Thursday, March 1, 2012

How I teach (correlated or non-)

Here are some principles I use when I teach. I think that I’m a fair teacher (so people tell me), and I think most who attend my lessons would believe I’m in line with the correlated lessons:

1. The lesson manual is not scripture – while our lesson materials may be inspired, they aren’t scripture, and they do not deserve to be revered as such. Scripture is scripture. The lesson manual is a guide for me, and often helps me sort out the direction for a particular lesson. Sometimes the manual has stories or explanations that are useful for the lesson I teach, and I use them. But I do not assume that because it’s in the manual, I need to say it. [1]

2. We really teach scripture, not lessons. The text of the scripture is more important to me in my lessons than the manual. This principle was drilled into me by my CES coordinator when I taught seminary years ago. He urged us to rely on the scripture, particularly when teaching the Book of Mormon. I will study a scripture block multiple times (three, four, five?) while preparing to teach it. I’ll look up cross references, including my own. I’ll ask myself questions about the passages that I might not in my normal personal reading. And I’ll try to find answers to those questions as I prepare.

3. As a teacher, I’m entitled to inspiration if I am prayerful and if I listen. That can allow me to tailor a lesson to a particular class. (When I taught the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi this past week to my son’s class of 15-year olds, I assume it was a very different lesson than the one they had in the “adult” class – at least I hope so!)

4. Regardless of what I teach, I tend to teach from my experience: what I’ve read, seen, heard, and felt as I’ve studied the scriptures. I’ve been around for a few decades, and we’ve lived in a lot of places, so I tend to have some stories to tell, and I tell them freely.

5. I’m happy to include commentary from other church sources as it occurs to me. For this week’s lesson on Isaiah, I consulted my old Institute manuals on the Old Testament to remind myself of the kings around during Isaiah’s ministry, for instance. I don’t exclude anything from my preparation phase of the lesson. That said, I’m not an Old Testament scholar. I don’t read every FAIR or FARMS article. And I don’t feel a need to in order to teach a Sunday School lesson.

6. I tend to over-prepare. I have (especially when I’m teaching youth) one or two things that I know I want to hit, and then lots else in reserve in case we have time to fill. When teaching adults, I do a similar thing, but I’m less strict about the one or two message idea. (With adults, I tend to offer a few things, figuring different class members may latch on to one or another.) I try to think about questions, discussion, ideas, scripture blocks, stories that will reinforce my main themes.

7. When I teach, I use notes to guide me, but use the manual very sparingly (and then only if there’s a quotation to read). (In priesthood I use the manual more because I do want to quote the words of the prophet we’re studying, but again for selected quotations, not for front-to-back reading.) What actually comes out of my mouth usually follows the outline I have, but I watch the clock carefully to be sure I have time to end on my terms, and I adjust in the middle as necessary, sometimes leaving out entire sections of the lesson. I try NEVER to run over. Period.

8. It’s not unusual for me to go “off script” in a classroom discussion with a story or personal experience. When I do this, I try to be deliberate, listening for promptings that it’s right to do it. My goal is to have whatever happens point to my one or two (or more) key points in the lesson.

9. I like to be in the scriptures. We try to read as much scripture as seems comfortable for the group. I’m not interested in reading the whole class period, but I want to teach the scriptures, not just teach about them. When I tell a story from the scriptures, I like to mix paraphrase and quoting, being clear where I quote. If I ask someone to read a longer block of scriptures, I’ll often interrupt to make a point or two along the way.

10. As much as I like to hear myself talk, I know not everyone (anyone?) shares my enthusiasm. So I try to foster class participation, either by inviting others to read or to comment / discuss. But I am also not particularly interested in discussion for discussion’s sake. I’d like to be sure the discussion is moving in a helpful direction, and I will try gently to move it that way if needed. If I’m really successful, I’ll find myself referring to class members’ comments later in the lesson while summarizing or making a point.

What works for you when teaching? What do the best teachers you know do?

[1] The Teachings of the Prophets manuals present a bit of a conundrum in this regard. They are mostly the words of the prophets and therefore deserve extra attention. I do try to quote from them liberally when teaching from them. The same is true for Teaching For Our Times lessons based on conference talks. In the case of both of these, I do not believe it’s appropriate to teach a lesson on the “theme” of the assigned lesson and ignore the prophet’s words.


  1. That was kind of freaky for me. Should you have asked me to write a post about 10 thoughts about my teaching style, it would have read almost exactly the same.

    So I'm starting the day feeling pretty good about myself.

  2. I was thinking this morning that there are some things I haven't addressed here that maybe I'll discuss in another post, including:

    1. Youth lessons (for Aaronic PH and YW) may require a different approach, since they are "theme" lessons rather than "scripture" lessons

    2. Youth lesson class discipline (for lack of a better word), or lack thereof.

  3. I was called as a Relief Society instructor (in a mostly middle-aged ward). I'm always nervous that I won't do a good job, but because of my relative lack of experience (I'm only 25) I try to read something from the manual (I do Teachings of the Prophets books) and then let the other sisters comment.

    The only thing I have to do it prepare to address ... off-the-wall/not-quite-doctrinally-true comments. I usually find that by studying the manual, if someone says something incorrect, or too speculative, I can just refer the class back the manual, not "correcting" the person, but just pointing out truth that we can find in the manual.

    I don't usually try to get through all the words in the manual in each lesson (I figure that as adults, we have a little more responsibility to study the lesson on our own) but I do try to teach directly from the manual, and have the sisters comment on the words of the prophets. So far it has worked for me (mostly because the sisters do most of the talking and I just get to stand in front of the class and look pretty :) )

    These are some great tips.

    My favorite classes to teach are the Primary kids. I wonder if it's because I'm a young mom :) It comes naturally.

    I'm scared to death of the youth... I'll need lots of divine intervention if I am ever called as a YW leader or teacher or a youth Sunday school instructor.

    Your thoughts came perfectly for me this week as we have been studying Elder Richardson's talk from General Conference about teaching by the spirit.

  4. Becca, thanks for your comment. I have two thoughts that came while reading your words:

    1. My first calling after my wife and I married was teaching Gospel Doctrine in a class full of temple workers (we were in the soft seats of the RS room so the older members of our ward attended my class). I was 21 or 22. The subject was the Old Testament. I went every week wondering what in the world I could say to those folks that would be interesting or helpful. Lots of prayer and study helped. And getting them to talk (as you point out) was really valuable.

    2. When my wife was called as an RS teacher a number of years ago, our RS president stressed that one reason she called her was because they were not reading enough out of the Teachings of the Prophets manuals. So she did what you do -- focused discussion on a selection of quotations from the manual. (My wife and I are twice your age, and my wife still is very nervous teaching anywhere, and she's in the stake RS presidency -- she relies on that divine intervention all the time!)

  5. BTW, Becca, thanks for the nod to Elder Richardson's talk. Here's the link:

  6. I teach Seminary, AND YW's on Sunday. You're right about the themed lessons for YW's, I add as many scriptures as I can so that we are in the scriptures there too. I want them to learn to look to the scriptures for answers. Your list gave me food for thought--I'd love to be in one of your classes. I think the best teachers use the scriptures and quote prophets and apostles because these are the words of truth and light. I have found it easy to teach Isaiah in Seminary because we just finished going through the history of the Israelites. What Isaiah says is therefore very pertinent--repent, you need a Savior and he is coming!

  7. Stick to established doctrine. No one wants to hear your freaky thoughts or speculation.

    Take a hint from Brother Bott and keep your speculation to yourself.

  8. Anonymous, can you help me understand where you read in this post that I'm teaching "freaky doctrine?" For the record, and to be completely clear, I agree the only doctrine to be taught is to be well established, taught-by-the-brethren, rooted-in-the-scripture doctrine. A Sunday School or PH class is not a soapbox for personal gospel hobbies.

  9. The Priesthood lessons are the biggest challenge for all who are led to teach.

    All too often it ends up being a 40 minute let's-all-read-from-page 34 experience, rather than finding scriptural passages that support what the prophets of God have taught us.

    I think, even with the current PH/RS manual on Geo. Albert Smith, your notion of the manual notbeing scripture should carry also. Few teachers will notice the "related scriptures" section at the end of each lesson. I think the words would carry far more weight were those who are called to teach would incorporate the scriptures with the quotations contained in the manual.

  10. Reuben, your experience and mine are similar. I am thinking about a separate post on the Teachings of the Prophets lessons.