Teaching, No Greater Call Series: Introduction
What are some of successful teaching experiences you have had in church settings?
Home from college for the summer, my mother mentioned to me that my sister had given a talk at church a few weeks earlier. I was sorry that I had missed the talk, and asked about it. “Well, she was assigned to give a talk on keeping the Sabbath Day Holy.”
“How did she do?” I asked.
“Oh, fine, I guess,” my mother said.
My mother was never one for overtly bragging about her children, but her response was so void of any enthusiasm that I figured something was deeply wrong. “What happened?” I asked cautiously.
“Well, I asked her what she wanted to talk about. She said she felt like it was okay for her to work on Sundays because she was saving for school, and had commitments during the week. She also said she felt like it was okay to do homework on Sundays, even though some people think that’s not right.”
“And?” I prompted.
“Well, she said she was just going to give them what they wanted to hear, and wasn’t going to bother with pushing boundaries.” My mother paused and sighed. “She did just that. Gave a talk that we’ve all heard before, like it was right from a church handbook that offered nothing of substance. It didn’t even have her testimony in it, because she didn’t believe it.” She paused and shrugged, “But she gave it.”
It was one of the few times I can recall that my mother neglected to say she was proud of one of her children. My sister never mentioned the talk to me, and neither did anyone else. But the conversation stayed with me if only because of the lesson my mother was teaching me. Intended or not, she was teaching me to not be blindly obedient. She was teaching me that if I were to relay information to another as speaker or teacher– it was not to be a rote recitation of the manual. She expected more of the speakers at church—but mostly, she expected more of me and my siblings.
I tried to apply this as I went about young adulthood. I fasted and prayed for inspiration in regard to lessons, and sought personal testimony for that which I was assigned to teach. It was an exhaustive choice, but one that offered the kind of rewards that satisfied my soul and edified my testimony. This path first led me to F.A.R.M.S scholars (now the Maxwell Institute) and Hugh Nibley, then to Janath Cannon, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and other women who offered insights that soothed my soul.
A decade later, as I sought ongoing balance with the reality of my increasingly non-conventional Mormon life, I came across the new Exponent Blog. I was searching for ideas to help me teach a lesson from a church manual that seemed utterly foreign in the rural Australian branch where I attended. That Exponent lesson plan, written by Kelly Ann was perfect for the class I was teaching. Normally I felt out of place at church, but the Exponent lessons and associated posts offered me a safe place to just be me. I soon became a regular reader. Then guest poster, then perma blogger.
Some time ago, my husband and I attended one of those teacher-preparation courses offered by the Sunday School presidency meant to help us be better teachers. I studied to be a teacher and my husband works as a professional trainer, so we general enjoy teaching and are regularly complimented, or asked advice about teaching at church. It was not the first time we attended such a course, but like the times before, we left the class scratching our heads about what it meant to actually be a better teacher based on the advice offered at these sessions. Advice included changing the names of the people in the stories in the handbook to sound more “local” (therefore less “American”), bringing food, using coloured chalk or coloured dry erase pens (plain black/white = boring!), and bringing copies of everything for everyone in the class so the students didn’t even need to bring their own scriptures.
In my experience, relying solely upon any of these things, and even doing all of them, still does not guarantee a great class.
Hence this series. In this, we offer heartfelt recommendations on how to better engage those we are called to teach. From sacrament meeting speakers, to primary and youth teachers, we hope that our collective experience and resources can help you as you strive to teach.
Rather than just leave you with a basic intro, my husband and I are adding some basics that we have used in our collective experience (we tend to often get called as youth Sunday School teachers).
- Every week, have the student go around say what has happened in their lives the previous week. We’ve had quiet students announce they’ve received driver’s licenses, achieved full scholarships, or stopped working. Others announced they were considering shaving their head for locks of love, or that a parent has cancer. Some weeks, nothing is new, and things like “I did all my homework,” is all that is shared. But other treasures await—and makes the class more open to share what they think and feel about the lesson being taught.
- Call it when students are disruptive in little ways. For example, in one of our classes, one of the “pot-stirrers” was a young man who constantly leaned back in his seat, so he was balancing on the back chair legs only. We stopped the lesson each time he did that, and showed we were intolerant of even the little “muck ups.” Being consistent on calling him (and others) on the little things (not folding arms, being late to class, etc.) set the standard for the room. Other teachers had a history of major disruptions and even bulling from this student, but we never did.
- One of our students was struggling with basic reading skills. As a means of hiding that he was behind the others in class, he became especially troublesome when he was called to write something on the board or read a scripture aloud. Rather than demeaning his behaviour, I decided to make it easier for him to participate. I searched the lessons for scriptures that were easier to read, and assigned those to him. I asked him to read them before sacrament meeting, so by the time class rolled around, he could read the assignment on cue without a problem. I also put him in charge of non-reading activities, such as keeping score when we played games, and being the one to set up the chairs and table in room (we also began tutoring him at home to help him catch up on his reading skills).
- At the start of the lesson, ask what is big in the news or facebook feeds for the week. Ask the students apply the lesson being taught with these things and mind. For example, there was one week where there was a tragic alcohol related accident in the news—a baby and 4 teens were killed. The lesson for the week was agency. The students made the agency-related connections on their own in regard to alcohol, driving, and what friends to spend time with. It developed the class into one of the most memorable lessons I have ever attended (I was officially the teacher, but really was the student—those kids were da bomb!).