I haven’t offended anyone in a while, but this should take care of that.
Thus begins the rant.
After another rough round of Sunday meetings (solid enough Sacrament talks followed by…the rest), I have to call it as I see it: The quality of teaching in the Church is getting progressively awful. And before I get called arrogant or hypocritical (or worse), I fully admit to having contributed to some of the bad teaching in the Church, despite my best efforts to the contrary. And I understand that no teacher is going to have a perfect record of enthralling classes. But for crying out loud, we can do better than this.
Part of the problem is our resources. As the Church has tried to focus more on “Teaching in the Savior’s Way,” with a greater emphasis on teaching by the Spirit and encouraging students to take responsibility for teaching, our course materials have gotten far less user friendly. We’ve gone from strictly formatted lessons (like the priesthood manuals of the 70s and 80s that were heavy on content and almost idiot-proof for teachers), to open-ended collections of scriptures and General Conference talks, with some well-produced videos kicked in to help the process. I personally worry that we have over-corrected, too often resulting in classes that are poorly prepared, unstructured, and undecipherable.
I think we can do better. I know that the General Authorities certainly expect better of us, which is why they have introduced teacher councils in order to help teachers learn how to approach their classes and work through challenges. If more than a handful of Sunday School presidents actually hold such meetings, that will certainly help. But many teachers are still struggling–many with good intentions but limited training and guidance; others out of sheer laziness–to provide a meaningful 40 minutes in their classes.
I’ve taught for a long time in the Church. Sometimes well, often poorly. But years of experience have taught me at least a few things that I have found helpful. I’d like to share seven of them, in the hopes that someday soon I can stop faking going to the bathroom just to escape a lesson.
I mean, like, PREPARE. In all-caps. Not read the lesson on way to Church or during Sacrament meeting. Not scanning through a lesson you have taught before to remember the highlights. I mean serious, prayerful, intense preparation. Learn the principles you are supposed to teach before you try to teach them. Teaching by the Spirit is significantly different from winging it, and everyone in the classroom can distinguish between the two. Everyone is busy, but at least make an effort. You might go home bragging to the family about how you channeled LeGrand Richards and taught the entire lesson off the cuff, but your students are going home thinking about how you mailed it in. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t done it, so you can be honest about it too.
(2) Spare us your wacky gospel interpretations and theories.
Many teachers, like the ancient Nephites, are always searching for “some new thing” to teach. But we don’t need teachers who present us with edgy, unusual, or flat-out false doctrine. We need teachers who teach core doctrine well. As my current Stake President has said, “The Gospel is true. You don’t need to make it weird.”
(3) Ask meaningful and thoughtful questions.
Teachers frequently make two mistakes with questions. The first is to ask leading questions (those that imply the answer), so that students are encouraged to say the “right” thing, and the class keeps moving along in the direction the teacher planned. The other is to ask obscure questions, then keep shooting down answers until one ESP-enabled student hits upon the correct response, frustrating everyone else in the process. Questions should be specific (we’ll talk about “anyone have a comment on that?” in a second), open ended, and encourage actual thought. Good questions invite maximum participation, and that’s when some of the best learning takes place.
(4) Use the scriptures. Don’t just talk about them.
I know I’m being unreasonable. But if you are teaching out of the New Testament, it might be a good idea to actually open your Bible once or twice during the lesson. In my view, one of the real problems in the Church today is a high degree of scriptural illiteracy. People don’t read the scriptures, usually because they don’t understand them. Teachers are the firewall against that encroaching culture of ignorance. Students should learn in Sunday School and other classes how to read and understand the scriptures so that they can have meaningful spiritual experiences independent of our meetings. The entire Book of Mormon might as well have been sealed for as often as we open it.
(5) Stop letting “helpful” students hijack your lesson.
We all know it’s coming. Before the end of the lesson, certain people are going to raise their hands and share insights and stories that were probably fine the first 12 times they shared them but are losing a little of their steam. Or someone is going to try to take the class in the direction they would have chosen if they were the teacher. Or a member of the class is going to share a loooooooong and uncomfortably personal story that has us all looking for razor blades and warm bathwater before it is done. Teachers have to exercise a little scene control in their classes, redirect the focus of the class in a positive direction, and sometimes just tell people we need to move along. I got hijacked by a near confessional early in a lesson recently, and it took me the rest of the class to get the wheels back on. It was my fault. I needed to find a polite way to tell the student to pipe down. And if that failed, perhaps a less polite way.
(6) But also listen to your students.
I don’t generally make long comments in class, if I say anything at all. But if I do say something, I really appreciate it when the teacher starts reading her manual, checking his watch, or continuing along after the comment as if it never had been made. While you don’t want your class taken over by an over-sharer, you also want to be open and inviting to comments and contributions that will help make your job easier.
(7) “Read and comment” isn’t teaching. It’s killing time.
Now let’s talk about priesthood and Relief Society meetings. The “Teaching of the Prophets” series of manuals are great resources for gospel learning. They are of marginal use as teaching resources. The reason for that is that many (Most? Every flipping one?) of the lessons quickly devolve into reading a long section of the manual followed by the insightful inquiry, “Does anyone have a comment on that?” What the teacher really means is something closer to, “I didn’t prepare, and we’ve got another 20 minutes before we can pray and escape. For the love of Eliza R. Snow, can somebody kill ten minutes or so?” I can read the manual in the lobby. I frequently have. Or I can check my Facebook or text my family to see if any of my daughters are willing to feign menstrual cramps so that we can blow this joint. Please, pretty please, can we stop this madness? Teach a lesson, using quotes from the manual as resources and reference points, but don’t make us read the whole thing out loud. Even if it were Harry Potter we were reading, that would still be a beating.
Seriously, if we really do have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ (which we do) and living prophets to guide us in our understanding of the scriptures (ditto that), we should have the most engaging, interesting, and inspiring lessons anyone could hope for. (Note that I didn’t say “entertaining.” I don’t think that church meetings need to be variety shows in order to be meaningful.) Our three hour block of meeting should be elevating, not enervating.
We can do a lot better. Let’s start by doing a little better and seeing where that takes us.