Oaks also expressed his appreciation. “We love you brothers and sisters who teach in our Seminaries and Institutes and the religion teachers of teaching in colleges and universities.”

Importance of relationships

Many of today’s students have questions about troubling Church history subjects, LGBT issues, how to live with government controls during the pandemic and many more issues. How should teachers address these and other questions in the context of a religion classroom?

In answer, Webb referenced the Apostle Paul who instructed individuals to teach or to speak truth in love.

Part of that is to teach truth from the scriptures and the words of modern prophets. “It doesn’t do anyone any favors to teach things that are not true. That won’t lead to happiness,” Webb said.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency; Chad H. Webb, the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes, and Adam N. Smith, the associate administrator for instruction in Seminaries and Institutes, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency; Chad H. Webb, the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes, and Adam N. Smith, the associate administrator for instruction in Seminaries and Institutes, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The other significant part is to teach with love, which implies having a relationship. “Those relationships begin with teachers who are willing to listen, to really understand students and their circumstances, and to have empathy to try to understand their needs,” Webb explained.

Hearts open if a student feels loved by a teacher he or she trusts, Smith said. “Walls of defense can come up sometimes if we teach an ideal that’s not a student’s reality. And something that melts walls of defense is if a student loves and trusts their teachers.”

However, teachers should not feel obliged to agree with everything expressed by a student, parent or society, President Oaks added. “We are not in the business of affirming all beliefs in the marketplace of ideas. We are charged with teaching the truth. But in doing that, we must be very careful that we never recede from our responsibility, given to us by the Savior, to love our neighbors.”

Individuals can live lovingly with those they disagree with, President Oaks said. He also spoke of the importance of communicating so that being loving and accepting is not understood as approval. 

He cited the first and great commandment to love God and then the Savior’s teaching, “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

“The fact that we love our neighbors doesn’t mean that we don’t love God first, and keep His commandments first,” President Oaks explained.

Setting priorities

When asked how to prioritize the things of greatest value to students, Smith quoted President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, who advised, “As you prepare a lesson, look in it for converting principles. A converting principle is one that leads to obedience to the will of God.”

In other words, Smith said, the things that are of greatest value to students will connect them to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in personal, profound ways.

“We need to teach those things that will help a student feel and understand gospel truths, but especially truths regarding the reality of Jesus Christ, and His atonement and resurrection, and help them feel that in practical ways, Jesus Christ has the power to heal and help and comfort and cleanse them,” Smith said.

How can teachers help students prioritize what matter most in their own lives? In a recent general conference, President Oaks asked, “Where will this lead?” Smith advised teachers to “think of that question in the context of, ‘is this leading me closer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ? Is this leading me to fulfill my divine identity or purpose?’”

That can provide a powerful filter, for students or anyone, to think about where they spend their time or what they watch or listen to. Students can ask themselves, “will it lead me closer to Heavenly Father?” Smith said.

President Oaks, Webb and Smith also advised teachers to teach principles, not rules.

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency; Chad H. Webb, the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes, and Adam N. Smith, the associate administrator for instruction in Seminaries and Institutes, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency; Chad H. Webb, the administrator of Seminaries and Institutes, and Adam N. Smith, the associate administrator for instruction in Seminaries and Institutes, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

This is important in classrooms where students have different views and perceptions, Webb said. Instead of teaching application, teach the gospel principle. 

Go to the premise, teach the Plan of Salvation, teach the doctrine of Christ, teach the principles of the gospel, and allow for personal application with the help of the Holy Ghost, Webb said.

A safe place

Noting the many temptations and oppositions faced by youth today, President Oaks quoted 2 Nephi 28:20 which warns that in this time Satan will “rage in the hearts of the children of men and stir them up to anger against that which is good.” 

“Everything from road rage, protests and family quarrels seems to have escalated,” President Oaks said. “Your class can serve as a haven of peace and security from this. It can provide a model of civility to resolve your students’ feelings.”

Sister Oaks told teachers their classes can be a safe place. “The principles taught in your classes, especially the testimonies borne there and the Spirit felt there, can nourish and protect your students.”

Sister Oaks then shared the experience of an institute teacher who returned to teaching after a two-year absence. She was shocked upon her return at the constant notifications and texts interrupting student’s attention from thinking and learning in class.

If possible, encourage a conversation with students about the benefits and dangers of phones, Sister Oaks said. “Let the students tell us their concerns and find solutions on their own to the cell phone problem.”

President Oaks encouraged teachers to teach the hope of repentance to their students. “Let them know that repentance is one of the greatest gifts we have. You are responsible to help your students reach their full potential and destiny as children of God.”

The greatest weapon at a teacher’s disposal is found in Alma 31:5, Sister Oaks said. “‘The preaching of the word [of God] had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just — yea, it had a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword’ or I might add, the cell phone. You are teachers of that word, and you have that power and that promise.”

President Oaks promised, “Place the Savior at the center of your teachings of your students and you will have that power. … As you draw closer to Christ, your students will draw closer to you and to Him. Your capacity to teach the truth they need will increase, and your capacity to love them and discern their needs will be magnified.”

President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021.
President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, and his wife, Sister Kristen M. Oaks, speak during a devotional broadcast to Church Educational System teachers and administrators and their spouses on June 4, 2021. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints