Five Takeaways of Teaching Primary

When I was a naïve newly wed still trying to figure out how the Church works because I converted at age 18, I longed for a calling in Primary.  I didn’t get it until after I started teaching middle school full time and going to graduate school part time. But when it was offered, I accepted without hesitation. And then a fellow teacher friend told me that this invitation to teach Primary was a classic case of the bishopric breaking an unwritten rule of the Mormon universe: you do not call a full-time teacher to teach Primary every Sunday!  I think the only exception to this rule is when nobody else in the ward wants to do it.

I was in Primary for almost four years and collected enough observations to explain, in the fashion of www.fivetakeaways.com,  my five takeaways of teaching Primary children, ages 4-6.

1. Do not feed the children.
Primary kids who get treats in church are like mogwais that get fed after midnight in the movie Gremlins, i.e. candy does NOT improve their behavior. The children may look adorable, but do not resist the temptation to feed them. If you do, and if your kids start to expect food every week, you are guaranteed to get Pavlovian classical conditioning gone wrong. The kids won’t respond favorably to your threatening stimulus: “If you aren’t reverent, you won’t get your treat today!” Instead, they will interrupt you every two minutes by raising their hands, and you might actually think they have something relevant to contribute to the discussion, but they simply must know, “Are we getting a treat today?! When are we getting a treat?! Next week can you bring jelly beans, I don’t like gummy bears…?!”

And if you fall into the trap of distributing treats every week, what happens if you’re sitting in Sacrament meeting, gazing off into space, and suddenly realize you forgot the treat at home? You have to dig the car keys out of your purse, explain to your husband why you’re leaving Sacrament meeting early, and drive home to get it (this happened to a friend, not me, in case you’re wondering).

And when kids get their treats, all sense of propriety is temporarily inhibited by the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, so they throw their wrappers on the floor and forget to pick them up. And then they’re not hungry for lunch or dinner when they get home and parents are annoyed—although, I haven’t ever heard a parent complaining about this, so maybe I’m only imagining it.

I suppose this is why the church’s auxiliary program manuals say, “Do not feed the children.” At least they did when I was called to Primary.

2. Do not tell the children where you live.
If you live anywhere in close proximity to your Primary children, and they think you’re even remotely cool, they will come find you and knock on your doors (or ring the doorbell 10 times in a row, in case you didn’t hear it the first nine times) while you’re in the shower, cooking dinner, or just home from work. So it is best to do all your gardening, yard maintenance, and checking of mail at night, past their bedtime, because they equate your presence outside with an invitation to stop by.

If you’re of a weak constitution, like me, all resolve breaks down when you see one of them towing her wagon loaded with Barbie dolls and stuffed animals across the street to your door because she’s been waiting all day for your car to arrive in your driveway to signal that you’re home. When she looks up at you and says, “Hi! Can you come play?” you can’t say no. Even when you have a research paper to write, or a stack of papers to grade, or a migraine.

You’ll be sitting at home, lounging on the couch on Fourth of July weekend and hear a forceful knock, like that of the persistent home security system sales people. But you look through the little window-glass thingy at the top of your door and see no one. So you open the door, and there they are. Two little boys asking if your husband can come play “Harry Potter” with them, because they already have a Harry and a Ron and all they’re missing is Voldemort. Or they’ll want to build Lego forts. They don’t know that the one day of free time you have wasn’t intended to be spent with them. But you can’t resist because they’re cute.

3. Do not leave home without a box of Kleenex and your hand sanitizer.
Children are inveterate nose-pickers. Even the girls dressed in frilly outfits that make them look like pink cupcakes do it. Right in front of you. They’ll attempt to be discrete and turn their heads, thinking that you can’t see it, but of course you do. It doesn’t seem to phase them either, that you make eye contact with them while they’re doing it, so maybe I should just forget about it. However, when you warn a kid to stop or he’ll get a bloody nose, and he doesn’t stop and gets a bloody nose and you have to steer him, with his head tipped back in the air, to the closest bathroom, you have to draw the line somewhere.

4. Do not say the word Christmas. Ever.
Just see if you can mention Christmas in a Primary lesson without turning the classroom into a slightly less chaotic version of the New York Stock Exchange with every child jumping in their seat, waving their hands in your face, and clamoring to tell you what they’re getting for Christmas. You might be teaching a lesson about gratitude and innocently say, “Gratitude means being thankful, like when you get a present from Grandma at Christmas, and—“ then you get this barrage of:

“Ooh, guess what I’m getting for Christmas? A cell phone, and I get to pick the color…”
“I already have a cell phone, but my mom said she’s going to get me a Polly Pocket helicopter…”
“Christmas is my favorite holiday because I get lots of presents!”
“I asked Santa for a Megatron Transformer, the kind that’s a truck and it turns into Megatron…”
“I have a story about Christmas, can I tell it? Please? Please? Please? Please? Ok, last year I got a Beauty and the Beast Barbie, and Isaac, he’s my brother, was mad at me, and he locked himself in the bathroom with the scissors and cut all her hair off, so I’m getting a new one this year, and this time I can get the one with the yellow dress and not the red dress… ”

And they’re all talking at the same time. When they realize you’re not listening anymore, then they’ll just turn to their neighbor and talk about Christmas until class is over, if you let them.

Actually, the truth is, this happens with anything you say, and not just Christmas. Expect the same results if you’re telling a story about, say, a pet. Kids hear the word “pet” and they’ll all simultaneously chatter about their dog, cat, frog, hermit crab, or fish, or how someone killed their fish over Christmas vacation. Even ten minutes after the conversation has been pointed back on track, someone will still want to explain the story about how their dad killed cockroaches in Brazil on his mission (because some people have cockroaches for pets, right?). Expect multiple digressions within the course of a 40 minute lesson.

5. Smile, because they love you.
Despite the nose picking and the frequent visits from children at odd hours, Primary became our favorite place. At times it would have been nice to go back to Priesthood and Relief Society, but then nobody would fight over who got to sit next to us. Nobody would have gone to the store to buy helium balloons, and named them Jesse and Sarita after drawing our faces on them. And we wouldn’t have gotten any trick-or-treaters on Halloween, or cards that said, “UR the gr8st teechers.”

What stories do you have about callings that have surprised you, changed you, or driven you crazy?

20 thoughts on “Five Takeaways of Teaching Primary

  1. I spent about ten straight years in Primary and then the next eight in Relief Society. I was just released as Relief Society president and called to be..wait for it…primary teacher, primary music leader, and activity day leader. Yes, I do live in a branch.

    I am totally loving it. I totally love the Christmas/cell phone type of conversations. On Sunday I announced to my class that we would be doing beauty salon night for Activity Days. We had a 12 minute conversation about nail polish–sprinkled all through a lesson about Korihor the anti-Christ. If this had happened during Relief Society (similar conversations happen often in our branch) I would just want to beat a few heads together. But, with a bunch of 9-10-11 year old girls I loved it.

    Also, I would much rather teach a class every week than every other week. I love having my own class and developing relationships with them and being their one and only teacher. I also hate being the “other” teacher who doesn’t bring treats.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this walk down memory lane. I taught Primary, did activity days, and in a Primary Presidency from 18-36. Now it is YW’s. I know your five take aways well.
    I echo the no treats. My Mom passed that one on to me and I have been thankful. It is, by the way, in the handbook not to bring treats unless they have to do with the lesson. I am a mom who is NOT happy if you feed my child. She is special needs and will drool chocolate all over the sparkly Sunday dress. It is not fun to get out! I have also found that sending them home with a chunk of salt play dough does not make parents happy either. :)

    Here are a couple more take-aways that I have learned.

    1) No matter what age group you are teaching you will always find out more than you want to know about their home life. I recall a lesson on fasting. These were CTR8 kiddos. We suggested that once they turned 8 that it was a good time to try to fast and to talk to their parents about it. One boy raised his hands and wanted to know why his parents didn’t fast today. Then another girl raised her hand and said that her mom couldn’t fast because she was pregnant (her mom had not told anyone in the ward yet). The conversation went on from there. We had to have a few conversations with parents afterwards.
    2)Make it fun, move around, and do something unexpected. You can still have an environment that allows the Spirit to be present and do one our all three. The best remembered lessons and/or sharing times usually involve one our all three things. Again, for my special needs daughter, she had faithful teachers but they are boring. Primary is tedious for her. She could use a little moving and a little creativity in teaching methods. It can be really simple things like, instead of just holding up a picture let her hold the picture, touch it and point to the people. Just pay attention to the needs of your kids and find a way to help them to understand.

    3)This goes for all callings. Love and pray for the people you serve.

  3. I laughed out loud at the “unwritten rule” for full time teachers. I’ve been teaching for 12 years and with one exception have either been in Primary or teaching Gospel Doctrine :D

    Your list is brilliant, and completely true. Love it.

    The calling that surprised and changed me? When I was called to be in an RS presidency. The bishop extended the call by telling me he initially didn’t think I should be a counselor because I am single. That was surprising…and the calling changed me because I started looking at members of the church as individuals, not as family units and it made serving them much more…I don’t know the word, but I guess I became more aware of individual needs, if that makes any sense. It really did change my church “world view.”

  4. What a great post! Some callings get a bad rap and through experience with each of those undeservedly dreaded callings I’m learning that there is enjoyment in each one.

    When I was called as a counselor in Primary my husband was in the branch presidency and I was so mad at him. He knew I was a stay at home mom who needed a few sanity minutes during the second and third hours of church and he still allowed them to call me to Primary! (Never mind that I could have refused the calling.) He stood his ground and I eventually loved the calling. Each week there was some hilarious moment that made all the work worthwhile, I made primary fun for me, then it was fun for the kids, and I made great friends.

    Now I’m Cubmaster, a calling that may only be a dreaded second to nursery worker. For 6 months I held my breath, just hoping to be released. Silly me, I should know by now that thinking that way will never get you released. I let my expectations and worry go and now I’m enjoying cub scouts. I’m letting my inner tomboy go free and not caring what judgments other leaders, or even parents, have.

    As for nursery, I’ve spent some time there too. The perks are: not wearing shoes, having a regular snack time for leaders and kids, sitting on the floor, and eventually finding your way into a toddler’s heart so that you’re the only other adult besides Mom that they’ll fall asleep on. That is a true seal of approval!

  5. The entire five years I taught full time kindergarten I taught the Sunbeams. Then we moved and I was in RS for eighteen months. I just got a job teaching preschool and have been called as the nursery leader. I guess I just need a double dose of kids. By the way, I have not had young children of my own for 30 years! I do, however love little kids!

  6. Of all the callings and assignments I have had, visiting teaching has taught me and changed me the most. Not only have I met, befriended and loved dearly people who I probably would not have come to know otherwise, but I have also gleaned great insights from people who have experienced challenges I have not faced and also, because of that assignment, I know more about working with social services resources, welfare, issues of abuse and ways to be of help to families in grief or in financial struggle or dealing with major health issues than I ever imagined possible when I first started out as a cheerful, green visiting teacher to fellow college students decades ago.

    And I continue to learn. There is always something new. It has kept me from living a cocooned, middle class life and has expanded my capacities, my understanding and my and personal resources greatly and has significantly reduced my sense of awkwardness with the unfamiliar. I am very grateful for that.

    I teach primary too. The section you wrote on “don’t say the word” made me chuckle. So true.

  7. I love Cub Scouts! I’ve been the Webelos leader for nearly five years, and I love this calling. (I currently have no Webelos, and I have another calling that I am learning to love as much.)What other calling lets you sub, or not, lets you have paper airplane contests, play basketball, bring bugs to a meeting, build catapults and allow you to be rowdy?
    I have no brothers, my husband wasn’t a Scouter, and my son was not yet eight, but I accepted the call and love it. After helping at least 20 boys earn their Arrow of Light awards, a parent presented me with my own at the last Arrow of Light ceremony. I almost cried.

  8. HAhahahah! So funny! But I must admit, these are some of the reasons I prefer teaching gospel doctrine. (And the fact that I have NEVER had to drag one of my students back out from under their chair! :))

  9. Great, interesting list Sarita. I so agree about the candy or other sugary treats. But I found after getting them the 3rd hour they are starving and can’t focus well. So I use to feed them something nutritious like cheese and apples or homemade bread. It makes such a difference and is worth the extra effort. I never bribed them with it…instead I gave it to them first thing and say, “I’m hoping if I give you something nutritious to eat that you will have an easier time focusing on the lesson. We’ll see if it works.” Of course I never brought anything on Fast Sunday. (Oh and if a child brings candy from home I tell them it is not allowed in my classroom. They put it right away…never been a problem.)

  10. Good point, M2theh. Although my CTR 5 class that starts at 11am is always STARVING, so Grandma Honey has a good point as well. I don’t think I’m a control freak, but as a former primary chorister, sharing time bugs me. I tend to sit and either be bored or critique the teaching methods. . . did I really admit that?

  11. Here I had been in primary all these years and never had my kids come over and ask to play! Probably because they come over to play with my kids.

    Sometimes I think I was blessed with the strange gift of not finding kids annoying. When I was the primary chorister a member of the presidency asked me who I struggled with. I couldn’t come up with a single kid! From the boisterous sunbeams who can’t sit still, to the sullen eleven-year-old boys who try to act like they are WAY too cool for primary I was really fond of them all. And then I got released, so maybe I wasn’t experiencing any growth there. But I did have a ton of fun.

    I am less accepting of adults, so now that I am in Relief Society again I probably have some spiritual lessons to learn. But I am subbing in nursery on Sunday so I can put it off I guess. ;)

    P.S. I hear you on the “inside scoop” on the kids’ families! Those parents would die if they knew what the kids told the teachers.

  12. Great list!

    I do agree with Grandma Honey on the snacks. We bring treats just for the children’s birthdays or occasionally if it really goes with a lesson, but we bring pretzels every week. My husbands and I teach a “special” class of CTR 5’s (including two children with special social and behavioral needs receiving early intervention) that really wasn’t ready to give up snack. They focus so much better in the lesson by having a little cup of pretzels to munch on.

    I adore Primary, and have been the chorister twice and a teacher twice.

    Relief Society? Not my forte. A few years ago I was called to be the Enrichment Counselor and it was a serious challenge! I hadn’t been to enrichment in years and wasn’t a fan. I learned about the mantle of a calling. I was somehow able to find a connection to enrichment and the sisters in the ward and provide some unconventional but well received activities (like one on depression with a speaker from LDS Family Services that set a record for attendance for our stake). I thought I had finally gained a testimony of RS gatherings, but oddly enough after I was released I became kind of disconnected again.

    Sadly, I hope this doesn’t mean I am destined for longer future stints in Relief Society.

  13. Grandma Honey, no one has ever brought my child healthy snacks. I would be a little more okay with that. I still don’t love it. I should qualify and say that lessons where food was involved were huge successes. Here are a couple of examples. We had a sharing time once where the story of Jesus and how he fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes was told. The teacher had a basket with rustic loaves of bread and tore off a piece for each child. No one has forgotten that story. We also had another sharing time talking about Jonah and the whale and being obedient to the Lord’s commandments. The children then made cucumber boats with a cheese sail and tuna in the middle. They loved, loved, loved this lesson.

  14. Amos-10 years in Primary?! I’m glad you love it though, and yes, the tangential digressions are hilarious. I agree that getting a lot of one-on-one classroom time with your class makes a difference than when you’re in every other week. I found the same thing when I taught too, especially when I got one four year old class and got to keep them until they started turning 6. I taught lots of different ages, and they were my favorite group because we got an extra year with them and were able to “train” them really well and get to know them best.

    Becky-thanks for adding your own takeaways. I love them all. Sometimes the things kids tell you about the parents/family are funny, sometimes they’re awkward. I’ve had my share of those moments too. I also can’t emphasize the moving around/creativity enough too. It took me a while to get used to the children’s short attention spans, but once I did, it was fun to add variety and do various different activities to mix things up a bit.

    Jules-12 years! You have a gift. I think I could do Primary for a long time, but not GD. That’s the one calling I hope I never get, which means that it will probably come sooner or later! Interesting that your bishop would say that…I know lots of single women in RS presidencies. I’m glad it’s been a good experience. I’m also in a RS presidency right now (also a calling that surprised me) and I’ve never been aware of more needs in people’s lives,so what you said makes sense. I’ve never had a stronger testimony of VT either, which has helped me to get to know people so that I can figure out what they need.

    Jendoop, I’m constantly surprised by how well the Lord knows each of us, and what we need and want in our lives, especially when we don’t immediately recognize what He has in store for us. I know the feeling of wanting to be released from a calling. Several times, I cried out of frustration (at home, not at church) at my Primary lessons and hoped it would all be over soon. Just when I began to LOVE the calling was when I was released, which is how it always seems to go, for me. Yes, nursery definitely has its perks.

  15. JP-you have the calling that is right for you then! Undoubtedly, all the kids in your life are blessed by your presence.

    MB-thanks for your testimony about VT. Gaining my own testimony of VT has taken a while, but I think it’s the strongest it’s ever been for the exact same reasons you’ve mentioned. Thanks for reminding me once more about how important it is!

    Shantell-those boys are fortunate to have you! They’ll have great memories of scouting and their time with you, which for me, was one of the greatest rewards of working with the children.

    Ana-totally understandable. The day one of my Primary kids said she REALLY REALLY REALLY had to go to the bathroom so I gave in and took her and then she locked herself in the stall and pulled all the toilet paper off the roll, I thought it would be so nice to teach adults again…

  16. Grandma Honey, Kristen, Becky-I should have specified what I meant by “food.” I was kind of annoyed at the teachers who would bring plates of cookies and lots of candy every week, especially on fast Sundays. I remember reading that comment in the handbooks about not bringing in food unless it was explicitly mentioned in the lesson, like the tithing lesson where it says you can bring in an apple and cut it in 10 pieces. And I could always tell, when I got a new class, how their teachers handled food during lessons by the way the kids asked, like they felt entitled and expected it. If a healthy snack will help kids focus so they can feel the Spirit and be more reverent, then that’s a different situation. I love those ideas mentioned by Becky—also very appropriate uses of food at Church.

    M2theh-especially when the kids think you’re lame because you don’t have treats, right?

    Bth-I admit I critique too—but it’s the school teacher in me who’s been trained to do more than just stand up in front of the class and do ALL the work. I have to work on that and remember that not everyone is a natural at teaching, nor does everyone have my educational background.

    DeniMarie-I like what you said about having the “gift” of not finding children annoying. It made me laugh. But it’s a good gift to have, which I was reminded of when I was issued my Primary calling. The member of the bishopric who extended the calling said that if Christ were to come to the earth today, the first place He’d go would be where the children are.

  17. I love your post, Sarita! You and Jesse are more than “remotely” cool, so I know why the kids in your class loved you!

  18. All I know is that I want out of scouts now. I think four years is more than my fair share (even if I do have four boys).

  19. I agree 100% with the food thing. I was asked to teach 9 year olds and the previous teacher had given the kids candy every week. When I told them I wouldn’t be bringing candy because it says not to in the manual, you could have heard the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth through the entire building! (I had a couple of parents thank me later.)I stuck to my guns except at Christmas when I gave the kids a picture of Christ and a small candy cane for a gift. You would have thought the kids had struck gold. It was the last Sunday I was teaching that class. I think I brought bread one other time when we were having a lesson about manna. It was suggested in the lesson.

    We had a ward division a couple of months ago and I asked that after spending 8 years in Primary I really needed a break. My bishop understands and I’m now serving as a ward missionary and loving it! I admire the women who can love serving in Primary for longer periods of time and keep their sanity as well. I must admit my favorite calling in Primary is chorister. It is so much fun to teach the gospel through music!

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