Advice on Teaching – Preliminaries

June 6, 2013 | 15 comments
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jesus teacherI’ve recently been involved in teacher training in my ward and have prepared some materials that I’m going to share across a few posts. I would love for others to chime in with their feedback, criticism, or additional thoughts.

  1. You feel inadequate. Or you should. Almost all of us do, and this is true even when we love teaching and aren’t struggling with a false or pseudo-sense of self-deprecation. The reality is, the gospel is difficult, we’re not professionals, and we have moral, spiritual and social obligations to our class. We ought to have a healthy sense of our own inadequacy – but it ought to be a healthy and not a debilitating sense. Here are some things to keep in mind.
    1. Gain a testimony of your calling. Or, on a related note, gain a testimony of what’s going on in our church organization as the Lord uses the weak and the simple (i.e., us) to build the kingdom. I find Eugene England extremely helpful on this one. I also draw inspiration from D&C 88:118, 122. We’re all appointed to teach; it’s a privilege; it’s part of the obligation of Zion; and it’s how Zion get’s built. We shouldn’t be arrogant, but nor should we allow feelings of inadequacy to undermine our commitment to the organizational model of the Restoration.
    2. You don’t need to be smarter or more eloquent than your students to help them connect to the Spirit. Being the best teacher they’ve ever had is not the goal. Helping your class collectively learn and commune with the spirit is. But remember, this isn’t an excuse. Feelings of inadequacy should yield a healthy motivation to prepare and improve.
    3. Effort: if ye are prepared ye shall not fear – well, maybe you will, but nonetheless you will also be confident in your message.
    4. Know your biases and use your strengths. The reality is, you’re going to have students who don’t like you or your style or your gospel emphases. You will. Just think about the teachers you’ve sat through. It’s a given, but don’t dismiss them because of that. Learn more about why, about how to improve. But also reflect honestly on your strengths. If you can’t ask as penetrating questions as a Julie Smith or an Adam Miller, what can you do? Spend time thinking about what you can give to even those who don’t particularly appreciate your teaching.
    5. Practice a little Joseph Smith style humility. He said, “I . . . know more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does anyhow . . . [and] I will associate myself with it” (King Follet Discourse).
  2. You’re not reviewing. You’re teaching. Sometimes we’re tempted to try and coast through a lesson by merely reviewing the material or the principles or platitudes that we think the lesson is meant to highlight. We do this for a number of reasons: we’re intimidated by the material or the students in the class, we’ve had a hugely busy week and just didn’t have time to prepare, we falsely believe that correlation has already written the lesson, we’re scared about roughly the feathers of our local gatekeepers, etc. Sometimes, we simply misunderstand the nature of our calling or assignment. But the Master Teacher has called us to teach, and so we’ve got to do just that. Despite popular opinion on the matter, we’re not standing at the front of the class just to “lead discussion.” If that were the case, we’d be a called as Sunday School Moderators not teachers, and we’d have Sunday Chats instead of Sunday School. So each week your goal is to teach something. Here are some suggestions for how to do that:
    1. Have something specific in mind that you want to teach: a (set of) gospel principle(s) or spiritual truth(s) or insight(s) or a (series of) key question(s) that, after studying and praying over that week’s material, you feel will be beneficial for the class. Let this specific principle (or question, etc.) guide your lesson, and make sure that no one gets out of the class wondering what the take home message for them is. For example, you might feel that what will be most beneficial to the class will be getting them to seriously ponder the question, “What does the gathering of Israel really mean for my family today?”
    2. Sometimes, this will mean sharing something new with your class. Since you’re a teacher, sometimes it’s your job to teach them something new. Since none of us have or ever will have PhDs in church doctrine and teaching methodology, that means you’ve got to do work. You’ve got to learn things yourself. One of the lies we sometimes believe is that we’re incapable of coming up with new insights. That’s simply not true. (See 1.5 above)
    3. Sometimes, this will mean sharing something your class already knows, maybe something that’s “obvious,” but sharing it in a new way or helping them see and feel the profundity of that thing again, or helping the class remember why they believe in it. Sometimes this means helping them to re-experience something with the people in the scriptures. For example, while we all know that Zion can be a literal place, the D&C makes clear that saints living in Jackson County Missouri thought about Zion in very different ways than we normally talk about it today. Help your students to let the scriptures challenge them.
    4. Sometimes this will mean helping your students commit to something practical. For example, we all believe in keeping the Sabbath day holy. The point of your lesson might be helping each of your students to reflect honestly on their Sabbath observance and figure out what concrete changes they can implement in order to make the Sabbath more of a delight.[1]
  3. Do you know your class? I believe that what you do in the classroom is always and unavoidably contextualized by what you do outside of the classroom, by the kind of community that exists in your ward, and how you contribute to that community. We’ve all heard our Mom’s telling us, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” They’re right. It’s a platitude because it’s true. Again, think about someone you love dearly but who is simply not a talented teacher. Your experience in that individuals classroom will always be better than a stranger’s – you give yourself more to that teacher and to the lessons, and consequently gain more out of it. You’ve got to work hard to build the community rapport and spirit in your ward so as to build the spirit in your classroom.
    1. Sometimes you have a large class (e.g., Gospel Doctrine) and don’t know half the people in there. Change that. I’ve got a terrible brain for remember names, but an ok short-term, cram-it-in memory. Both at work and at church I always take the time to learn and repeat to the students’ names. It helps everyone get to know everyone better and to be more comfortable with one another, without anyone having to do the work themselves. It’s probably the single most effective thing I do.
    2. Sometimes you have a small class (e.g., a small primary). Take the time to interact with them regularly outside of class. I like to bake bread for my students. Whatever you do, do something to connect with them.
    3. Either case: get to know them better and love them particularly. Make it your goal to empirically disprove Ivan Karamazov’s belief about loving one’s neighbor.


[1] As we’ll see in the “Preparation” post, however, Elder Oaks warns us from getting too specific in creating application lists or rules.

15 Responses to Advice on Teaching – Preliminaries

  1. Brian on June 6, 2013 at 10:37 am

    Other advice: Don’t believe that you’ve got teaching “figured out.” You don’t. This is especially tempting when you’ve gotten some good things going, but it leads to arrogance and complacency. Every day, every class, every lesson is different and should be approached with respect, humility, and earnest enthusiasm.

  2. Dave on June 6, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Nice points, James. Yes, we need to get the right mix of discussion/teaching in class, which probably varies by class composition and by who is teaching.

    You didn’t talk about the teacher prep manual in the post. It has some good ideas, but that class doesn’t get taught much anymore, so I’m not sure most teachers ever see it. They probably ought to take that material and cut it up into little pieces, inserting a one-paragraph “teaching tip” at the front of every Gospel Doctrine lesson. I think that would give such ideas (like yours above) a lot more coverage than they get now.

  3. JrL on June 6, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Excellent.

    I hope one part of your series will address how to reach and teach those in your class who do not attend.

  4. Jax on June 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Good! Remember they will learn from the Spirit more than from you… so be sure it is present in the class, when you prepare, and all other times. Make it a CONSTANT companion, instead of an occasional one, and the combination of help preparing, example, strong testimony, etc that comes from the spirit will make you a quality teacher regardless of gospel knowledge or teaching “style”.

  5. Naismith on June 6, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Good stuff.

  6. Adam G. on June 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Excellent. Do you have any thoughts on *how* one gains a testimony of one’s calling?

  7. Lars on June 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    I think that coaching is a better term, rather than teaching,as we are trying to get class members to understand and to do and this is what a coach does. The Teacher Training program introduced in the early ’70’s was excellent and the emphasis was on doing.

  8. Steve on June 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Frankly, too many rely on the spirt to cover poor preparation and inadequate preparation.

    The manuals are pretty uniformly awful. Take this year’s Lorenzo Snow manual. Usually a story and a few quotes for each lesson. Little historical context and the questions are at a 3rd grade level. Yet, many just read quote after quote, scripture after scripture, interspersed with a few requests as to what people think of the particular quote or scripture.

    That approach is a recipe for boredom and non-engagement. Go into most larger classes and you’ll see folks reading other material or spending energy on their smart phone or tablet.

    A good teacher engages the class asking probing questions, ie. ones that don’t just trigger a memorized answer.

    A good teacher uses a variety of techniques, including small group activities, brainstorming, problem solving, role playing, various visuals, group reports, etc.

    A good teacher brings in outside material to provide historical context and analysis.

    We can do so much better . . .

  9. European Saint on June 6, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Thanks, James!

  10. Cameron N on June 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    The manuals aren’t awful. They’re meant to be a framework. It’s on the teacher to do more than read quotes and ask questions chronologically.

  11. Steve on June 6, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Cameron,

    I disagree. Quotes/scriptures without context are nearly useless. What you end up is a lesson about generalities rather than real situations involving real people.

    My frustration with the Lorenzo Snow manual is that he was an interesting person and said a lot of interesting things.

    I taught a few weeks back a lesson on his rather miraculous rescue from drowning in Hawaii. There are tremendous accounts from him and his fellow travelers. There was nothing about the reason they were on the way there. It was tremendously rich experience that was drained of life.

  12. James Olsen on June 6, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    Thanks everyone.

    Brian: agreed. I discuss a similar point in the next post.

    Dave: Amen on the notion that part of what we need to do as good teachers is to “get the mix right” of teaching and discussions – I probably didn’t make that very clear given my own emphasis above. But as you mention, this is going to differ from teacher to teacher and class to class. I think my own lessons go best when I get a fairly balanced mix.

    That said, I’m very biased on which I think is more important. I don’t think discussion is completely necessary. I’ve had great teachers who allowed only minimal discussion – in fact, I have one in particular who was among the very best teachers I’ve ever known, and “discussion” along the lines of a normal GD setting was simply not a part of his classroom. I’ve had other, skillfully Socratic teachers wherein discussion dominated. A good Socrates is much more rare and difficult (and bad one’s are legion).

    In either case, what matters is that the students get taught.

    JrL: This is a great point, and one I’ve not yet considered. Feel free to share you thoughts on techniques.

    Jax: I agree, as I hope my comments above make clear. But I’m also very sympathetic to Steve’s comments, and think we’ve got to qualify our emphasis on the spirit. We simply can’t let it be an excuse. A concrete example that I’ll mention again next time: tangents. Tangents can be disastrous for a lesson. Every now and then one is inspired. It’s very common for us to stroke our egos, however, and tell ourselves that all of our tangents were evidence that discussion was being led by the spirit.

    Adam G: Unfortunately not. Testimonies are strange things. The best thing that happened for me personally on this end was reading England’s article. For some, I think it’s a matter of taking the testimony that they already have and applying it to their own particular situation. Happy to hear any thoughts you might have on this score.

    Lars: You’ve not convinced me, but that might be my own hangups with coaches. I do agree that helping students to “do” is a key aspect of good teaching.

    Steve: I talk of this some (indirectly, maybe I’ll revise it a bit) in my next post, but as I mentioned, I’m sympathetic to your charge against our manuals. I particularly agree with the notion that generic, 3rd grade questions kill any sort of genuine discussion or reflection. And we’re currently dealing with a pan-epidemic of “boredom and non-engagement.” Not only can we, I think we’re multiply obligated to do better.

    That said, I love the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manuals, but I love them precisely because they are NOT manuals. I know they try to help with their list of questions at the back (and they certainly gerrymander the quotes), but fortunately it’s minimal and easy to ignore. Instead what one gets is simply statements from our prophets, and it’s entirely up to the teacher to build the lessons. It’s similar to if our GD manuals simply gave you a list of scriptures to cover. I do, however, agree that investing in substantive historical context would be a significant improvement.

  13. YvonneS on June 7, 2013 at 7:09 am

    A gospel doctrine teacher needs to remember that the class is made up of intelligent people. Many will want to participate if a good question, not an obvious one is asked.

    There are some techniques that help get people doing and thinking. They are important to know and to use. I always like the round robin technique.With that one the teacher will hand out paper and pencils and ask the class to make a list. Then each person is asked to tell one thing on their list. Each answer is written on the chalk board. No comments about the list are made until every comment as been read. Then go back and discuss the question in light of all the comments. This is difficult with a really large class, but it can work if the teacher thinks about it and asks a question that opens thought.

    It is my opinion that the best way to teach is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Leave the book at home and have a few notes to remind you where you are going. Preparing includes prayer and study. The other important thing is to love and show respect to the people in the class, and make them feel welcome.

    Thank you Steve for you insightful comment at #8.

  14. Eric Palmer on June 10, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Great post. I used to have a lot of opinions about improving instruction in Sunday School and quorums, drawn from my work as a corporate trainer/adult educator, including well-designed open questions, small group work, etc. I’m heartened, for example, by the new youth curriculum and its emphasis (from what I’ve heard) on youth participation and application of principles. I hope it works as intended. Overall though, I think the principle of preparation that many in this thread have reiterated is crucial. Winging it rarely works, even for the pros. In my own life, I’ve found that when there’s a good reason for a lack of preparation (late notice, emergencies, etc.) the Spirit will pull me through, but otherwise, I’m on my own. Looking forward to your next post!

  15. Cindy Curtis on June 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I would like to find the second in this series on Advice on Teaching – Preparation by James Olsen. I can get it on my phone but I need to copy it. Thank you! Cindy Curtis