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Managing a class of 'problems'
By Orson Scott Card August 5, 2010

It was 1980, and my wife and I moved to Orem. With one child, another on the way, and our first mortgage, we felt like grownups.

Since my wife radiates competence, she attracts callings like a magnet. Within the first few weeks she had four different assignments -- even though she was coping with morning sickness.

I'm not sure what I radiate, but let's just say my name was still in the "unassigned" category on the bishop's organizational chart.

The Primary presidency came to my wife and asked her to fill in "for a while" with a problem class -- the nine-year-olds.

And by "problem," they meant, specifically, that the last four teachers had quit within a week or two. There were some wild boys that simply could not be controlled.

I overheard the unfamiliar sound of my wife turning down a church calling -- but I knew she was right. She simply didn't have enough non-sick hours in the day to add yet another assignment.

So I came into the room and volunteered.

This was before the consolidated schedule. Primary met at four-thirty in the afternoon on a weekday. Most men were not free to take part.

But I was. A self-employed writer, I could determine my own schedule. So I became the lone man in the Primary organization.

I got the manual. We were studying the lives of the Presidents of the Church. The president told me to pretend that no lessons had yet been taught -- because, to all intents and purposes, they hadn't.

There were eight or so students, half of them boys. Ten seconds into our first class session, I could see that all the discipline problems radiated from two of the boys, and only one of them was initiating the escapades.

The girls all sat very quietly, watching the boys with disdain. (This is why teenage girls in the Church usually don't date boys who grew up in the same ward with them -- they saw them misbehaving through all those years in Primary.)

When I sternly asked for them to sit down, absolutely nothing happened. They continued what they were doing as if I had not spoken. Uh-oh.

Last week, I told you about Patrick Lencioni's enjoyable and useful book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job.

In it, he talked of three problems that, unsolved, can make any job miserable -- even if it's your dream job and you're well paid for it.

1. Immeasurement: People have no way of judging whether they themselves are doing a good job.

2. Irrelevancy: People feel as if their work doesn't make any difference in the world.

3. Anonymity: People feel as if they are not known as individuals.

I think these principles apply to church callings as well. And I'm so radical about it that I think teachers are managers, too.

Certainly these boys needed management. And I was determined to manage them myself -- not call in the Primary presidency to remove them from my class. If that worked, the problem would already have been solved.

The two "problem" boys clearly thought that coming to Primary was a miserable job, and they were making it miserable for everyone else, too. Punishing them for hating Primary wouldn't exactly make things better.

So instead, as one of the boys dived for the window and started wriggling through it, I took him around the waist, pulled him back into the room, brought him to the front, and stood him on his head.

I did this without pausing in telling a story about Joseph Smith -- the content of the lesson continued uninterrupted. But as I held the boy by his ankles, he was actually having a marvelous time. He was the center of attention; he was doing something physical and unusual; and he had tested the boundaries of what he could get away with.

The other "problem" boy begged to be allowed to stand on his head, too, but I told him "one at a time" and, with the visual aid of an upside-down boy, I continued telling the story of Joseph Smith's injured leg and the operation to save it.

I immediately began to help them measure their own performance as students. No, I didn't count disruptions and try to get to keep them at a minimum. Instead, I gave them tests. Quick oral tests.

After I told a couple of stories, I made a game of having them tell the stories back to me. "Tell me the story of Joseph Smith's leg," I said. "Tell me about his First Vision." Then I called on one kid after another to tell a part of each tale.

Of course there was competition among them to tell each story completely and accurately -- that was part of the fun. Within three weeks, they had a fund of stories that any one of them could tell, on the spot, in detail, when I pointed at them.

Each week, we began by reviewing past stories -- I'd call on the kids at random. And we added new stories week after week.

By the middle of the second month, a sharing-time presentation fell through -- the assigned class wasn't ready. So I raised my hand and said, "We can do it."

My students looked at me like I was crazy -- they didn't have anything prepared. Or so they thought.

We all paraded up to the front of the room -- and then I announced, "We're going to tell you some stories about Brigham Young." (That's who we were studying at that moment.) I pointed to one student after another, told them which story to tell ... and every single one was more than ready.

They were excited to show the whole Primary what they knew. When every child had told a story, we returned triumphantly to our seats. The "problem class" had become now the stars of the Primary.

Meanwhile, the attempts at disruption had diminished. I explained to the boys how class was something we created together, like building a sand castle or a tree fort, and they got the analogy. The two most disruptive boys became some of the best students -- eager and cooperative.

They understood what their job, as students, was and how it affected other people; they had a way to measure whether they were doing it well; and I had shown them how the lives of the prophets taught them principles they could use in their own lives.

These management principles work -- even when you don't know you're using them. They work with children. They work with adults. They work in organizations and meetings and classrooms. It's amazing how simple and obvious good management can be.

I can't duplicate Lencioni's excellent book in this column. But I assure you that you can help the people you lead and serve to find meaning and joy in their church jobs.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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