One of the things I love (and sometimes hate) about teaching is that a teacher never "arrives." No matter how well you teach, you can always do better next time. It's no secret that teaching in the Church has room for improvement (as John Milton wrote, sometimes "the hungry sheep look up but are not fed"), nor is there a shortage of material meant to help us do better. In the spirit of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's plea that we "revitalize and re- enthrone superior teaching in the Church," here are five preparation tips that will take your teaching to the next level. There are hundreds of valuable teaching tips (see links below). These five are focused on common mistakes we make in our approach to teaching in the Church. While easier said than done, remembering these will make our teaching easier, more enjoyable, and most importantly more powerful.
1. Focus on teaching people, not lessons
Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep. - John 21:17
I know this sounds like a meaningless gimmick, but following this simple maxim changes the entire approach to teaching. Because teaching for most of us is such an anxiety-inducing activity, our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves from the onset. "How am I going to use up the time? What am I going to do? What am I going to say? How am I going to be received?" The danger is to give our lesson all the attention instead of the students. This tendency is manifest when we teach well prepared "lessons" that are not relevant to our students, when we rush past questions because we need to "get back to the lesson," or when our minds are blank after a meaningful comment because while they were talking we were thinking about the lesson plan to which we are so rigidly attached.
As we pray for charity and focus on our students, we empower the Spirit to direct us in ways that will bless those we teach. Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught, “A gospel teacher will never be satisfied with just delivering a message or preaching a sermon. A superior gospel teacher wants to assist in the Lord’s work to bring eternal life to His children.”
2. Determine what to teach before you plan how to teach.
And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon - D&C 42:12
This one is harder than it sounds. Again, because we are so often focused on ourselves, we have a natural tendency to jump straight into how we're going to teach when we sit down to prepare. This is a huge mistake and it makes preparation very difficult. Powerful teaching usually comes from knowing what specific principles and doctrines you want to emphasize. I don't just mean "I know I'm teaching the Gospel Essentials lesson on Prayer" or "I'm teaching the Sunday School Lesson on 2 Nephi 32-33." This is not enough. In any given Church class, you generally have enough time to effectively cover one or two specific principles. These should be identified so specifically and clearly that someone could ask, "What did you want us to learn today?" and you could respond with a single clear sentence. So for example, after studying the Gospel Essentials lesson on prayer, you might feel to teach these two principles:
- Sincere prayer allows us to receive God's help in our lives.
- If I pray always, I can conquer Satan's temptations.
Elder Scott taught, “As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle." Elder Oaks adds: “A superior teacher of the gospel will teach from the prescribed course material, with greatest emphasis on teaching the doctrine and principles and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Most Church curriculum identifies principles and doctrines for us, especially the newer curriculum. If it doesn't, it will help to you identify it yourself. We should know clearly what we're hoping to get across to the class. Once we know what to teach, it becomes much easier for the Spirit to guide us in preparing how to teach. Trying to decide how to teach when we don't know what we're teaching, is putting the cart before the horse.
3. Focus on what people will do rather than on what you're going to say.
“Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only” - James 1:22
Once again, resist the urge to focus on yourself. Once you know what you should teach, focus your attention on what the students will do in order to learn those doctrines and principles. Should they read? Ponder? Answer questions? Write? Watch a video? Suddenly, what you do as a teacher is simply guide the student along the path of discovering, feeling, and applying the truths that you hope to emphasize.
We don't learn much from lectures. We learn most by doing. Elder David A. Bednar taught that “a learner exercising agency by acting in accordance with correct principles opens his or her heart to the Holy Ghost and invites His teaching, testifying power, and confirming witness. Learning by faith requires spiritual, mental, and physical exertion and not just passive reception.” Elder Henry B. Eyring explained very simply, “Giving students experiences with the Spirit is far more important than talking about it.” (CES satellite training broadcast, Aug. 2003).
4. Remember that covering material is not the end goal.
For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. - Moses 1:39
This one fits with tip number one, but I think it's important enough to have its own spot. This is one of the biggest mistakes common in church teaching. Covering the material is not the ultimate goal! The goal of teaching in the Church, as described by President Thomas S. Monson, “is to inspire the individual to think about, feel about, and then do something about living gospel principles." Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “An unrushed atmosphere is absolutely essential if you are to have the Spirit of the Lord present in your class.” This is manifest most often in the last ten minutes of class, when students are actually thinking about and feeling the truths being discussed, and rather than driving home the truths taught with testimony and application, the teacher cuts off the discussion and rushes through the last bit of the lesson to make sure they covered all the material. We should try to cover the material, but if we do it at the expense of spiritual experiences, we are making a huge mistake. Often we simply try to cover to much.
5. If you’re not feeling it, they won’t feel it.
But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay. - Jeremiah 20:9
This is the linchpin. If you don't have a "fire in your bones" for the truths you're teaching, the students will feel your indifference and your teaching will have little power. Sometimes we teach subjects that we already feel strongly about. Other times we may be indifferent or even doubtful toward our subject. But if we will pay the price in study and prayer, an excitement will come. The Spirit will come. That excitement and passion will be passed on to the students.
For example, in seminary we recently studied Ecclesiastes. In preparation, I read all twelve chapters five times, each time thinking there was nothing powerful for my students to discover. I was underwhelmed by the lesson plan in the curriculum, and almost ready to settle for a mediocre day in the classroom. Then on the sixth reading, something clicked. I discovered for myself the truths identified in the manual. I fell in love with the book of Ecclesiastes and the relevant doctrine taught therein. It was hard, but it was worth it. Once I got excited about the material, how to help my students discover those truths quickly fell into place and we had one of the best days of the year. Even if your preparation is lacking, even if your skills are not as polished as you’d like, if you're feeling it, they'll feel it!
I know from day-in to day-out personal experience that these are worth remembering and following. The better we prepare, the better we teach, and the better we teach, the more our students are blessed. But that's not all. Better teaching is more enjoyable teaching; one of the tender mercies that accompanies those who pay the price in preparation.
As always, thank you for reading. Comments are always welcome and if you liked what you read, please share with someone who might benefit.
Want to dig deeper? Explore the links below.
- Teaching Helps Save Lives - Russell T. Osguthorpe
- Gospel Learning and Teaching - David M. McConkie
- The Power of Teaching Doctrine - Henry B. Eyring
- Teaching with the Power and Authority of God - David M. McConkie
- Teaching—No Greater Call - M. Russell Ballard
- “A Teacher Come from God” - Jeffrey R. Holland
- One Step Closer to the Savior - Russell T. Osguthorpe
- Nourished by the Good Word of God - Daniel K Judd
- Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Seminary and Institute Teachers
- Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching