"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
February 7, 2013
Sustaining a Struggling Teacher
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I am currently serving as an early morning seminary teacher. There are two seminary teachers for our ward, and the teacher of the younger group is newly called. From comments she has made it is clear she is struggling. But she is very defensive and does not welcome suggestions from any source, including me. Her attitude is causing a feeling of conflict throughout the seminary program.

I do not know how to handle this prickly situation.


A feeling of conflict throughout the seminary program? I’m going to assume that means that the parents and students do not like her class, or do not like her, and are complaining about it to each other, probably to the bishop, to you, and to the new teacher herself. I’m also betting the new teacher is getting lots of “suggestions” (i.e. criticisms) made in a “helpful” (i.e. patronizing) tone of voice.

No wonder her attitude is defensive.

If things are not going well in the new teacher’s seminary class, she, of all people, knows it. She does not need anyone to point it out. Nor does she need the pressure of knowing that the ward members she is trying to serve are criticizing her efforts.

Ward members have no right to gossip about the way someone is handling a calling, even if that person is doing an objectively horrible job. Job performance is not the test for whether gossip and criticism are acceptable.

Any serious concerns, such as persistent false doctrine or foul language, should be brought to the bishop’s attention. But they should also be dealt with at home. Parents should provide correct instruction and help their students plan and practice what to do if the situation arises again.

Less serious concerns, such as disagreements about class management or style, should also be dealt with at home. Parents should help their complaining students see things from the teacher’s perspective. Even if the students are right about the teacher’s flaws, parents should teach patience and the doctrine of sustaining by suggesting ways the students could help the teacher or at least respectfully endure the parts of the class they find offensive.

Parents should also require their children to behave well regardless of the quality of the class.

Parents should be very careful about how they express their concerns about the class to their children. It is important for parents to find out what is happening in the class and to provide any remedial instruction. But they must also demonstrate that they appreciate the service of this new teacher by not emphasizing her flaws and weaknesses.

But what can you do? As the more experienced seminary teacher in the ward, you are in a unique position to help. Here are three suggestions.

First, keep any uncomplimentary opinions about the new teacher, her attitude, or her class to yourself. If you need to counsel privately with a spouse or trustworthy friend about the situation—fine. But other than that, you should not say anything critical or negative to anyone who does not have actual stewardship over the other teacher and the class.

In most cases, that means your bishop. Even though seminary teachers are called by the stake, your bishop has stewardship over the youth and is closest to the situation. If you think it would be helpful for him to know what you are seeing or experiencing, talk to him directly.

But when ward members come to you with complaints about this new teacher, you should refuse to engage. Put an understanding smile on your face and speak calmly.

If what you hear is truly alarming, interrupt the person: “Oh—that seems very serious. I am the wrong person to talk to. I think you ought to talk to the bishop about that. He will want to know.” If the person persists, say, “Lois, really, I think you should talk to the bishop, not to me. I wasn’t there, I don’t know what happened—there are always two sides to every story—and I can’t do anything about it. The bishop is the person you need to talk to.”

If what you hear is more sensational than alarming, interrupt the person anyway. This time, defend the other teacher. You want everyone to know that you will defend and support her, even if it means an uncomfortable conversation with other ward members: “You know, Lois, Sister Culpepper is new to teaching seminary. She is working hard, and she needs our support. Have you talked to your dear A.C. about how he could help her during class? He’s so well-liked—I’m sure he could be a good influence on the other students.”

Note how you end with a compliment to the person’s child and the suggestion that she should be focusing on her child’s behavior instead of criticizing the teacher.

If a ward member comes to you for information about seminary, which could be perfectly appropriate if information about his child’s class is truly the goal, make sure you only convey things you absolutely know, saw, or experienced. If he genuinely wants advice on how to handle a difficult situation, you might suggest what you would appreciate if it were your class. Be careful not to criticize the other teacher.

Second, remain calm.

Seminary is important. But one poorly-taught seminary class, on its own, is not going to ruin anyone’s life. So when ward members are riled up about seminary, you should remain calm.

Third, be actively kind to the new teacher. Smile at her. Pop in after class to wish her a good day. Act as if you have confidence in her.

Don’t offer unsolicited advice. If she implies that she is struggling, treat her with compassion: “That sounds hard.” “That’s happened to me, too.” “It’s a difficult situation.” “I wonder that, too.”

You can also ask questions instead of offering opinions. “What’s the hardest part for you?” “What happened after that?” “What did you do?” “How did she react?” “What will you do tomorrow?”

Do not allow the conversation to devolve into further gossip or criticism of students or ward members.

If these compassionate, non-confrontational conversations melt the ice over time, you could one day venture an opinion after you listen to her side of things. For example, “You know, I’m just wondering—what if you asked Kelly to write on the board for you during class. She’d be away from Zach if she were at the front of the room. Do you think that would help?” Notice how you are making a suggestion and asking her what she thinks, deferring to her as the teacher of that class.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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