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?