Crutches and Training Wheels: The Role of a Teacher

A crutch is a staff or support used to assist a person in walking, usually used when a bone in the leg or foot has been broken, or seriously injured. It relieves someone of the burden of putting pressure on their own limb, and essentially serves as a substitute leg. Without the crutch, it is difficult for the individual to walk at all.

Training wheels are small supporting wheels attached to both sides of the rear wheel of a child’s bicycle. They are used by kids who want to ride a bike, but have not yet developed the ability to fully balance. Ideally the wheels are eventually removed and the child, having fostered confidence and competence, rides on his own. I believe much can be learned in regard to teaching by examining the contrast between crutches and training wheels.

Not long after being called as an Area Authority Elder David A. Bednar attended a training meeting where he received instruction from President Boyd K. Packer. He recounts that he has “never forgotten one question that was directed specifically to President Packer and the answer he gave.”

            “President Packer, would you please teach us about the Atonement of Jesus Christ?”

President Packer then gave the following response:

            “Thank you for your excellent question. Read the Book of Mormon as many times as you reasonably can in the next several months. When you are finished reading, write a one-page summary of what you learned about the Atonement. Next question.”

After much reflection, and putting the answer into practice, Elder Bednar came to understand that President Packer “gave us much more than an answer to a single question. In that training session he did not tell us what he knew; rather, he taught us how he had come to know. If any of us truly desired to know what he knew, we absolutely could—if we were willing to pay the price and obtain the knowledge for ourselves. President Packer’s answer emphasized the importance of procuring for ourselves the oil of conversion; it cannot be borrowed or conveyed from one person to another” (Bednar, Act In Doctrine, p. 122).

Occasionally, with good intentions and misplaced zeal, we figuratively try to convey, or transfer, the oil of conversion from our own lamp to the lamp of another by spoon feeding them the knowledge we ourselves have studied and worked for. They ask a question, and we take it upon ourselves to relay all that we have learned in a lifetime of study on the subject through a one-way lecture. We thus place ourselves in the crutch category, relieving them of any responsibility to put pressure on their own intellect, allowing them to lean on us in a way that stunts their spiritual growth and, in all reality, undermining their free agency by turning them into an object that we act upon.

We must remember this truth: “Knowledge cannot be given or borrowed; it must be obtained” (Bednar, Act in Doctrine, p. 122). As teachers in any capacity, we must allow the questioner to obtain knowledge, rather than trying to bestow it. We should permit the learner to learn by their faith. This can be done by enabling them to be a participant in the learning process—telling them where to receive their own answer, or, in a classroom setting, taking them to where the answer is, and then inviting them to read, reflect, and apply.

When we give our consent to being used as a crutch, we are, in a sense, exercising unrighteous dominion over those whom the Lord has entrusted to us with the sacred responsibility of teaching and influencing, because we act upon them. This is a slippery slope that can quickly lead to priestcraft, defined as men preaching and setting “themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2Nephi 26:29). Offering ourselves as a crutch by supplying impressive answers will likely receive praise, however, it will be done at the selfish expense of the welfare of Zion, including the spiritual welfare of the learner(s).

Another danger of the crutch approach is it begets fertile grounds for pride to swell up within the instructor by creating enmity between him and the Lord. The enmity comes from getting in the way of the Holy Ghost, and preventing Him from doing His assigned labor in the learning process—teaching. We read in section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants: Wherefore, I the Lord ask you this question—unto what were ye ordained? To preach my gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” We preach, He teaches. When we give too much information outright, and absolve learners of the obligation to seek and knock, we are bringing too much attention to ourselves. This may lead others to believe that we are the teacher, instead of merely a facilitator.

Elder Bednar puts it this way:

“We must be careful to remember in our service that we are conduits and channels; we are not the light. . . This work is never about me and it is never about you. We need to do all in our power to fulfill our teaching responsibilities and simultaneously “get out of the way” so the Holy Ghost can perform His sacred work. In fact, anything you or I do as representatives of the Savior that knowingly and intentionally draws attention to self—in the messages we present, in the methods we use, or in our personal demeanor—is a form of priestcraft that inhibits the teaching effectiveness of the Holy Ghost.” (Bednar, Act in Doctrine, p. 130-131)

On the other hand, one of the best examples of the training wheel style of teaching is found in the interaction between the Lord and the brother of Jared in Ether chapter two.The brother of Jared, lacking a way to light the barges he and his company were to use in crossing the sea, appeals to the Lord for an answer to his problem:

“I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?” (Ether 2: 22)

In other words, to parallel the question posed to President Packer:

Jesus, would you please teach me about the best way to get light into my barges?

The Lord could easily give the brother of Jared a discourse on the greatest and most efficient way to produce light, or He could even reveal all he knows on the subject. However, this could stunt the brother of Jared’s growth by giving him a crutch when he is perfectly capable of walking.

“The Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire . . . . Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea? (Ether 2: 23, 25)

The Lord delivers the perfect training wheel response. He presents His questioner with just enough support and guidance to get him going, and an invitation to act in faith and try to find the answer for himself. He allows the learner to learn by faith. Well Mahonri, that’s an excellent question. I will tell you that windows won’t work, nor will fire, can you come up with another solution? The brother of Jared then exercises his faith and does his best to ride the bike by molting small stones out of a rock and asking the Lord to touch them.

If the Lord had not followed the proper teaching pattern, He would not have been able to take the veil “from off the eyes of the brother of Jared” or to say to him “never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast”, or to fully show Himself to him. If he had used the crutch technique, the brother of Jared could not have earned true knowledge and reached the point of riding on his own: “And he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting.” (Ether 3:19) Are we missing out on results in students, ward members, and children by using the crutch method instead of training wheels? As Elder Bednar has asked, “Are you and I encouraging and helping those we serve to seek learning by faith?” (Seek Learning by Faith).

I have found in my own life that the teachers who have had the most profound impact on me have done so in the same way–by setting an example of faith and diligence in study, or riding their own bike, and then giving me training wheels in the form of advice or recommendation on where to find for myself, the same knowledge they had secured. I have learned for myself, as Elder Bednar has taught, “that an answer given by another person usually is not remembered for very long, if at all. But an answer we discover or obtain through the exercise of faith is typically retained for a lifetime. The most important learnings of life are caught–not taught.” (Bednar, Act in Doctrine, p. 127)

Now, this is not to say that direct answers to questions should never be rendered, nor that helpful instruction is completely unnecessary. What is meant in what has been presented is that we are not obligated to tell anyone everything we know, nor should we inhibit real spiritual growth by giving easy answers to someone who is fully capable of finding them on their own. We should avoid the tendency to make ourselves available as a crutch, and strive to discern the difference between providing someone enough assistance to enable them to act, and acting upon them. We should, in short, take the training wheel approach. To do so, is to put a check on priestcraft, pride, and narcissism.  Less attention may be acquired, but the pure in heart, who intend to eventually ride the gospel bike on their own, will recognize the Savior’s true pattern of teaching, and will be grateful their agency was respected, and even enlarged, in the learning process.

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