Of Pipes and Primary

It’s tradition at the BYU Jerusalem Center to sign one’s name on the pipes in the crawlspace under the lower auditorium. My signature has been there for three years now, but the mark I left on the Holy Land was more than my initials on a piece of subterranean plumbing.


Early in its history, before it had a single building, let alone the beautiful center in Jerusalem, the Brigham Young Academy was in dire financial straits. The structure intended for its use was in disrepair and would require several hundred dollars to renovate. “President [Abraham O.] Smoot quietly donated the necessary funds.”

Everyone at BYU has heard of Karl G. Maeser, the pioneering German educator with a strict moral compass, famous for his chalk circle of honor quote prominently featured at the testing center. Less well known is the fact that President Smoot recommended Maeser as the new principal for Brigham Young Academy. Smoot first saved the academy fiscally, before rescuing it academically through his wise leadership.

Boosting the academy over its initial hurdles galvanized President Smoot’s commitment to it. His interest in the school was later sanctioned, or rather mandated, by the prophet. In a final admonition to President Smoot, Brigham Young said, “I desire you, Brother Smoot to turn your influence and your energies to the building up of that academy.” A.O. wholeheartedly gave everything to fulfill this charge.

In the decades since, many others have given much to sustain the university and its students. 

imgresAs I ponder the impact BYU has on the world, the iconic image of the Y lit up on the mountain is literally a light on a hill. The light of learning at BYU has influenced millions with the education and experiences to make their own marks on the world. Because Abraham Smoot, Brigham Young, Karl Maeser, and others like them caught the vision of building up an academy for the Saints, I’ve been able to study my craft in the light of the gospel. I’ve been able to learn holistically, meaning “by study and also by faith.” As I’ve entered and learned, I’ve been well prepared to go forth to serve. Such is BYU’s motto and a foundational premise deeply cherished by its earliest founders.

Of the marks we leave in others’ lives, President Harold B. Lee said, “The only true record that will ever be made of our service…will be the records that we have written in the hearts and lives of those with whom we have served and labored…”

I served as a Primary teacher in the Jerusalem branch that summer I spent in the Holy Land. Those valiant seven-year-olds definitely taught me more than I taught them, and I trust that my love for the Savior and His Church made an impression in their young hearts. While my initials on the pipe will fade, the mark of a committed Primary teacher will guide them to walk in the light and seek the blessings of eternity.

Beyond the funds consecrated 165 years ago, far beyond the administration building that bears his name; the mark President Smoot made extends into the lives of all who have crossed paths with BYU. In my studies and experiences at BYU, both before and after my mission, I’ve discovered a passion for teaching and learning that will provide direction for the rest of my life—I’ve decided to make my mark as a teacher. I will influence the lives of hundreds of students who will in turn impact thousands of other lives.800px-Abraham_Owen_Smoot

Toward the end of his life, President Smoot explained to his wife, “I haven’t a piece of property that is not mortgaged. I have had to do it to raise money to keep the Brigham Young Academy going. That was given to me as a mission and I would sooner lose all than fail in fulfilling this responsibility. I love that school and I can see what it means to our youth to have spiritual as well as book learning. It must live.”

I too love that school. And it does live.

Obliged to Learn

My job is not to teach.

It is to inspire learning.

And the two can be very different indeed.

-The Arbinger Institute

The book I mentioned in my last post is The Choice in Teaching and Education, published by The Arbinger Institute. It reads almost like poetry, a coherent, progressive presentation of logical ideas in very profound successive one-liners. I had to keep my highlighter in check while I read so as not to inadvertently fail to mark anything by actually marking everything. So here are a few of my favorite lines and my accompanying two cents.


“My obligation is to learn.”  

The author explains that to inspire learning in others, they must see you inspired by learning. It sounds cliché, but I honestly love learning. My mom is a vocabulary fire hydrant and frequently in our conversations I stop her to inquire about the word she just dropped. For me, learning new words is like tasting new recipes or putting new skylights into the ceiling—satisfying and refreshing. I’m trying to pick up a few new instruments this semester and it’s an adventure on the struggle bus at times, but mostly it’s exhilarating. I can do things I never could before! I know how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin and the bass. It’s not Mozart, but it’s more than I’ve ever been able to play on either of those instruments before.


Realizing that my love for learning is enough to sustain my potential to be a great teacher has been a very comforting epiphany for me. Of course, mastery of one’s subject is the goal, but total and complete mastery is not a prerequisite for beginning to teach. To quote The Choice again, “What I pity if what I would teach is so shallow and thin that I have been able to master the whole of it?” I like to think I have more respect for both the English language and the art of music than to think I could have either one entirely within my grasp before I graduate from life. Perhaps I’ll have a decent handle both, but with as much to discover as already has been.

“It is neither enough, nor, paradoxically, even necessary to know more than those I would teach.”

This idea takes a lot of the self-consciousness out of teaching for me. Echoing the previous thought, the idea is that we, as teachers, can and ought to be learning alongside our students. It’s ok that we aren’t omniscient. If I do know heaps more than my students, but I’ve lost my zeal for learning, then all that knowledge is about as useful to them as moldy cheese.

“Students learn best by watching others learn, not by watching others teach.”

Perhaps this is the least understood idea in all our talk about modeling and leading by example. Students will learn better watching us learn than watching us teach. Jerome Bruner, an American educational psychologist, asserted that, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” Authentic learning will happen where there is authentic enthusiasm. With that kind of learning, the learners will be engaged and get what they need from the lesson.  

Jerome Bruner, b. 1915

Jerome Bruner, b. 1915

“The master teacher is nothing more than a master learner who has remembered the art of childhood—the art of learning in the presence of others. Or more precisely: the art of learning because of the presence of others.”

The author goes on to explain that learning happens in a conversation and since insightful conversations don’t often happen in isolation, learning is a community effort. The idea of collective, cooperative, group-centric learning is very attractive to me. I understand why competition is healthy and necessary for a vibrant society, but I prefer the win-win situations where it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Call me a starry-eyed dreamer, but I like it when we all get along and make learning fun and non-threatening for each other.  

Another musing on this quote is the idea of humility.  “Every sincere question is humility expressed.” (That one is also from The Choice.) Learning with other people around requires a degree of trust and willingness to be observably imperfect. If you learn, the inherent admission is that you did not know or understand something previously. While that’s obvious, it’s still hard to come to grips with it, especially under the scrutiny of our peers, which we often perceive as judgement even when it isn’t intended as such.  


Pondering my role as a teacher primarily as that of a learner is empowering and relieving. Last semester, one of my professors wrote me an email that said in part, “You are a terrific student, Hannah. I predict that you will be a terrific teacher, too.” I keep that on a sticky note where I see it often to remind me that the first part of being a great teacher is being a great learner. Sometimes my self-doubt throws a shadow on my perception of my teacher chops, but I’m very secure in my learner status and that anchors me.

Thoughts, comments, and questions are always welcome here! After all, learning is a collaborative effort, right? Thanks for joining the conversation.

My Last First Day of School

imgresOk, so right upfront I’ll admit that I’ll probably end up doing more school in my life.  And, since I’m a teacher, I’ll have plenty more first days of school.  This semester marks my last first day as a student in my undergrad here at BYU, and possibly my last first day as a student for quite a while.  That’s too lengthy to be a catchy title though.

Walking onto campus on my last first day of school was quite the feeling.  I’m a fairly sentimental person—I was that kid who cried on her birthday because each passing year meant my childhood was fading.  Being nostalgic in the moment is kind of my thing, I guess.  But, I didn’t cry at all on my last first day.  It probably hasn’t registered yet.

So at the beginning of this end, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on getting the most out of school.  I realize we’re all teachers here, but the best teachers are the best students.  Hence, these are written as if to fellow students. Plus, these are probably just generally good things to remember.  (I hope, because this is what I remember from college.)

  1. Stay hydrated.  Didn’t see that one coming, huh?  I often have very long days on campus and I’m a happier, more self-actualizing student when I’m not parched.
  2. imagesDo fun things!  Seems obvious, but it’s important to have reasons you love coming to school.  I think I often take myself too seriously as a student—don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being studious—but learning without zeal, fun, excitement, and passion isn’t really worth it.  It took me until my senior year of high school to join the cross country team and play in the pit orchestra for the school musical.  And now in my senior year of college, I’m joining an orchestra and picking up rock climbing.  It keeps life fun and engaging,  and I don’t mind long days on campus because I love what I get to do.
  3. Pick your classes and your teachers with care.  My dad and my aunt counseled me early on in my BYU experience to make sure I took the class for the professor, even if it meant taking the class at a less personally convenient time.  Look around a bit at the beginning of the semester and don’t be afraid to switch your schedule around to get an excellent teacher.  Your schedule is not carved in stone, until after the add/drop deadline.  (After that, it gets messy, but doable if you have worthy causes.)  I think we, as students, sometimes don’t realize that we can be the architects of our educational experiences.  Yes, we have to fulfill the graduation requirements, but with a little digging you can find the more interesting path less travelled.
  4. Put a fence around your homework time.  You think I mean guard it carefully so you don’t get distracted with your social life, huh?  That’s only half of it.  Focused study time is often essential for academic success and personal learning.  But, your homework will expand to take all the time you give it.  So put a nice little fence around it to protect it and to protect your life from being overgrown with studies.images
  5. Have teachers that are “in your corner” so to speak.  Having an understanding with your professors makes life significantly easier when it comes to negotiating special circumstance type of things. What I mean: one of my choir directors, with whom I have a good rapport, is letting me take a pass on a rehearsal each week so I can be running my own children’s choir this semester.  A good relationship with your teacher will also be helpful in networking and job obtaining.

Well, that’s all for now, folks.  But don’t fret, I’m reading a book on teaching philosophy and it’s excellent, so expect some ponderings in that direction coming soon.  Happy beginnings to all!

The Goldilocks Zone

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to find the balance of material that is within the children’s grasp, but that stretches them–material that is masterable, but appropriately challenging.  

goldilocksA few of the educational terms that come readily to mind with this discussion are the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and “scaffolding.”  

“The zone of proximal development is the gap between what a learner has already mastered (the actual level of development) and what he or she can achieve when provided with educational support (potential development)…. In a classroom setting, the teacher is responsible for structuring interactions and developing instruction in small steps based on tasks the learner is already capable of performing independently — an instructional strategy known as scaffolding.”   -Heather Coffey (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/5075)

For another good read on understanding scaffolding, check out this previous post.  

Now, this is all well and good when you’re in the classroom with your students and planning learning activities and objectives for next week after having observed how they’ve done this week.  Or if you’re an experienced teacher who knows second graders pretty well because you’ve been teaching a batch of them for years.  But that’s not always the case.

Precise estimation of a group’s ability is key, and when you haven’t met the group yet (as first year teachers haven’t) such precision in estimation seems almost unfathomably difficult.  Not to mention it’s an oxymoron…


If you underestimate their abilities, the students will be underwhelmed and bored.  They may also read your estimation as a limitation on their capacity. Their self-perception of their ability could diminish and they could stop trying.  

On the other hand, if you overestimate your students and have unreasonably high expectations, they may get disheartened and give up.  

Erring on either side could have detrimental effects on your students’ achievement.
I’m finding myself needing to gauge the choral potential of a mixed group of third through sixth graders without having met the students.  My plan as of right now is to solicit advice from my colleagues and mentors and have enough pieces in my repertoire to adjust as necessary once we get rolling.  I imagine this is a hurdle most first year teachers face, and I welcome any discussion on the matter.