Beyond the Sunday School Answers: Tips for LDS Teachers

I’m going to say what many Latter-day Saints are thinking, but some are afraid to say: Sunday School is often mediocre.

I really don’t wish to gripe. I definitely realize that each person — teachers and students — need to do their part. I also recognize that most teachers try hard and take their callings seriously. But certainly Sunday School doesn’t have to be the mind-numbing chore that it seems to be for many members. We can do much better!

In this post, I offer ten simple tips that could radically improve Sunday School lessons. (Yes, I will be that bold.) These tips are simply suggestions from myself, a Latter-day Saint who has done a fair amount of teaching and thinking about this issue. They can be applied by virtually anyone, in my opinion.

I should mention at the outset that what is most important, of course, is to teach and prepare with the Spirit. But any vague platitude I could offer about this is probably not going to be terribly useful. Rather, I discuss a few practical tips that, I believe, can help facilitate the Spirit to work powerfully and effectively through your teaching.

1. Consider why people come to church. What is the purpose of church attendance? Of Sunday School? Is it learn a bunch of facts? To get through a bunch of talks and lessons (just for kicks)? Most Latter-day Saints would probably say no. Rather, most people come to church, I believe, to commune with others in meaningful ways and to receive peace and healing. Thus, a Sunday School lesson should be tailored towards these ends. 

2. Realize that your students are not blank slates. Many Sunday School teachers act as if they need to “cover the material” in a way that doesn’t even reflect what those in their class already know. At my student married ward at BYU, for example, nearly all (or almost all) of us have read from the scriptures repeatedly and have received years of formal instruction about them. And yet teachers feel the need to cover everything, often going to great lengths to summarize something that everyone already knows. What’s the point?

I recommend that teachers assume that the class has read the scriptural material. This will motivate students to read before class — but even if they haven’t, they likely have read it before.

3. Don’t ask obvious questions. Recalling information from text is a third-grade skill. Third grade! Don’t insult your class’s intelligence by asking them “what happened” in a verse you’ve just read together. There are much better ways to spend your time, aren’t there? If you do wish to point out something specific, it’s often best for you to just say it rather than making the class play an annoying round of “guess what the teacher is thinking.” Save class participation for insightful discussion, not mindless generation of facts.

4. Dive right in. Go immediately to what you think is the most interesting / inspiring/ thought-provoking part of the lesson. This will help start class on the right foot, and also will ensure that you discuss the best stuff before time runs out.

5. Plan specific questions for generating sustained, meaningful discussion. Whenever I sit in on a good Sunday School or Priesthood lesson, I ask myself: “Why was this a good lesson?” Almost always, one of the answers is, “Because there was lots of meaningful class discussion.”

Prayerfully consider a few questions (probably no more than two or three) for the class to discuss. These questions should not be for the purpose of generating lists (“What things should we avoid doing on the Sabbath Day?”) — sometimes these questions are useful but hardly sufficient — but rather should get the class thinking and discussing about living the gospel in a messy world (“Why is it sometimes difficult to pray?”). There doesn’t need to be a simple answer to these questions (and often won’t be); rather, this process is meant to be spiritually-uplifting, meaningful, and therapeutic for the class. From my experience, there are few better ways to “bring in the Spirit” than to have class members discuss living the gospel in a way that moves beyond “the Sunday School answers” (more on this below).

6. But don’t let discussions get out of hand. A good teacher is able to facilitate discussions well. Sometimes this means stepping back a little, but often discussions require a little steering (steering away from non-edifying controversies or trivia, for example). Don’t be afraid to move on even if there are some hands raised. But sometimes, when the Spirit is very strong, it is best to continue with the discussion. Who cares what else you have planned! In these cases, we should be like John the Baptist (speaking of the Savior): “He must increase and I must decrease.”

7. Ask follow-up questions. The “Sunday School answers” (“read your scriptures, go to church, say your prayers”) are not the right answers! Or at least not sufficient ones. Get students thinking more deeply. For example, if someone answers “pray” to a question about avoiding temptation,” ask a follow-up question. “Why do you think prayer would be helpful?” or “Can you think of an experience when this was helpful to you?”

8. Share specific testimonies throughout the lesson.  Of course, it’s fine to share your testimony at the end of the lesson. But I have found myself teaching when the Spirit prompts me to testify of something specific in the middle, or even the beginning, of the lesson. Sometimes this is planned, sometimes not. But in every case, it is powerful. Try it — I think you’ll like it. But try to be specific, and don’t be afraid to move away from the “I know” template if necessary.

9. Call on class members by their names. If you don’t know someone’s name, ask them (and try to remember). This makes such a difference, from my experience.

10. Be excited to teach. If you’re not, try your best to be, and don’t make remarks (however humorous) about how it’s a bummer you have to teach (like you hear so often in sacrament meeting talks). Would you want to sit through a lesson from an apathetic teacher?

Stay tuned for Part Two …

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42 Responses

  1. I think the most important suggestions you have are 2-5. Very good. As to 1, I actually crafted a survey some years back which asked people what they wanted to get out of Sunday School. It asked to rank things like learning new facts, getting to answer questions, and being inspired. I’ll have to see if I can dig up the results, but my point would be that it is not obvious to me that everyone wants similar or compatible things from a lesson. My solution is to mix things up so everyone gets what they want sometimes.

  2. I was called to be a Sunday School teacher yesterday, so this is timely for me. Sunday School teaching is very different from Relief Society teaching, partly because of the topics and partly because men and women are so different in their approach to class discussions. Your reminders are boosting my confidence … but can you put up Part 2 (and Parts 3-15) between now and Thursday, so I can take advantage of it all?

  3. Fantastic advice. As an outsider (my wife is Mormon), I’d also add that Sunday school teachers should remember it’s possible not everyone in the room is comfortable being put on the spot or assigned to small group discussions.

    I’ll also second the advice about planning a few good questions to ask, and remember when you do ask them to WAIT for people to formulate an answer. Inexperienced or insecure teachers are often afraid of silence, so they jump in too soon and answer themselves.

  4. Jacob J,

    I’d be curious to hear the results of your survey. You bring up a good point about mixing things up — it’s nice to learn some new facts now and then, to joke around some, etc.

    Ardis,

    Best of luck in your teaching! I’ll try to get Part 2 up soon, but probably not before Thursday (sorry). It is interesting that Sunday School dynamics seem to be so different from Priesthood and Relief Society (I can only speak for the former). I’ve been much more pleased with teaching as well as class participation in Priesthood than in Sunday School.

    ElGuapo,

    I really like both of your recommendations — I’ve thought a lot myself about not being afraid of silence. The best questions take a little time to think about. I’ve heard wonderful comments after moments of silence (sometimes long moments!).

  5. Although I love all the advice and agree that it would radically improve sunday school lessons, I think 2 and 3 are idealistic.

    Really, not treating students like blank slates is great, but it’s probably more likely to net blank stares instead of getting people to be more diligent about reading beforehand.

    It has astounded me about how the lessons can truly be over the most basic aspects — the plan of salvation, etc., — yet we’ll *have* to go over it several times because people just don’t get it, despite having been over this several times.

  6. These are great, practical suggestons. In particular, I think many teachers spend too little time thinking about questions that are truly thought- and discussion- provoking (Hint: They are rarely in the manual!). I also think SS teachers should have the confidence to focus their lessons on what THEY find most interesting or inspiring, rather than worrying about covering the material. For example, last week I spent all my time on Martin Harris and the lost manuscript and did not even get to the Three Witnesses. (Another teacher, of course, would have covered the material differently).

  7. By the way, I hope it is ok if I link to these suggestions on my blog, Gospel Doctrine Underground.

  8. Andrew,

    Really, not treating students like blank slates is great, but it’s probably more likely to net blank stares instead of getting people to be more diligent about reading beforehand.

    This hasn’t been my experience. In fact, my experience has been the exact opposite. It certainly depends on the class, though, and what exactly the teacher does. I’m certainly not suggesting diving into deep doctrinal commentary or anything. But I don’t see how introducing a topic briefly and then diving right into discussion (in a way that assumes some familiarity on behalf of the class) would “net blank stares.” You might be right, though, that this approach might not make a lot of difference in students reading beforehand.

    The Teacher:

    Thanks for your comment — and yes, please link to your blog.

    I think that teachers can often find a compromise between lesson manual questions and the questions they use. I think it’s a good idea to read over the manual’s questions (when preparing) in order to generate your own ideas and to be sure you’re not getting way off track. Perhaps this process will result in a slightly modified manual question — which is what the manuals tell you to do, anyway, if I understand correctly.

  9. These suggestions are great. I absolutely hate Sunday School when it’s just summary or covering material. I’d rather hear discussion and how people actually use the gospel.

  10. A couple of points I would like to add are:
    1. Use the manual. You don’t have to read it word for word, but, we have the manual for a reason. I don’t know how many times I have seen a teacher delve into false doctrine, personal opinion, or politics when they don’t use the manual very well.

    2. Don’t argue. At all. Differences in opinion should be welcome.

  11. Ian,

    Thanks for your insights. About your first point (“use the manual”), I basically agree and it is a good general standard. We do have the manual for a reason, as you say, but the question remains — what is that reason?

    I honestly don’t know if I have a compelling answer to that question. If anyone has anything authoritative on this, please share. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say: manuals are primarily used for conservative management purposes. As you say, without some kind of manualized standardization, Sunday School lessons could turn into some crazy things. Another reason is that there is a spirit of the kind of things that should be focused on in a lesson; namely, lessons should focus primarily on applied religious experience, not tangential historical, doctrinal, or political discussion — however worthwhile such discussions may be elsewhere.

    For these reasons, I think it is important for teachers to at least read the manual in preparation for their lesson — they should have a sense of the flavor of things that the Brethren have approved of for that particular lesson. But many teachers, I would argue, are at their best when they then put the manual down and then follow the Spirit and the scriptures in crafting out their lesson. Such teachers should not be restrained by a strict “follow the manual” dogma.

    In this regard, what is 10 times more important than following the manual is following the Manual — i.e., the Scriptures — at least this should be the case for Sunday School lessons in which the content of the lesson is specific scriptural texts.

  12. Ian,

    About not arguing — yes, I definitely agree.

    Most unwelcome “controversial” or “unorthodox” opinions can be answered with something like, “Thank you for sharing,” “Hmm, interesting themes…,” or “I’ve never thought about that before.” If you do want to send a stronger message of dissent, a chipper and humble response of “I don’t know what I think about that, but thanks for sharing.” Anything more probably usually does more harm than good.

  13. Thanks for your post. You tips are great.

    I wanted to add a bit to the discussion about using the manual. For Sunday School lessons I think you are right, the manual is the scriptures. For other classes (RS, Priesthood, etc), I think the manual is more essential.

    I have always thought of the manual (I’ve taught RS and YW) as a guide on what is the correct doctrine and how to teach it for the specific group. I have seen, both seasoned and novice teachers, divert from the manual (and church materials) and get into areas of gray doctrine. I think it is best to limit yourself to the manual, the scriptures, conference talks, and the church magazines.

    For me, this limit helps me to know that I am teaching what the Lord would have be teach. It also helps me to not feel overwhelmed when I prepare.

  14. But, what do you all mean by “use the manual?” I teach Sunday School, and I review the manual each week to determine what scriptural material is to be covered. I also think think, a lot, about the subjects that the manual covers. I usually cover some, but not all of the same. I almost always find a quote from a Church leader that I like and use. So, I feel like I use the manual.

    I do not, however, use the manual as my lesson plan. Often, I am not interested in the questions the manual asks, or even in all of the topics the manual covers. I focus on what is interesting to me. I make a sincere and prayerful effort to discuss matters that are consistenet with the points in the manual. But my emphasis usually a little different, and I almost never cover everything.

  15. I also teach Gospel Doctrine, and I’m a firm believer in sticking to the manual when the manual is good. And frankly, the Sunday School manuals aren’t that great. The questions are generally too shallow, and with these D&C lessons (lesson 5 and 6 specifically), the focus is not at all narrow. I don’t mind AT ALL jumping around the scriptures – that’s often fun, but these two lessons are more like hitting bullet points than really teaching the D&C. So I’m sticking with Sections 6, 8, and 9, and going in depth on the verses. There’s so much there, and it’s very fascinating.

    That said, I’d NEVER recommended departing from the Priesthood/RS manual, especially this year and last. The gems inside are simply mind-blowing. And the questions in the back are actually thought provoking. Some need to be altered for the class specifically, but they have generated very stimulating discussion. In fact, I usually get comments like “can we just skip Sunday School and finish talking about this” at the end of class.

    Ain’t the gospel great?!

  16. Blank stares usually accompany silly questions. I always wonder if they are trying to trick you.

    I especially like your number 4. I hate it when they want to stay after the meeting is over because they didn’t cover the most important topic. Classrooms are scheduled tight and kids are running the hallways. Extremely rude to run over because of poor time management. This is one of the main causes of loud children running the hallways disrupting the next ward’s sacrament meeting.

  17. I teach early morning seminary (specifically, 14 Seniors). Your list here is a good one. I know for a fact that when I get away from these things my lessons suffer and that’s when heads start to drop onto forearms.

  18. So Dennis, I hope you don’t mind, but I also linked this on my blog, with a few tips of my own. I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while, and finally decided to put something out there on it. Great to see that there are other like-minded folks.

    I’m surprised that there aren’t more LDS teaching tips out there. With all the teaching opportunities in the Church, I’d think that there would be more. So thanks.

  19. Sorry, I meant to add that I think questions are really everything in teaching. When people ask me how to teach, usually the first thing I say is “it’s all in how you ask questions.”

  20. Easton, my favorite teaching resource the church has produced is called something like “Teaching: No Greater Call.” To me, that guide is a highly underutilized resource on the art and science of teaching in general, but specifically as it applies to gospel teaching. I believe it’s still available through church distribution services, and I suspect it’s also available on lds.org for free electronically. My following comments are a mishmash of thoughts.

    Regarding the issue of using the manual, I’ve always understood that the lessons from the manual are specifically designed to be too expansive for one class period. It is expected that teachers review the material in its entirety, and with the help of the spirit determine which messages are the ones that need to be focused on and developed through class discussion. The idea of “covering all of the material” or “getting through the lesson” isn’t intended here at all.

    Personally, I’m a big believer in the manuals, for one very simple reason – they were developed by people with a spiritual maturity that exceeds my own. My job once I get the manual is to apply their blueprint to what the class needs to hear to be edified. A lot of times I think it’s easy to get sidetracked by the things I want to do, but I’m a flawed servant – I need the structure those manuals provide. That doesn’t mean that only scriptures or questions provided by the lesson should be used, but that sources I’m prompted to include on my own need to “fit” what’s going on. I think doing this right requires a really honest assessment of our ability to do as the spirit directs. I’ve found that the more the lesson stems from my own creativity, the riskier it becomes.

    As a last bit to include, I like to go by the following schedule to prepare – Sunday, read the lesson as contained in the manual. Monday, read the lesson and all noted scriptures. Tuesday, select questions from the manual or develop questions for each section of the lesson, further explore scriptures and other references. Thursday, write outline of lesson/highlight the parts in the manual that have emerged as essential. Friday, just think. Saturday, review all material to this point, determine the specific testimonies/experiences I feel inspired to share if any, and get a good night’s sleep. I’ve found that my best teaching follows this format, and is very time manageable (15-20 minutes or so per day, with more time allotted depending on how things are going).

    One thing I’ve noticed is that when people are extended teaching callings they often have the most trepidation over the time they need to fill in class. I think ideally, most of your time in a teaching calling should be focused on the preparation and pondering.

    I bring the process up because

  21. This discussion reminded me of a great article from Sunstone on raising the level of our Sunday School classes. I think you might like it.
    https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/136-47-51.pdf

  22. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Rutkowski,

    I resonate with everything you say and I think I agree with everything. I would say that maybe I have a looser conception of adhering to the manual in some cases, but in general I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying. And I definitely agree about the need to ponder about lessons in advance and that this should be the major time commitment. When I was an elders quorum instructor, I occasionally filled in without any formal preparation for another teacher (I found out upon arriving to quorum that no one prepared the lesson). But I read the manual each week and I think about the lesson — I often think about how I would teach a lesson even if I’m not assigned to teach it. People would sometimes be amazed that I could just teach a lesson without formal preparation, and I admit that I might have somewhat of a gift here, but I think that much of it is simply due to deeply pondering about the material and humbly having a prayer for God’s grace to attend us — which is what we all should be doing whether we are teachers or not.

    Brady,

    I enjoyed that article. Thanks. The only thing I would say, though, is that, for me, I see myself as more of a facilitator for healing and refreshment than for deep doctrinal discussion. But I guess that explains why I’m pursuing a degree in clinical psychology.

  23. How to teach well is something that I think about a lot. It’s important to learn about it and share. Really, I think it comes down to this: prepare with humility, seeking revelation. Teach with faith, seeking revelation throughout the lesson. Be very careful not to glorify yourself and do what you have to do to keep your motives pure. My friend Aubrey once told me- you want them to walk away amazed by the gospel, not amazed by you.

    Teaching has so many facets that it seems we can never learn enough about it. There are many different styles and methods. I love teaching and I love teaching how to teach. Something I have to be careful of is that I don’t try to teach others how to teach like I teach. I want to learn how to teach so that others can experience teaching by the Spirit in their own way. There are some things I can articulate and demonstrate. There are other things that only the Spirit can teach someone- through their own experience of teaching.

    MY STRUGGLE IS THIS: because I love teaching I find myself being critical of teaching sometimes. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with this. I still need to learn what’s effective and what isn’t, don’t I? But am I holding myself from being taught from on high because I’m teaching the teacher in my mind during the whole lesson? I think that has definitely happened.

    A have an embarrassing confession to make. A few weeks ago I came home from Church and wrote down a lot of ideas I had, studied Preach My Gospel, studies scriptures, pondered, prayed. Why? I prayed that Heavenly Father would give me chance to give a talk in my ward or teach a lesson on teaching. There were so many things I wanted to share with a ward that clearly needed better teaching. And my desire to help was sincere.

    But something really interesting happened. My lesson somehow transformed into a list of what we can do as STUDENTS to bring about better teaching in the classrooms. For each important teaching principle and skill I tried to think of how I could bring that about in a class that lacked it, AS A STUDENT. What I found- well, another day, another blog.

    I learned something new for me. Not new, and new. It was okay to notice if something was lacking in the class. But a much more productive thing to do with that was to then pray and try to find a way, as a student (and with humility) I could bring that about. So, instead of seeing with dismay lackluster and ineffective teaching and thinking about how to teach the teacher what he or she obviously does not get- I could then think about ways to help bring it to pass. And instead of being frustrated by irreverence or students who had no desire to help a teacher obviously trying- I could then think about what I could do to help.

    I learned an important thing. Some people are students learning to be teachers. And some people are teachers learning to be students. Jesus Christ was the perfect teacher but He was also the perfect student. And that’s why he was the perfect teacher.

    I realized that I spend a lot of time learning how to be a teacher. But I rarely, if ever, consider how to be a student.

    I then found myself planning a Sacrament Meeting talk so I could teach all those ward members how to be better students so that the teaching in Sunday School would improve. Ha ha. I’m a work in progress, I guess.

    As a student in class my calling is to learn by the Spirit and to contribute. It’s also my calling to sustain the teacher in his or her calling. I’m really interested now in learning how to do this in the Lord’s way. I’d love to hear thoughts about it. I firmly believe that we can bring about great miracles by learning how to do this and great teachers will rise up.

  24. Sorry. I write so much. I don’t know if I’m capable of writing a short response like everyone else. Something else to learn, I guess. :)

  25. Dennis,

    I really like this post. I wish more teachers would do these things. May I add (and perhaps this is in part 2) stick with church approved materials. I think some teachers feel that the manual, the scriptures, the ensign, conference talks are too boring. They aren’t deep enough. I once had a teacher who would begin most lessons by saying, “Here’s the topic of today’s lesson, now here’s what Hugh Nibley said about it” and would proceed to quote Nibley for the remainder of the hour. Not that there is anything wrong with Nibley, but I don’t believe his material is always appropriate for a Sunday School class. Teach from the scriptures! When Jesus said, “It is written…” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to commentary in the Talmud.

    I’ll be honest and say my biggest pet peeve (and I find this when I visit other wards) is teachers who insist on teaching lessons found at beardall.com This is not necesarilly Beardall’s fault, mind you. Its the teachers. Stick with the outline the Church has provided. Beardall provides interesting information, but it often strays (and sometimes strays very very far) from what the original topic of the lesson was about.

    Okay, off my soap box. Nice post Dennis

  26. You know- now I’m wondering.

    Why is it we hear SO much about how to teach and so little about how to learn?

    Do we need more teachers that are better or students that are better? Both, obviously, but proportionally?

    Why is it after leaving a class I am much more likely to be thinking about how the teacher could have done better than how I could have done better as a student? Isn’t evaluating my own role more relevant to me?

    If Sunday School was mediocre, what did I do to change that? How could I have done it better? Did I pray with faith for the teacher during the lesson? Did I pray that the Spirit would come and light up the room?

    Are we seeking to learn or to be taught?

  27. Very good points, Erin. I’m reminded of Elder Bednar’s 2006 talk to CES teachers entitled “Seek Learning By Faith,” available on the Church’s Web site. He shares your opinion that we often place too much emphasis on the role of the teacher in the learning experience, and goes on to share principles that we as teachers and students can apply in and out of the classroom to facilitate faithful learning. It’s a very, very good read.

  28. Erin and Bryan,

    I sympathize with what you are saying and I think you are correct.

    BUT — do we really think that each student has as much to contribute to the quality of the class as the teacher? Really?

    If, for example, you have a bone-headed teacher who simply speaks monotone from a lesson and never calls on anyone — or does so only for very superficial things — then what do you do (besides pray)?

  29. Yes, Dennis, I do. :)

    I’ve seen miracles happen in the classroom (regarding this) and I know they can happen.

  30. Erin,

    I don’t dispute these miracles. I just wish to make the case that poor teaching (from the teacher) can highly restrain what can happen in a class. I realize this can happen from students also, but from my experience MANY students do come well prepared to receive — but are disappointed. And it is not their fault.

    A smile, a prayer, and a good attitude can only get someone so far. It can certainly make poor teaching more tolerable, at the very least. But from my experience there is no substitute for good teaching. So, while I agree with what you are saying, I worry about people immediately turning this issue into a “be a good student” issue because I think it takes attention away from the fact that teaching is, on the whole, largely mediocre in the Church. Which is the bigger problem. Just my opinion.

  31. If you’ll indulge me Dennis, your question is the perfect lead-in to the following excerpt from one of my favorite talks by then-Elder Eyring. I remind myself of it often, as I all-too-easily fall into the trap he describes:

    a word to those of us who are served by those who are newly called. Our opportunity and our obligation is the same as theirs. We are to watch and strengthen. And each of us has almost endless chances to do it. Every meeting you attend, every class, every activity will have someone doing something that to them is at the limit of their capacities, or maybe a little beyond. Most of us carry into those situations the attitudes we learn in the world, where we may be quick to notice inferior service. It is too easy to think, In the Lord’s true Church, our standard of performance should be higher than that.

    There is more than one way to help the Lord lift them to that standard. One is to express or show our displeasure. I’ve been the beneficiary of another way, the better way. I’ve sensed when I was not doing very well when I was speaking or teaching or leading in a meeting. Most people can tell when they are failing. I have been able to tell when I have been not doing well, and I’ve looked out and seen someone in the audience apparently not paying attention to me, with eyes closed. I’ve learned not to be irritated. And then they’ve opened their eyes and smiled at me, with a look of encouragement that was unmistakable. It was a look that said as clearly as if they had spoken to me: I know the Lord will help you and lift you up. I’m praying for you. I’ve been in settings where many people listening to me were doing that. And I was lifted beyond what I knew were my abilities, or at least what I had thought my abilities were. You could serve that way when you see people struggling in their service. It will take a lot of praying, but you could watch and you could strengthen, even when your only call in the Church at that moment is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and your only tools are to pray and smile and encourage. (“Watch Over and Strengthen,” April 2000)

    I am not of course advocating that that we should ignore the issue of providing continuing training for our teachers. I am a staunch advocate for that in every ward I’ve lived in. But I also think we too often base our feelings about our Sunday meetings around whether we received “anything good,” and don’t think enough about our important role as contributors to achieving that result. I mean honestly, how many members do the following things:

    1. Bring their scriptures to church
    2. Bring the current Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book (or the Ensign with the most recent conference talks for the fourth-Sunday lessons)
    3. Read the Sunday School lesson beforehand
    4. Read the Priesthood/Relief Society lesson beforehand
    5. Bring a notebook/journal to record thoughts and impressions during the meeting

    Yikes, if I could get most of the people in my ward to do the first two things, we’d immediately see the quality of our lessons improve. And our teachers would likewise be encouraged (threatened?) to step up their game.

  32. Dennis,

    A few thoughts. We may come prepared to RECEIVE, but do we come prepared to GIVE? Those who come with the desire to give and contribute are seldom disappointed.

    And there is SO much more than a prayer and a smile that we can do to raise the spiritual level in a class. I will write a list of ideas later. Not to mention giving the teacher helpful and loving feedback after the class.

    Also- if I come wanting to learn- and I don’t feel I am then I should ask a question. A sincere question that relates. Ask and ye shall receive. If we go away feeling we haven’t received- there is a really good chance it’s because we didn’t really ask. Ask the Lord and ask the teacher and I have a hard time imagining we wouldn’t get an answer.

    The gospel is to be preached by the weak and the simple. If I’m less than impressed by a weak and simple lesson- well, that might say more about my own humility than about the true power of the lesson.

    I often find myself thinking of how a teacher can teach better. Because I love teaching. And it’s important to ponder on those things.

    But I think it must be true that I will gain so much greater revelation if I am examining my own role in the moment- as a learner- and seeking to see how I can be more like the Savior- then to be seeking to see how someone else could.

    This is something I really struggle with. I want to see great teaching! And I have so many ideas of how to bring that about. But I can tell that I am often distracted from LEARNING what the Lord would teach me because I’m too busy teaching other people in my head. :)

    I am beginning to become of the opinion that great learners are so much more needed in the Church today than great teachers. Some may not agree. But when I listen carefully to people, and myself, I can see that we are much more eager and ready to tell and teach than to listen and learn.

  33. Bryan,

    I like Elder Eyring’s comments.

    Let me be clear that I am not in favor of judging individual members on their teaching. One can have the opinion that teaching needs to be greatly improved without constantly judging who is doing the teaching. On an individual level, yes, let’s follow Elder Eyring’s comments.

    I am not the bishop of a ward, nor do I have authority to tell any individual bishop or leader what to do. Still, that doesn’t mean I can’t have any information or observations that I think more ward leaders should consider taking more seriously. I have been in many wards that have been severely lacking in training towards teachers, and that attitude has been perpetuated by this kind of folksy “have a good attitude” approach. Yes, we should have a good attitude and be supportive! But I think some of our local leaders might consider recognizing that (a) teaching in general is rather mediocre, (b) there are many reasons that this is so, including student preparation, and (c) making it a priority to help improve teaching, including calling capable, talented, and motivated individuals to serve as teacher improvement specialists. From my experience, wards that do these things have much better teaching — and not only from the teachers, from the students also!

  34. erincita33,

    A few thoughts. We may come prepared to RECEIVE, but do we come prepared to GIVE? Those who come with the desire to give and contribute are seldom disappointed.

    I think I disagree. There are many, many times when my heart has been right in a Sunday School lesson. I am not frustrated or judgmental, and I am willing to receive and to give. This is certainly not always, and I don’t want to give the impression that there is not room for improvement. And there have been other times when I thought my heart was right and I later realized it was not.

    And yet, during some of these times, I am disappointed. In fact, in some cases, it is precisely because the Spirit is with me that I am disappointed. I’m not talking about disappointment regarding “skills.” I’m talking about disappointed regarding the gospel not being taught. Or taught very superficially. Or the taking lightly of sacred things. Or self-righteousness. Or insensitivity to certain groups of people. One does not have to be prideful to take notice of these things! Moreover, we ought to care more about what we give and get from the lesson — we ought to care about what others are giving and receiving as well.

    The gospel is to be preached by the weak and the simple. If I’m less than impressed by a weak and simple lesson- well, that might say more about my own humility than about the true power of the lesson.

    It might, you are right. But it might be an accurate reflection of a poor lesson. Of a teacher who is not taking his/her calling seriously. Of students who aren’t. Of woeful misunderstanding of the gospel.

    I should say that I often have inspired thoughts during what I consider to be poor lessons. Often totally unrelated to the lesson. Nonetheless, I mourn that we do not have a better community of learning — that we are not doing more rejoicing together! This requires greater care for students and teachers. Here I am simply focusing on the latter. I encourage you to write a post that focuses on the former.

  35. Dennis,

    Thank you for writing that.

    I agree with you 100%.

    In my view, the feelings and thoughts you just described can only come from a sincere heart and a true disciple.

    As the prophets did and do, we can feel godly sorrow for these kinds of things. And as you alluded to, I do believe the closer we are to God the more our heart breaks to witness these kinds of things.

    It’s not a spirit of condemnation- it’s sorrow for what could be, and is within our power, and yet is not.

  36. Just curious, how exactly is the determination made that the teaching taking place is mediocre? I don’t know that a single person could make that call, because there’s so much going on that the Spirit is doing that is behind the scenes for both the instructors and students.

    For a while we had a problem in our ward where inappropriate language was being used by a certain quantity of our teachers (I was in the Bishopric at the time). Obviously, this is a clear example of incorrect teaching, and while we certainly received complaints and had to take corrective action, there were a handful of members that also commented that other parts of the messages the teachers delivered resonated with them. Obviously, we took some steps to correct the problem, and teaching in our ward has improved, but I believe that teaching the gospel can’t be put on a scale of bad, mediocre, and good. So long as there is any chance at all for the spirit to be present, which is only somewhat measurable on a group scale, you can have teaching take place, and teaching can improve or decline, but that doesn’t necessarily correspond to a scale or designation we envision.

    I hope that makes sense. I’m having a hard time articulating my thought here.

  37. It’s a fair question. As with anything in life there is an excellence that can be achieved and should be sought after.

    The more you study teaching, or tennis, or learning, or swimming, or language, or anything, the more you can identify aspects of excellence- the approach toward perfection- and the common roadblocks that hinder progress. There are matters of style that can’t be necessarily evaluated but there are also eternal principles which are just true which can’t be ignored.

    If we rejoice in the Olympics and in the triumph of achieved excellence than we should surely desire even more for excellence to be reached in missionary work, leadership, teaching, learning, training, etc.

    The missionary department for the Church has long evaluated effectiveness in its program and methods. The MTC is constantly seeking to improve and achieve excellence. This is what repentance is all about- learning and changing and becoming more like Jesus Christ- more excellent and closer to perfect.

    The question is- how? What is the Lord’s way to progress that will get us closer? I have a lot of opinions and ideas but His thoughts are greater than my thoughts. His ways are greater than mine. If I really want to contribute and bring about more excellence in teaching then I have to learn His way. I do the best with what I understand but I have to be willing to learn more and adapt my vision if I really and truly want to make an eternal difference.

  38. […] in any lesson can be answered by one of these questions.  Dennis talks a great deal about going beyond the Sunday School answers, and I wanted my boys to really think hard about the questions I was […]

  39. I agree entirely with Dennis’s post and so many of the comments left afterward.

    As a teacher I believe we should do all we can to be a better teacher, and that is probably best measured by how successful we are at bringing the spirit to the hearts of the students. Any other measure, in my opinion is not relevant within the church. I think Dennis had many excellent suggestions that would lead to that outcome.

    I also believe we can do much better as students. I have personally experienced the situation mentioned in several comments where I let myself become distracted by poor teaching and went home empty. But I became aware that I was actually losing the companionship of the spirit as I did that, So, I repented and asked for help. What followed was charity for the teacher, which helped me ask helpful questions and to be patient. Sometimes I have prayed for them during class as Elder Eyring taught us. I pondered more about points of the lesson that I thought were missing (instead of pondering over the weakness of the teacher), which led to the spirit teaching about points relating to the lesson that the teacher never even brought up. If possible I could bring up those points myself, but often I didn’t have an appropriate opportunity and left without sharing, but at least I was edified and taught by the spirit. My opinion of Sunday School has completely turned around. Priesthood meetings have improved substantially. And I don’t experience a loss of the spirit during those two hours at church as I formerly experienced too often. And it has come from within me, mostly. Subsequently, I have recently been called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher and my greatest fear is to have a class full of people like I used to be!

    I’ve now been teaching in the church for 40 years. It has only been in the last 10 or 15 years that I realized that my most important objective is to help open up students’ hearts to the spirit, so they will be taught by Him, not me. To be a “window to His love”. I like that comparison to John the Baptist speaking of the savior, and I believe it applies perfectly here “and I must decrease and He must increase”.

    Thank you, Dennis for your insights. I wish I had such a grasp of things 30 years ago, as you obviously do.

  40. Thank you. I am considering cutting out the classes here in my branch because they just feel like such a disconnected waste of time. They do not strengthen my faith because they just cover the material. So I felt my time can be invested in better ways on the Sabbath, though I am by no means apostasizing.

    It’s nice to see that someone else experiences a bit of disappointment with the same, and thank you for your suggestions. I agree.

    Where’s the second part?? I came here on a mobile device, and can’t find it by going back or next. If you wrote it you should link to it at the bottom of your post. Thank you :)

  41. Was there a part 2 to this post? I’m interested in to what it said.

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