Thursday, April 26, 2012

Things I avoid when I teach

I’ve written couple of posts on gospel teaching (for instance, here, here and here). It’s a subject I care a lot about and have for many years. Just before my mission (I think the telephone had been invented by then – and by telephone I mean the one that was connected to a wall…) I took the teacher improvement course and I really enjoyed it.

Early in my marriage, I served as a Sunday School president. I approached my calling very seriously (even though by then SS presidents were about as useful as the human appendix) and my counselors and I worked hard to try to improve teaching in our ward. I’ve really enjoyed teaching over the years, and have taught in Sunday School, Primary, Young Men’s and in my Melchizedek PH quorums. I even taught one Relief Society lesson when I was a bishop. (Ok, it wasn’t a whole lesson, but I was in the room and I got to teach!) I’ve never taught in Young Women’s, but I have taught Young Women in seminary and in youth firesides. And I’ve taught institute, as well.

I don’t know that I’m a great teacher, but I guess I’m entertaining enough. People seem to respond to my lessons enough that I keep getting asked to teach.

Here are a couple of things I try to avoid when teaching. When I’ve seen these things in other classes (or when I’ve realized I’ve been doing it in my teaching), I’m kind of turned off, and I figure other students are, too. This is my short list. Maybe you have others, and you’d like to share them in the comments:

1. Play “Guess what the teacher’s thinking.” Remember in Junior High (ok, I’m so old that we didn’t have the trendy “Middle School”) when a teacher would ask a question, you’d summon the courage to answer in front of your peers with a completely logical and reasonable answer and she’d say, “Well, that’s not what I’m looking for; anyone else?” It made you feel silly, didn’t it? (Well it made me feel silly, anyway.) The point of questions in a church class is not to test knowledge, but to foster discussion. Even if an answer is a bit off the beam of a teacher’s message, the teacher can walk back to his central theme and still acknowledge and accept the discussion as it comes.

2. Ask yes-and-no questions. See #1. If the point of questions is to foster discussion, how does a yes / no question do that? Furthermore, do we really expect anyone to say “No, we don’t believe in the Godhead?” I agree that a careful series of yes or no questions may work as a rhetorical device from time to time, but as a general rule, these are the wrong kinds of questions to ask.

3. Be Nephi (or any other scripture character). Avoiding this is a newer innovation for me in my teaching. In fact, I used to assume roles all the time. I used to say things like, “I can imagine what Nephi was thinking – here he was tied up on a ship which is about to go under the sea and his brothers are dancing and having a great time…” The thing is, I don’t know what Nephi was thinking. There are surely some who might have said of me, “I know Nephi. Nephi is a friend of mine. You’re no Nephi.” This issue came home to me a few years ago as I sat in a class taught by another entertaining gospel doctrine teacher who did the same thing. Except I thought to myself, “Nephi didn’t think that. He never said that.” And I realized that although I can liken the scriptures unto myself, I ought not liken myself unto the characters of the scriptures. I ought to let them speak for themselves.

4. Run overtime. There is nothing I have that will be more important to all the members of my class than getting out on time. If they can hear the bell or see a clock, they will worry about whatever they have to do next more than whatever fabulous ending I have planned for my lesson. Therefore, I need to plan to start my “big finish” (if I have one) early enough to be done at the end of class. (That said, it was entertainingly ironic a few weeks ago as our substitute gospel doctrine teacher ran five minutes over while discussing looking past the mark. As it happens, he had misunderstood what time class was supposed to end.)
Well, that’s my short list. I’m happy to have you add your thoughts to the list.


  1. This is such a good post! Every one of those things were right on the money.

    Our HP group tends to run 5-10 minutes late every single week. It makes me crazy! I consider the post-block social interaction very valuable. I love shaking hands, chatting with the youth and other members - instead we come out to a desolate hallway, with clearly irritated family members waiting by the car.

    Please come up with a sequel. I know you've got more.

  2. Thanks, MMM. High praise coming from you.

    Not that I'd encourage civil disobedience, but I suppose you could do what some in my HP group do -- get up and leave when the time is up. Our HP group is helped by two things in this regard:

    1. We meet in the chapel and everyone (teacher and students) can see the clock on the wall

    2. One of our HP's is the "candy man" of the ward, and the Primary kids track him down after church, so as soon as Primary is out, the chapel doors start clicking open to see if we're done yet.

  3. I should also point out that in our ward, the HP group is typically out before the RS 9 weeks out of 10. Of course, we don't sing a closing hymn...

  4. Paul, perhaps I could write a follow up post titled, "People I Avoid When They Teach".

    We have a relatively new instructor in our HP Group who teaches on the 4th Sunday. After a few of his lessons 2 members of the group told the leadership that they would not be attending 4th Sunday classes anymore as long as he teaches.

  5. Anon, yikes! I do have my favorite teachers, and some that irk me just a bit. But I still try to attend. :-) Maybe there is a time when teaching from the fourth row isn't such a bad idea...

  6. There is a teacher in my ward that does #1 and it really limits people wanting to pipe up and say anything because he is not looking to start a discussion, but just looking for the right answer. I don't have to "sit on my hands" during his class.
    As far as #4 goes I really like things to end on time. Part of this comes from being in a ward a few years ago that must have made it their top priority to have things run on time. After years of being "in the habit" of having things run on a timely basis it is hard to not get anxious as things run over consistently. I play the piano in RS and have even asked to do away with the closing song just so we have a better chance of ending on time. I love having a closing song and usually pick something that ties together with the lesson, but I'm willing to give it up just to have things end on time. For me it's one thing if things go over occasionally because of a great discussion, but the fact that it consistently goes over time no matter who the teacher is means that all of them think they get until 5 after the hour rather than wrapping it up at 5 minutes BEFORE the hour.