This is the second of a two-part post on teaching. You can read the first post, focused on teaching preparation, here.
Like it or not, being a Mormon means being a teacher. it may be less formal (visiting teaching) or more formal (Gospel Doctrine teacher), but for dedicated members, opportunities to teach are never far away. Most church members find themselves willing but apprehensive about teaching. I fell in love with teaching as a missionary and thought I was pretty confident in front of people, but the first time I got in front of a seminary class I was almost paralyzed with fear. After about a decade of teaching, I’ll soon pass 10,000 hours in the seminary classroom. After all this time, teaching well is still a quest every single day, so trust me when I say I have great respect for all teachers in the Church. I know what it demands of the heart and mind. Most get very little practice or training. Kudos to anyone willing to stand up and open their mouths.
In the spirit of sharing, I’ve noticed there are a few really simple things that teachers in the Church could do for their students that would make a big difference without a lot of extra effort. Many of them simply require us to break away from some of the rigid traditions that tend to have a firm grip on teaching in the church. I wouldn't try to do all of these in your lesson next Sunday, just see if one grabs your attention and give it a shot next time. Most of these skills can be found in the manuals Teaching no Greater Call and the Gospel Teaching and Learning Handbook. I highly recommend both.
Give students a choice
This is a valuable guiding principle in all that I do as a teacher. President James E. Faust taught, “Our agency, given us through the plan of our Father, is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force.” People love making choices and bristle at being told what to do, even in the smallest ways. I try to integrate small choices into class wherever possible. For example: try providing three scriptures or quotes on a subject. Invite students to choose one to read and be ready to share their thoughts. Or, list three or four questions at once and invite students to answer any one they would like. You can also provide very simple choices, like Inviting students to write their thoughts in the margins of their scriptures or in the notes app on their phone. Tell the class to be ready to share a personal experience or a testimony, whichever they’d prefer. One caution: don’t provide too many options. You don’t want to paralyze the indecisive or have the class run wild! Two, three, or four options usually works well.
Give students time to ponder
After asking a question and getting silence in response, teachers often feel uncomfortable and bail the class out. This is especially common when teaching youth. Assuming you’ve asked a good question that the class understands, give them some time to ponder and organize their thoughts into a comment. Pause a little longer and someone will usually speak up. For some deeper questions, I tell the class that they have some time to think and invite them to be ready because I will ask for two or three people to share their thoughts.
My favorite example of this is in Alma 18, when Ammon asked King Lamoni what he could do for him and Lamoni sat there for an hour without answering. (I haven’t tried waiting quite that long yet, but Ammon obviously wasn’t afraid of silence!) Years ago, Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk on spiritual gifts in which he said, "By pondering, we give the Spirit an opportunity to impress and direct. Pondering is a powerful link between the heart and the mind. As we read the scriptures, our hearts and minds are touched. If we use the gift to ponder, we can take these eternal truths and realize how we can incorporate them into our daily actions.” Further, Elder Holland taught, “An unrushed atmosphere is absolutely essential if you are to have the Spirit of the Lord present in your class.”
Give students time to read and write
We often equate participation with talking, but it’s important to remember that it’s not essential for someone to be talking at every given moment of class. Not all scriptures need to be read out loud. Not all questions need to be answered out loud. Giving people quiet time to read, ponder, and record impressions can be great ways to bring variety into the class and invite the Holy Ghost to teach individuals. Give students five minutes to read a group of verses, or give them five minutes to ponder a group of questions. If the Holy Ghost is active during these reverent moments, students will sometimes have thoughts and impressions that are too personal to share with the class. Multiple prophets have taught the importance of writing these impressions down. Elder Richard G. Scott often championed the practice of recording spiritual impressions. "Inspiration carefully recorded shows God that His communications are sacred to us. Recording will also enhance our ability to recall revelation.” Don’t hesitate to give students some quiet time to record their impressions. This is often missing in Church classes. Giving students time to ponder, read, and write on their own gives the teacher a break, adds variety to class, and most importantly invites the Spirit to teach individuals.
Give students your ear
If you want to have meaningful discussions, its essential that you listen to the comments being made. I don’t just mean hear the comments, but really listen. This seems obvious, but when you’re nervous and stressed about teaching, it’s easy to be thinking about what you’re going to say next. Once you start to really listen to comments you can work on asking follow up questions and redirecting comments and questions to the class. This often deepens the discussion and widens the participation. Teachers often wonder how they will know what questions to ask when following up or redirecting. But if you’re relaxed, sincerely interested, and really listening to what the class is saying, follow up questions will naturally come.
Elder Holland has said, “If we listen with love, we won’t need to wonder what to say. It will be given to us … by the Spirit.” Sister Rosemary Wixom said, "When we listen, we see into the hearts of those around us." Sometimes we’re nervous about pushing students with follow up questions. I’ve found it can be helpful to be open about what you’re trying to do: “Great comment. I’d like to try to go a little deeper if that’s okay. Could you tell us why you feel that way? How you came to know that? What you decided to do because of your experience?” Forewarning people of what you’re going to ask, especially if it’s hard, can help ease some of the nerves that comes with sharing personal feelings in groups of people.
Give students something to look for
This practice is very simple but it makes a big difference. Never let the class read a verse, listen to a quote, or watch a video without giving them a task. We have a bad habit of reading scriptures first and then asking questions afterwards, which almost always requires people to go back and read the verse again. Giving people a task ahead of time gives them a reason to read, listen, or watch, and streamlines the learnings process. Here are some examples:
- “Read verses 1-4, looking for anything that would strengthen your faith during a trial."
- “As you listen to this quote, pay attention to what President Eyring says about the importance of the Holy Ghost."
- “While watching this Mormon Message, notice how it makes you feel about forgiveness."
Give Students something to look at
Tying what students are hearing to something they can see increases learning dramatically. For example, when you ask the class to turn to a scripture, always write the reference on the blackboard. When some inevitably ask “What was the scripture again?” just point to the board. This simple habit alone has a surprisingly positive effect on class. Deeper examples include object lessons that illustrate principles, and showing pictures to go along with stories or imagery in the scriptures. For example, Isaiah’s writings are full of imagery. A single photo can illuminate an entire chapter. Draw on the vast amount of videos the church has produced. There are videos on almost every single topic, and they can really help students understand, feel, and apply the truths you are teaching. From Google images to Youtube to the Gospel Library app, there have never been so many visual resources available. One caution: Make sure the visuals always supplement the truth being taught rather than being the focus of the lesson or serving as time-killers. Sorry if your building has slow wifi and one old TV...
Consider the impact of the "visuals” the Lord uses in these teaching moments. In each example, imagine the difference if all he had done was speak rather than show.
- Moses 1
- 3 Nephi 11
- Ether 3
- Jeremiah 18
Give students personality
Most of us are not interesting enough to stand in front of a class and talk about ourselves for an hour without mutiny. But students really appreciate a periodic glimpse into your testimony, your experiences, your story, and your sense of humor. (You have one of those, right?!) Where relevant, let the class get a glimpse into your heart. Be open and honest. Follow the Spirit, he’ll let you know what and how much to share. Watch out for getting too personal, talking about others without permission, and sharing past mistakes. These will often drive away the Spirit (not to mention make everyone feel awkward!). But a class where the teacher never gives a glimpse into themselves lacks a little power. I dare you to find a talk by President Monson where he doesn’t tell a personal story. Everyone loves a good story, an appropriate joke, and a brief heart felt testimony.
Bonus tip: Give students a break!
Help eradicate some of these not-so-effective teaching traditions. I'm sure you've dealt with a few of them here or there!
- Thinking that “teaching” means reading the manual to a group of people for an hour.
- "Winging it" under the guise of “going by the Spirit."
- Asking questions with obvious answers. "Is it good or bad to break the commandments?" The worst of these are yes/no questions. "Should we read the Book of Mormon?"
- Playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the class (this is when a teacher asks a vague question with multiple potential answers but only wants the specific answer they are thinking of.) "What's the most important doctrine to remember?"
- Using all the time to identify the principle or doctrine and taking no time to talk about why it matters or what we should do as a result.
- Only sharing formal, lengthy testimonies at the end of class rather than briefly testifying throughout.
- Only asking for volunteers and never calling on specific people. (This is part of why we often have the "same-ten-people” problem.)
- Failing to learn the names and get to know those we teach.
- Being too timid to correct a wrong comment or to challenge people to truly think deeply or make meaningful change.
- Focusing more on our lesson than on the experience of the people in front of us.
As always, thanks for reading! Got some other simple teaching tips? Share in the comments.