Monday, June 11, 2012

More things I avoid when I teach

I’ve posted a few times about gospel teaching, and a recent post (here) listed a few things I avoid when I teach. Here are a few more:

1. Lectures – I will not lecture a class. Or at least almost never will I mean to lecture a class. To me, a gospel class is all about the discussion, because I think participants learn by participating. The Doctrine and Covenants cites the value in class discussion, too:

Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege (D&C 88:122).

If I form a comment in my mind and make that comment, I will have thought more actively about that particular item than if I weren’t commenting. (There’s a corollary in youth classes, namely that the youth will simply not pay attention in a small group setting to a lecture; they will comment, if only to their neighbor, and a wise teach needs to figure out how to accept those comments and weave them into the lesson.) Having said this, I acknowledge that once in a while someone may have a lecture approach that works for a particular lesson, but I would view that as the exception and not the rule.

2. Too many outside sources / stuff – I am not a fan of manual-reading in the classroom. I don’t like sitting in lessons where all the questions come out of the manual and the teacher’s goal seems to be to get from question to question rather than actually leading a discussion or teaching. That said, I’m also not really interested in someone else’s research project as a part of my Sunday School class. I do like hearing teachers bring their own experience and research into a discussion, but I don’t want that extra-curricular material to be the whole basis of the lesson. I’ve been in wards that are more conservative than I am on this topic. One gospel doctrine teacher we had a number of years ago quoted every week from some supplementary text. I never knew what it was, but she quoted it like it was scripture, and several members of the class were pretty nervous about it, wondering about the use of unauthorized material in the class. It didn’t bother me much, because it was not her whole lesson, and she did most of teaching in the scriptures. For me, outside material needs to be linked clearly to the scriptures being taught that day.

3. Gospel hobbies – Similar to #2, I’m not a fan of gospel hobby lessons. Years ago when my wife was called as a Teachings of the Prophets teacher in Relief Society, the RS president specifically invited her to use more of the quotations from the prophet we were studying that year (I can’t remember which it was). Her reason: teachers had been reading lesson material and then going off and planning elaborate lessons around a theme or two they liked without ever returning to the actual words of the prophets (but they had nice centerpieces, I’m sure). They ended up teaching the subjects they liked instead of the words of the prophet, and the RS president wasn’t wild about it. (My wife, BTW, was a reluctant teacher; she didn’t like being in front of the class, but she was faithful to the request from her RS president and generated a lot of discussion around the words of the prophet.) So on the one hand, we ought to teach the lesson of the day, not just what we like. On the other hand, we shouldn’t teach the same lesson every week. We had colorful characters in some of the units I served in on my mission who taught essentially the same lesson (with the same moralizing admonitions) every time they taught. Our correlated materials should help protect us from that sort of teaching.

4. Only scratching the surface – This is a toughie because our survey gospel doctrine courses rarely allow us the opportunity to dig deeply into a particular subject without giving over to outside sources and/or gospel hobbies. But I struggle in Sunday School classes in which a teacher glosses over material in order to get through it. I am encouraged, however, by regular counsel to teachers which reminds us to pray about the lesson material and our classes and to select the concepts and parts of the lesson that are most relevant to our class. When I teach a youth class, I try to teach one or two key ideas, and when I end the lesson, I typically have a “if you leave here with only one thought” moment at the end of the lesson in which I try one last time to push home my key thought. And even in an adult class, I find it’s better (and more interesting) to focus on a few things rather than to do everything the manual gives me. If I’m really listening to my class and to the spirit, sometimes the thing I think we’ll dig deep on is not what we actually focus on in the class. Sometimes a comment or a question leads us down a path I had not anticipated, but one that meets the needs of class members nonetheless.

Well, that’s my list (for now). Feel free to share your list of things you avoid when teaching.


  1. I agree with everything on your list. If I quote from an outside source, which I have no problem doing, I might or might not attribute it explicitly - but I am going to attribute it generally. (a friend, a blog or online group discussion, the Koran, Buddhism, Mother Teresa, an apostle or President of the LDS Church, etc.)

    I try HARD not to talk down to the class members.

    I try to choose something to teach and teach it as deeply but non-speculatively as possible. People might learn from and remember a deep discussion of one thing; they aren't likely to remember a shallow discussion of lots of things.

    I try to share something that is new to many members - something that they might not have considered previously. I don't make it speculative, but, especially when it's a lesson from the scriptures (and even more so from the Book of Mormon), it usually isn't all that hard to do. If I'm a teacher, I do want to TEACH something new whenever possible - even if it's only one little thing.

  2. I refuse to teach "on the hoof", also known as "winging it" (unless a leader approaches me at the last minute with an emergency request to teach in someone's absence).

    I have seen people preparing lessons at church in the hour leading up to the class, a lesson which they knew days, if not weeks, ago that they were scheduled to teach. I've also been aware of preparation from scratch early on Sunday morning or the night before. To me these approaches are inexcusable. If you've accepted the assignment, at least do the class members the honour of a reasonable amount of work on the lesson.

  3. Alison, I'm right there with you. I prefer to plan my lessons two weeks in advance to have time to let them "cook". That is tougher in a teach-every-week calling. Grabbing a manual at the last minute and flipping through it (except under extreme circumstances) is a missed opportunity, in my view. (And signals some significant pride, I suspect.)

    PapaD, I really like the idea of teaching something new. I find new things all the time when I read the scriptures, and I enjoy sharing those when I teach, and inviting others to do the same.

  4. I try to NOT use negative phrasing--I have heard that it is impossible to achieve a negative goal. On the other hand, especially when a class seems reluctant to make comments, I like to hint that I am going to ask for comments "after I tell this story," or something like that. Then, by the time they are permitted to comment more of them will be itching to say their piece.

  5. Fern, I really like the idea of signalling that you'll be looking for comments before telling a story or reading something. I'll use that this week!

  6. As a seminary teacher, I was taught to tell students to "look for" a specific principle or point (etc.) before reading verses from the scriptures or quotes from General Authorities, watching video clips, etc. This is one of my favorite teaching methods - when they know what you're going for, class members can prepare to participate, and everyone benefits.

    It's also helpful to remember that when the teacher talks most of the time that doesn't mean the class is listening most of the time. Like you said, discussion is much more meaningful to class members than lecturing, so I try to put myself on a mental timer - the longer I am talking, the less discussion we can have. I like to talk, so this is important for me!