Monday, January 18, 2010

What Shall We Teach?

Two decades ago I had the chance to teach seminary for a couple of years. We had regular in-service meetings in our stake, and our CES representative regularly reminded us that in seminary we taught the scriptures. We did not teach about the scriptures. We did not teach scripture stories. We taught the scriptures.

There's been some discussion across the blogs recently about renewed call by the church to have teachers stick to the lesson manuals – everything from a talk in General Conference to an editorial in the Church News. My favorite blog comment came from The Narrow Gate.

Frankly, I don't get the hullabaloo. (How many times to you get to use that word?) I've been teaching in the church for many years. I started teaching in Primary before my mission over 30 years ago. And my teaching has always been a blend of manual / scripture / personal stories / related materials approach. And I see no need to change that given the latest invitation from the brethren to stick to the basics when we teach.

I remember when I was called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher in our ward in Hiroshima, Japan years ago. It was a Japanese language ward, but there were half a dozen or so of us who attended an English language class. Our subject was the Book of Mormon, and the first week I prepared three different lessons – well, one lesson, but with three different focuses – and I asked the class which one they'd like. The choices were history, literature, or doctrine.

The class kind of stared at me, not sure what to make of this new teacher. One fellow (who was visiting at the time, but later moved into the ward and became a great friend) finally said in a voice suggesting there was only one answer, "Doctrine." In fact, all three themes had been touched on in the lesson manual, but there was no time to do everything in the class time, so we had to pick.

Later in that same ward, the bishop asked me to teach everyone in Gospel Doctrine together, in both Japanese and English. (His wife translated for me into Japanese.) That meant I had only half the time to teach (since half was taken in translation). It really made me work hard to pare down what we would discuss in the class, and it also encouraged class members to prepare ahead of time since we could not "cover" the whole lesson.

My point is that lesson-manual lessons provide (for me) a great deal of latitude in their preparation and presentation. I've rarely had a problem augmenting my lessons with quotations from general conference talks or personal stories or related scriptures. I enjoy lessons that provide historical context, and I enjoy great discussions in classes. But in the end, I don't go to church to be entertained. I go for spiritual food. And I find that my ability to find it is far more dependent on how I attend rather than how the teachers teach.

That said, I prefer a well taught lesson. My personal non-favorites:

- Reading the lesson from front to back. This seems to be common in my High Priest group these days, and I'm glad when we have an instructor who breaks from that mold.

- A teacher who assumes the person in the scriptures is just like him ("If I were Nephi, I would…."). I get the need to liken the scriptures and all that, but I'm not sure a 21st century teacher can speak for Nephi, especially when Nephi has pretty eloquently spoken for himself.

- A teacher who doesn't connect the dots between the verses of scriptures read in class, but simply has the verses read and then moves on; it just seems like this teacher is going through the motions.

- The teacher who doesn't pay attention to comments, but has already moved in his head to the next idea in his lesson; again, it seems the teacher has a destination he's driving to and we're going to there no matter what.

- The teacher who abandons the lesson and teaches whatever he feels like; I feel cheated, especially if I happened to have prepared for the lesson that day (which doesn't always happen).

I've attended lessons in lots of places with lots of teachers and teaching styles, and here are some things I have learned:

- I can determine what I'll get out of a lesson by what I put in it, regardless of what the teacher does. I can complain to myself (or to my wife after the lesson), but if I do, I'm pretty sure I'll not get much; alternatively I can listen and make my own connections even if the teacher doesn't, and I can come away fed.

- Most teachers are pretty good hearted. Even nervous teachers want to do a good job. My wife is a very nervous teacher; frankly she'd rather almost do anything than teach a group of adults, and yet she's called over and over again to teach, and people love her lessons. I think it's because she approaches her lessons prayerfully and humbly; she prepares carefully, but she doesn't try to be the smartest person in the room, and she willingly accepts the help of her class members and of the Spirit.

In the end, we all teach, whether in a classroom or in our homes or by our example. May we teach truth.

- Paul


  1. Thanks. Hope you stick around, and become a regular reader. It's especially nice to hear something complimentary, as I've recently received quite a bit of hate mail from that post. One of my more colorful commentators really went to town. It astonishes me how the mere notion of church doctrine sends some people through the roof--yet, strangely, they feel no compelling need (that I'm aware of) to question the source, or legitimacy, or appropriateness of their own anger.

  2. C.J.,

    Well, I'm glad you saw this post, then! I've enjoyed quite a number of your posts lately. I'll be better about leaving a positive comment from time to time. :-)