Reminders to Frank about Teaching

April 12, 2005 | 16 comments
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We have a lot of teachers around here. I am guessing that at least half of our perma-bloggers are somehow involved in teaching and probably huge chunks of our readership are or will be. Personally, I teach once a month in the Elder’s Quorum, a calling I greatly enjoy. The EQ enjoys a demographic closeness that Sunday School lacks, which makes teaching easier and more relaxed, though there are costs due to the narrowed experiences.

I ran across a talk by Elder Oaks from conference a while back and thought I’d throw out a couple quotes from it as a reminder to myself. Perhaps they will be a good reminder to you too.

…I have sometimes observed teachers who gave the designated chapter no more than a casual mention and then presented a lesson and invited discussion on other materials of the teacher’s choice. That is not acceptable. A gospel teacher is not called to choose the subject of the lesson but to teach and discuss what has been specified. Gospel teachers should also be scrupulous to avoid hobby topics, personal speculations, and controversial subjects.

Now I struggled with using the manual a fair bit when I was teaching the manual lessons. I preferred to use the scriptures and sometimes found myself only barely referencing the words of the prophets. Obviously, there are worse things than that, but part of the point of the lessons is to get to know the prophets. You don’t get to know Nephi by reading Alma, and you can’t get to know Grant by reading Luke. I find it somewhat easier with Teachings for our Times because I have the whole talks to work with.

Here’s President Kimball emphasizing that to be a teacher is to be a guest.

He has been given an authoritative position and a stamp of approval is placed upon him, and those whom he teaches are justified in assuming that, having been chosen and sustained in the proper order, he represents the Church and the things which he teaches are approved by the Church. No matter how brilliant he may be and how many new truths he may think he has found, he has no right to go beyond the program of the Church.

What, in this case, is the program of the Church? I am guessing it means to stick to the central doctrines of the Church, skip the discussion of the second anointing, free masonry, and the details of polygamy in the 19th century. Skip the politics and the travelogues. No calls for the immediate imposition of the United Order or impeachment of elected officials. You are a steward given a job to do. And the job is to teach the basic doctrine in a way that invites the Spirit.

Teachers who are commanded to teach “the principles of [the] gospel” and “the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C 88:77) should generally forgo teaching specific rules or applications. For example, they would not teach any rules for determining what is a full tithing, and they would not provide a list of dos and don’ts for keeping the Sabbath day holy. Once a teacher has taught the doctrine and the associated principles from the scriptures and the living prophets, such specific applications or rules are generally the responsibility of individuals and families.

Yes, well, isn’t that the truth. It is all too easy to dream up great rules that other people should live by…

Lastly, here’s President Hinckley on the big one:

We must … get our teachers to speak out of their hearts rather than out of their books, to communicate their love for the Lord and this precious work, and somehow it will catch fire in the hearts of those they teach.

Sometimes I do okay at inviting the spirit, but oftentimes I fall short. The purpose of the lessons is to learn the doctrines, but it is far more to help us develop the desire to obey the commandments so that we can gain personal witnesses. And so the real goal is to bring in the Spirit. I think my haphazard performance here is lack of prayerful planning as much as anything. One can often see how a lesson outline will progress and can incorporate those things, such as bearing specific testimony, that bring the spirit. But too often I prepare the lesson at the last minute to do this like it deserves to be done.

So enough blogging, I need to start prepping my lesson…

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16 Responses to Reminders to Frank about Teaching

  1. Ben S. on April 12, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    These are some good reminders, thanks.

    I’m happy to be teaching the one class where I can talk Temple all the time, and I’m supposed to teach, not encourage democratic discussion, since “you all know better than me” about the topic.

  2. Ana on April 12, 2005 at 6:24 pm

    So what do you all do when the lesson in your manual is just a dog? The Young Women’s manuals haven’t been revised in at least 20 years and some of them … I just can’t do. There was one last year that involved blindfolding and gagging the class president and having her try to give instructions — to demonstrate the importance of communication in leadership. I could not do it. It was too psycho.

    In those cases I take the same topic and construct a lesson using articles from recent Church magazines, and of course the scriptures. Actually, I almost always try to bring in more recent and relevant materials, anyway. For 15-year-olds, a New Era from 1978 might as well be the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  3. Jonathan Green on April 12, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    Frank, is the third cited paragraph also from Pres. Kimball? I agree with it, but I also think that a lesson without any concrete application can be pointless. When I teach (on every third first Sunday in EQ), I ask members of the quorum what they do, or what works for them, or how they apply a given principle. I’ll typically mention some of my own experiences as well. Is that still acceptable?

    Also, when will we get another post on the tools economists use?

  4. HL Rogers on April 12, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    I second the request for another econ post.

    I agree that it can sometimes be hard to use the manuals–I’m reminded (and I know I’ve used this example before in the blogggernacle but its cause I really like it, so back off! :) ) of the story of Elder maxwell as a college student going to see Elder Lee to tell him the manuals were terrible (see Maxwell Biography by Hafen, p. 170). However, I think the Spirit will aid us as we strive to work within the structure of the manuals and that we can enrich lessons while being faithful to the manual. I think this takes a lot more work and effort then either reading straight from the manual or completely dismissing the manual.

    Anyway, great quotes Frank.Good stuff to remember.

  5. yddy42 on April 12, 2005 at 8:45 pm

    If we are not to teach specifics then perhaps EQ could be shortened to 5 minutes. Read 2 or 3 scriptures pertaining to the topic, bear testimony, and dismiss!

    Seriously, some topics are very hard to stretch out to the full 45 minutes.

  6. ukann on April 13, 2005 at 2:09 am

    Throw into the mix that the the manual has to be used in a different country and it makes some of the ‘cultural’ examples (I’m thinking of YW manual here), even more irrelevant. It has always been my policy teaching in various capacities in the church over the last 40+ years to use what I could from the manual and teach the ‘principle’ therein, but not use the cultural examples. I’ve become very imaginative in making up examples/stories of my own that are more relevant to the class I’m teaching. You can’t imagine what chortles and gales of laughter there were in RS in the 70′s as we learned/taught the old mother education lessons, at some of the stories. However, having said that, the principles were priceless and I learned a lot as a new mum.

    I’m also aware that it can’t be easy to produce manuals which are to be used practically world-wide, and that relate to every culture. I guess the only alternative would be to have them written and produced in each country, which be horrendously complicated, time-consuming and expensive. I think the powers-that-be are happy that we adapt, as long as the principle is taught.

  7. Derek on April 13, 2005 at 2:30 am

    “A gospel teacher is not called to choose the subject of the lesson but to teach and discuss what has been specified.”

    This statement appears to conflict with what they teach at the MTC, to “personalize the message” to your audience. But now I’m talking about missionaries, not sunday school teachers, so maybe the two roles each have their own set of rules?

  8. Todd Lundell on April 13, 2005 at 9:04 am

    Ana, you could have a whole post on the problems with the YW manual. At one time a few years ago my wife and I were both teaching the youth; she YW and me YM. While I would be teaching on the nature of the godhead, she would be teaching about hygiene. She was recently called back into the YW and we were reminded that many of the lessons are simply strange and whole topics often have very little relevance to most of the youth in Queens, NY.

    To be honest, I am not one who usually criticizes the Sunday School manuals. I generally think the Gospel Doctrine manuals are organized well and include enough interesting material for most classes (EQ on the other hand, I think is much harder to teach). When I taught GD, I followed the manual pretty closely, though I would often add my own personal touches.

    The YW manual, however, seems to be the exception to this rule. No matter what year you are teaching, many of the lessons border on the bizzare. Someone really needs to update those manuals. Meanwhile, I think the teachers have no choice but to pick and choose among the available material and supplement where needed.

  9. Jim Richins on April 13, 2005 at 9:44 am

    Actually, I believe the new focus of the missionary discussions is much more congruent with the intent of Elder Oaks’ talk (and the sources for the other quotes Frank provided) than has been in the past. Preach My Gospel allows significantly more freedom than memorized discussions, but it also specifies very clearly that the missionaries need to know the lessons, the commitments, the doctrines, etc. very well in order to teach them. They need to know the lessons by heart, not just memorized words, but the underlying principles. This constitutes proper preparation for either missionary, Priesthood or auxiliary instructors.

    “First, seek to obtain my word, then shall your tongue be loosed…”

    As first-order sources for lesson materials, the manuals ARE terrible. In the past, using the manuals in this way may have been the generally understood and accepted pattern. However, I do not believe that this is the way it should be. As second-order, supplemental resources, the manuals are adequate. The new Presidents of the Church manuals are especially good for this purpose – I believe they are the best innovation in Church curriculum in a long tme. Ultimately, whether we are teaching about the Godhead or hygiene, our first-order sources should be the scriptures.

    The real purpose of the manuals should be to help the instructor prepare him or herself. By providing a home-study option to help the instructor obtain the Word, to understand the principle to be taught, and hopefully even receive some personal insights and growth. This should occur days, perhaps even weeks, before a lesson is scheduled to be given. If an instructor has obtained the Word, s/he will be able to teach with the Spirit, by not looking down at the manual but by up at the class, and listening to their comments as well as to the promptings of the Holy Ghost.

    Frank mentions that the teacher is a guest, which is the salient point to remember when teaching the Gospel. No mortal man or woman should have the hubris to expect that s/he can unilaterally teach any Gospel principle in a way that will change hearts or inspire testimony. That is the mission of the Holy Ghost, and man or woman should not seek to elevate him or herself to that level.

  10. Frank McIntyre on April 13, 2005 at 10:01 am

    Jonathan, No, that’s Elder Oaks. Econ post request noted. I’ll put something out in the next week or so. I’ll try to make it both boring and inaccessible, but with a clever title. I think there can be certain kinds of applications used in class, Elder Oaks seems to be hammering the pharisaical tendency or the attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all regime for things from the teacher. The teacher, after all, is a guest representative of the Church. Asking how individual class members apply principles in their lives, with care that we aren’t trying to write rules for other people, might be quite helpful.

    yddy42, You need some real vowels in your name. Otherwise I feel like I’m talking to somebody slamming their head on their keyboard. But no, I think that one can do a lot in a lesson but still not list the dos and don’ts of Sabbath worship.

    Derek,
    I am not sure I agree. One personalizes the message, but the message must be the same message. Thus a missionary finds personalized ways to teach faith, but they must teach faith. The teacher does the same. And just as the missionary should always steer back to the scriptures, teachers are supposed to steer back to scriptures and the manual.

    ukann, the YW manual sounds like a loser (not that I know). Maybe somebody should send a letter off to the curriculum department. I would guess they already know it is time for a revision, but you never know. EQ can probably get by on 20 year old materials, but YW?

  11. Seth Rogers on April 13, 2005 at 12:36 pm

    I think a major reason it’s a good idea for EQ teachers to stay within the specified material is so they’ll possibly get out on time.

    EQ members are young and male. Meaning, they like to hear themselves talk. You get off on a tangent and they’ll probably REALLY run with it. They’ll keep beating the topic to death until their young primary aged children start hanging on the doors of the cultural hall.

  12. Frank McIntyre on April 13, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    One of the things I miss from having priesthood first is not having Primary children wander into EQ at the end of the block, since EQ is normally in a place with low barriers to entry. Relief Society classes typically have doors, but I bet they get it too.

  13. Seth Rogers on April 13, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    Man, that’s rough.

    I have to say that the trend in some wards to hold sacrament meetings last is very poorly thought out, to say the least.

    By the time you get to sacrament meeting, the kids have been sitting for two hours already and are just wired. The noise level triples, half the parents are forced to leave with screaming kids, and the spirit just leaves the building.

    For the love of everything holy … Please hold your sacrament meetings first!

  14. HL Rogers on April 13, 2005 at 6:59 pm

    I second that emotion!

  15. Jim F. on April 13, 2005 at 11:46 pm

    Frank: I’ll try to make it [the post on econ] both boring and inaccessible

    That shouldn’t require any effort at all, given the topic. Now philosophy–we go for interesting and inaccessible.

  16. Frank McIntyre on April 14, 2005 at 9:36 am

    No, the challenge is definitely the snappy title. The rest comes naturally.