Teach me diligently

I’ve just been called as Gospel Doctrine teacher.

The last time I had this calling was 11 years ago. I was a cocky young upstart who relished the prospect of teaching The Gospel According to Kathy. (The one true gospel.) Tired of substandard Sunday School instruction, I set out to whip everyone into shape.

My class members were very kind. They took the good and graciously overlooked the bad. They smiled at me, answered my questions, and thanked me for my efforts.

I hope my new class will do the same.

I don’t deserve such kindness, according to the law of restoration. Despite my gratitude for charitable class members back when I was a teacher, once I was released I promptly resumed my snooty silent (and not-so-silent) criticism of those folks called to teach me.

And bad karma aside, while don’t think I’m quite as cocky as I used to be, I still have all kinds of weaknesses as a teacher. All of which will inevitably be on display at the front of the classroom.

But maybe with your help I can do a bit of damage control. Awareness is the first step to change. So tell me, what do you appreciate in a Gospel Doctrine teacher?

48 comments for “Teach me diligently

  1. Congratulations on getting once again the best calling in the Church.

    Here are some starter suggestions that I think make for a good GD teacher:

    1. Enthusiasm for the subject. Enthusiasm is infectious.

    2. Solid preparation.

    3. I absolutely hate catechism questions. The best classes entail student involvement and participation, but you should engender that with real questions or requests for genuine insights, not silly catechism questions. Ugh.

  2. The best Gospel Doctrine teacher is one who prepares with the Spirit and doesn’t overwhelm the discussion with too many esoteric facts. It’s nice that this word or that word means this or that in ancient Hebrew, but I really don’t care about it on Sundays. One hour is not nearly enough to really delve into the deep recesses of the rich gospel. Heck, six sessions of General Conference barely scratch the surface!

    The ultimate point about Gospel Doctrine is that we are taught to remember the basic principles of the Gospel that bring us eternal salvation. That is a good Gospel Doctrine teacher, one who best brings the Spirit of remembrance for the upcoming week in the world around us.

  3. A few more thoughts on GD pedagogy (a subject I’ve thought about a lot):

    1. It’s not important to “get through the lesson.” If you try too hard to do that, you’ll drive yourself insane, because after announcements and whatnot you’re lucky to have a little more than a half-hour. Pick some key portions of the assignment and focus on those; don’t try to cover everything.

    2. For a long time I couldn’t figure out whether it is better to gear the lesson to those who have read the assignment or to those who haven’t. I finally decided that, realistically, most people aren’t going to read the assignment, so one thing I sometimes would do is spend the first five minutes giving an overview of the assignment so that we could all start on somewhat the same page. (I came to this pragmatic conclusion when it occurred to me that, when I’m not teaching, I typically don’t read the assignment either.)

    3. I personally made it a policy never to put anyone on the spot, and to make sure people knew I would not do so. This isn’t law school, and I’ve known too many people who are just deathly afraid of being called on.

  4. Plan some definite way to begin so that you launch right into your lesson — it doesn’t have to be a stunt, but may be; maybe it’s a provocative question or a dramatically told story or even just a clearly announced statement of what is to come. (This is in contrast to whittling away your limited time by reviewing where we left off last week, or telling some dumb joke, or telling what kept you too busy to prepare, or any of the other ways teachers and speakers fill up time with everything but teaching.)

    Have a particular goal in mind for each lesson, one particular point you want to make or discussion you want to have. Reality might take you in some unexpected direction, but at least if you start with an end in mind you won’t drift aimlessly toward “getting through.”

  5. Both as a school teacher and a church teacher, my first foundation rule was to make sure my students knew what they were expected to learn. Suggestion #1: Don’t ever get cute and coy about the topic or most important point. Ardis’ second paragraph addresses that for your preparation, but also make sure your students know what your most important goal is right from the beginning of class.

    I always tried to involve the students, but I also couldn’t stand the idea that my main job was to facilitate their teaching each other. Suggestion #2: A lot of wonderful things will come from the participation of the students, but never forget that you are the teacher and it is your responsibility to make sure what you feel inspired to teach gets taught.

    I had students who were very bright (school) and very spiritual and knowledgeable (church) who also would never volunteer a comment. I had students whose understanding varied widely (from highest to almost lowest level) who had no problem volunteering a comment. (Any doubt which is my group when I’m a student? – I’m working on it; really.) Suggestion #3: Try to know your students well enough to call on those whose contributions you want but who otherwise will not participate, while not allowing those who will dominate to do so. (I start every single calling with a statement to everyone that says, in essence, “If you don’t want to read or pray or comment, please let me know privately. I will respect that request, but if you don’t let me know I will ask you to read or pray or comment at some point.”)

    Nobody here has the right to revelation for your calling. Suggestion #4: If the Spirit prompts you to ignore what we suggest and do something in diametric opposition to our advice, ignore us and follow the Spirit.

    I’d like to be in your class this time around, but I have an amazing GD teacher right now – a sister who wouldn’t dream of participating in most of these discussions but who carries an incredible spirit that is palpable. In that setting, if I had to choose between her and the kind of doctrinal discussion I enjoy SO much here, I would choose her – in a heartbeat and without reservation.

  6. I appreciate a willingness to the let the class discussion develop in unplanned ways, yet backed up by a willingness and ability to take over and teach non-stop for the entire 45 minutes.

    I also appreciate a teacher who doesn’t allow certain members to monopolize the class discussion.

  7. Thanks for the reminder about your prior thread, Julie, which contains much excellent advice for any GD teacher.

  8. mmiles, you’re saying I shouldn’t introduce myself as “Mommy”? At least my tattoo is a bit more benign.

    Dan, I like your take on the purpose of GD. I want class members to walk away feeling like they are better prepared to live basic truths that next week.

    Kevin, you’ll be pleased to know that as soon as I received the call I made this vow: I will not ask the class any “duh” questions! (meaning the catechism-type questions you referred to). I think teachers ask these because they think the easiness of the question makes it more likely for people to be willing to answer. I think the opposite is true–the answer is so obvious that people feel stupid volunteering the answer.

    Seth R., your first suggestion described exactly what I’m hoping to do (be prepared but be flexible). Hey, any techniques you can recommend for keeping the big talkers from monopolizing? (I’ve also made a vow to avoid looking at my watch, or the clock, while someone is commenting, so that option is out. Although I don’t think it would work with these types anyway.)

    Julie, I will study your post with all due diligence.

    Ray, I liked hearing about your current GD teacher. Has anyone else had a teacher that has been particularly effective? What set them apart, as far as their presence in the classroom?

  9. I would strongly suggest reading outside of the manual as preparation for the lesson. The most boring GD lessons I’ve had are the ones where they just stick to the material in the manual. The most interesting ones were in a class taught by a Judaic Studies graduate student. He passed out handouts showing the original text of the New Testament in Greek, and explained various aspects of the culture at the time. You needn’t go that far, of course, but at least be prepared to use words that aren’t in the manual.

    I second the comment asking you to involve the students and ask open-ended questions. To that I would add, don’t ask questions that make people ashamed of their faults and lives or ask them to air their dirty laundry. One of the worst church-related classes I’ve ever been to (outside of GD) was a marriage workshop where the couples were invited to share an experience from their marriage where inspiration had helped them. I’d had plenty such experiences, but I wasn’t about to admit publicly how poorly I’d done before in my marriage, and neither was anyone else, so the experiences related were very insipid (“I used to not enjoy washing the dishes till one day I prayed…” type stuff). I’m sure the instructor meant it to be inspirational, but it had the opposite effect, it left everyone with the impression that everyone else in the class has only minuscule problems in their marriages and they’re all alone with their larger problems.

  10. Here are my thoughts:

    1. Encourage uplifting discussion; see it as a blessing and benefit, not a distraction from the lesson you have prepared. People in the class can likely tell if their comments are either welcome or annoying.
    2. Always remember that there is no way to transmit all that you will learn and feel and come to love in your personal study. (That is part of the blessing and the curse of teaching.) So don’t even try to share it all.
    3. Closely related to #2: I agree with whoever said don’t worry about “getting through the lesson.” I think that kind of rush (“well, we need to move on”), especially when there is a good discussion going on can inhibit the Spirit. But, of course, come prepared for the possibility that no one will say anything.
    4. Don’t be afraid of silence. Sometimes people need time to think and/or get courage to say something.
    5. Use scriptures and prophetic quotes as your foundation rather than intellectual material. My personal preference is not to have GD become primarily an intellectual endeavor. (Confession, though: I have loved the things I learn from intellectual teachers, but these lessons are often not ones that will reach a lot of people.) Let the Spirit be the teacher and teach “new” things. The purer the doctrine is, the more the Spirit can flow. Some of my most powerful “a-ha”s have come when pondering or talking about or being taught about basic principles of the gospel, because the Spirit opened my eyes and mind in a new way.
    6. And what Ray said. Follow the Spirit in each class preparation. I was amazed at how once in a while I felt almost restrained from getting too much material planned, and those weeks, the class discussion took up so much of the time (and I wasn’t tempted to take over with my stuff). Other times, I overprepared (to an extreme!) and the discussion took a turn that really benefited from that one quote on page 125 of my notes.
    7. Testify boldly and often. Encourage others to do so as well.
    8. Savor every minute. Many of us are trying not to envy you. I think it’s one of the best callings in the Church because you learn so much and it’s amazing how the Spirit can work with you personally and with the class.

    Hm. That was more than I thought I would share. I think I’m feeling jealous….

  11. I agree with the suggestion about reading outside of the Church manuals. There is a whole world of knowledge out there and what is in the Church manuals is so limited. I would not teach everything that you find there, but I think that the Spirit can guide you to what is appropriate.

  12. #1 keep the focus on gospel principles that impact the way people live their lives. The worst GD class I ever went to involved a 40 minute discussion on whether people in heaven drive in bubble cars (seriously).
    #2 find interesting ways to open the material up for your students– to give them a perspective or angle they hadn\’t considered before. One fo the best GD teachers i ever had used the resources at http://www.beardall200.com quite a bit (and I belieev they are all church approved).

    I wish I could be there. I think you\’ll be a fab GD teacher!

  13. I think it’s helpful to write the lesson scripture on the board (Luke 20-23 or whatever) so that people have a general idea where you are when they walk in late, and also to write Next Week: John 17-20 so they know where to read if desired. Honestly, most people can’t find their nice study guides from January to follow along, and in the four years I taught GD I found that very few were prepared beforehand, so the overview mentioned previously is important. I like to get pictures from the library–gospel art kit or bigger ones– if there are appropriate ones to the scripture/topic, and there often are, to add a little visual interest. No elaborate centerpieces, but a little indication that you’re prepared :-) All of Julie’s suggestions in that linked article are good; there are many excellent resources online. And anytime it works in to play music, or refer to a recent Ensign article, or whatever, I like to relate the topic to other media. We’ve all heard it so many times that any variety is refreshing…
    In our ward a huge thing is curtailing discussion that gets off-topic (anytime foreordination/predestination comes up, there is one High Priest who goes to town), and I’ve noticed that some teachers have a hard time cutting people off or not taking comments, but you have to be careful where the discussion goes so that you don’t spend the whole period discussing Peter and the rooster instead of the crucifixion.
    Enjoy! It has been my favorite calling too.

  14. Anita,
    Just wanted to second your thoughts. I had wished the lesson material was on the board just today because I had come in late.

    And yes, being facilitator is one of the hard jobs…helping guide discussion so it doesn’t lose focus, flow and the Spirit.

  15. The best GD teacher I believe I’ve ever had was released today. She ALWAYS was well prepared and flexible, delved into the scriptures (without the rote reading of every single verse… she knew which ones would teach the principle or bring out the point of the lesson she wanted to make), used quotes from GAs as appropriate to the particular lesson (not just to use them), invited questions and comments (and learned how to be adept at when it was time to move on or to curb a rambling comment), expressed appreciation for insights shared by class members, and ALWAYS bore her testimony (IMO, the single most important “requirement”).

    I admit that there have been times in my life when I was grateful for a calling in Primary or teaching youth SS because it meant I would miss a boring GD lesson… I actually have come to enjoy the opportunity of attending GD in the past few years. Our new GD teacher will be very good. She has many of these same teaching qualities. But I will miss the just-released teacher because she was GREAT. (Actually, she wouldn’t think that. Her humility and reliance on the Lord in the midst of her perceived inadequacy is part of what made her a great teacher.)

    Good luck and enjoy your new calling!!

  16. Great comments all around. My suggestion would be to be sensitive to class members who don’t usually give comments, but decide one Sunday to put in their two cents worth. Usually these are people who want to say something they feel is important to them or to what is being discussed, but it takes great effort on their part because they don’t want to feel misunderstood or dismissed. Needless to say I’m one of these people myself. It’s one thing to write on a blog where I can review and edit before submitting, but it’s a whole different animal when I feel like I have something to say, summon the courage up to raise my hand, try to articulate as clearly as possible my point in a crowd of people, and hope that the point got across, much less helped someone spiritually. The worst part is that once I’ve gone through this (or seen others go through this), usually the teacher says “okay,” maybe “thanks,” or worst of all nothing at all and moves on. At that point all I can do is go on faith and hope that my comment was for somebody in that class. Maybe I’m just being oversensitive, but I would love to see a teacher in GD or Priesthood look at me after I finished, recognize that I’m not just another voice, and maybe in a sentence or two restate what I said and then ask if his interpretation was correct. It certainly would make me feel less self conscious to give comments in the future, and I think there’s nothing harder than to teach a class with little participation, no participation, or participation from the same members week after week. Am I alone in feeling this way or am I making sense to anybody out there?

  17. Oh! I knew I forgot one aspect…

    Our just-released GD teacher always led the discussion to how it applied in our own lives: What does this mean for us now? How does it affect our lives and relationships? How does it change or affect the way we live the gospel? Does it strengthen our testimonies, and if so, in what ways?

    In other words, what do we do with scriptural knowledge beyond simply reading chapter and verse…

    Very effective for personal introspection in a way that induces very little guilt for not being perfect, motivation to change when necessary, and even a little back-patting when one realizes one is doing a pretty good job!

  18. After years (decades) of sitting in GD classes, my sense is that very few people actually read the scriptures before they come to class. I have tried an experiment that seems to be fairly successful. Every scripture, every parable, every story that we discuss we actually read the verses out loud in class. I usually assign one person to read for that Sunday. As the verses are read, most of the class opens their scriptures and read along. That way when we discuss an issue, the discussion actually grows out of the scriptures instead of memories and long-held impressions. It also opens up the discussions to people who did not read the scriptures before they came. Part of the pleasure of this process is that choosing which verses to read out loud helps me to clarify the message that I would like to focus.

    Thanks for posting this and for all the ideas shared.

  19. And now for the other side…
    I have been the SS instructor for 14-16 year olds for several years now. My challenge is not to manage discussions but just to sustain interest.
    An example:
    Yesterday’s lesson was “We are witnesses.” Because of my MTC calling, I am very focused on missionary work, and so have started including _Preach My Gospel_ in my lessons. So yesterday, I had a “mission call” for each kid, with questions about what that calling might entail–what the people had gone through (such as those in Thailand), why they might have a special interest in the gospel. I then had three envelopes, one labeled “challenges” one “gifts” and one “scriptures.” (All of the scriptures were from the lesson manual.) So as they talked about their calls, I had them choose a challenge–such as “your toenails have become infected and you have to walk a long ways. Choose a gift card to see if it will help.” Gift cards had things like patience, discernment, cheeriness, etc. But there were several gift cards which said, “You are feeling depressed and as though you have no gifts. Choose a scripture to see it if helps.” So we managed to talk about everything in the lesson, and the kids were with me. BUT, this takes a heckuva lot of creativity each week and is sometimes really exhausting. I wish the lesson manual worked for this age group but it just does not. There are days when I dread Sundays because I know the kind of preparation I have to put in. Maybe I’ll look back at these days with fondness. Right now, I’m relieved when Sunday School is over–even though I really like my students. I would love to have any kind of a discussion with them. It just doesn’t happen.

  20. How big is your class? Many (most?) have a single gospel doctrine class — which is, quite simply, impossible to teach. The problem is that in the Church a teacher is responsible for teaching everyone on the roll, not just everyone who comes to class. yet most gospel doctrine teachers do little or nothing to address the needs of those who don’t regularly attend — in part, I suspect, because the numbers are too large to make that feasible. And even in the class, GD teachers tend to hold discussions with those who want to speak, instead of engaging the quite ones who don’t raise their hands – something that we do regularly, and at least a bit more easily, in smaller Church classes.

    So what would I do as a new GD teacher? In addition to the great ideas above – or perhaps before the – I’d:

    (1) telling the bishopric that the class is too big, and pushing – for months or years, if necessary, for multiple classes so that I can both effectively work with those who do attend and know who I need to reach out to among those who don’t attend.

    (2) Every single week make assignments to persons who do not normally participate (whether in the “not there” group or in the “quite” one), having them do something in class — respond to one quewstion posed in advance; tell one story; perhaps just read one scripture.

    Bottom line:

  21. “in a sentence or two restate what I said”

    Giotto, I agree this can be very helpful, especially for long or complex comments. One of my law professors (Frank Michelman) could brilliantly restate comments to make all of us sound smarter than we were. He could take the comment, “the judge wasn’t fair,” and restate it for the class as “Dan points out that the judge assumes a theory of retributivist justice, but fails to explain why this case should be seen through the retributivist lens, to respond to criticisms of the theory, or to say if he would come to a different outcome if he started with an alternative theory of justice . . .”

  22. I feel quite the opposite of what you feel. The gospel doctrine teachers in my ward have always been absolutely terrific — and as different from each other as night from day. The teacher we have now is the best one that we have yet. On behalf of my own ward, I’m grateful that they don’t have me as their gospel doctrine teacher.

  23. Wow, my cup runneth over! Thank you, everyone. I’ll be thinking carefully about these suggestions over the coming days and weeks.

    A few thoughts–

    I’m especially interested in making the lesson material feel relevant to the class members–the personal-application part. And I hope to help the usually quiet class members feel that their insights are valued.

    I’m also a big believer in the power of having actual scripture spoken in class. For some class members, this is the only exposure to the word of God they’ll have all week. One of the best GD lessons I’ve ever been part of was one about the mission of Christ. The entire lesson consisted of us reading verses aloud, one after another. The spirit increased with each verse read. By the time we were done, there was that palpable presence in the room that Ray mentioned. It was amazing.

    Of course that’s an approach to use only once in a while. But as a teacher who used to favor nifty explanatory material rather than the scriptures themselves, I’m committed to using the real Word copiously.

    JrL (25), thanks for that reminder to reach out. We only have one GD class, and it’s pretty packed. Hoping to hear your bottom line (seems to be missing in your comment).

    Margaret (24), my sympathies. I admire your diligence!

  24. Kathryn, congratulations (or condolences?) on your calling! We frequently discuss teaching issues at the Feast blog, we’d love to hear in the future your thoughts or questions on teaching there.

    One though in particular we discussed (here) is regarding some potential dangers of an “apply the scriptures to our daily lives” approach. I used to think this was one of the most effective and productive way to teach, but I’m more and more convinced that there are real dangers to focusing too much on this approach. In short, I think there is a danger to try to reduce the scriptures to some sort of moral maxim or principle and then spend the rest of the time talking more about us than the scriptures. In this approach, the scriptures become merely a means of getting to the moral maxim, rather than a rich and inexhaustible source of reflection and study in their own right. The opposite danger is, however, as has been mentioned, getting bogged down in textual, scholarly, or intellectual minutiae without ever really teaching anything that is meaningful for class members.

    Perhaps what my point is better captured by what someone else said: as a teacher, our goal should be to bring the classroom to the scriptures, rather than the scriptures to the classroom….

  25. I’ll add a bit.

    1. Remember you’re not teaching anything that most of your people haven’t already heard and heard ten times over. The best teachers I’ve had are the ones that take the base material and present it in a way I haven’t heard before.

    2. Don’t accept “bubblegum” answers (meaning you can chew and chew and never get sated). Outright ban answers like “Pray More.” or “keep the commandments” and ” read the scriptures”. Taking these crutches away from people makes them actually think about what they’re saying and try to give meaningful answers.

    3. View your role as a moderator. Lead the discussion and don’t let it overtake you. I’ve had plenty of instructors that relied heavily on group discussion to only have lessons take a very wierd “Adam rode on Dinosaurs” or “White people are the seed of abraham” and other crazy roads.

    4. Most of all prepare. Students are like dogs. They can smell unpreparedness.

  26. I taught GD for two and a half years. It was a great learning experience for me and strengthened my testimony. Everyone has given you some good suggestions. I would add help your class integrate the Gospel into their daily lives and not just treat it as something they only think about on Sunday. Answer all their question to the best of your ability and if you don’t have the answer tell them you will research it and answer it the following week. Follow through.

  27. ronito, students are like dogs with a sore tooth that you have to remove, and its fear that they smell! (Sorry, had to bring up the overused “pulling teeth” metaphor!)

    Kathryn, since I have a tendency to think of my own growth (and wisdom) more than the students, I’ve found that the most important thing to do in preparing the lessons is to ask the Lord for what would strengthen me the most during the lesson. It’s funny! It sounds so utterly selfish, but that has enabled me to reach my students far more effectively than many of the other things I’ve tried. Those times when I have opened myself up to the class, within reason, has helped them to open up to me. That, and snacks are ALWAYS a good idea! Except of fast sunday. One disclaimer – my ward has two GD classes, so that’s why I can afford snacks.

  28. K,

    An idea to help the class members read the lesson/scriptures ahead of time: At the beginning of each class ask if there are any questions concerning the lesson/scriptures. Write the questions (in bullet or abbreviated form) on the blackboard, but don’t answer them yet. When your lesson covers the question take the time to answer it and/or involve the class in discussing it and make sure the questioner understands the answer. Leave time at the end for questions that weren’t covered.

    Also, as a teacher, NEVER EVER ask a question that a junior primary child can answer – this is a gospel doctrine class, not the investigators class.

  29. Congratulations on a great calling.

    1. Discussion-oriented.
    2. Open-ended questions that straddle the line between what the
    teacher knows and what she doesn’t know…….just enough
    to put into play some risk-taking.
    3. Able to stretch our minds while at the same time confirming the
    most basic of our shared committments.
    4. Unpacking the depths out of our most obvious shared realities
    as Mormons.
    5. Questions that elicit canned answers are death.
    6. Preparedness.

    Good luck this year.

  30. I sub about once every 2-3 months as our GD teacher.

    Couple of secrets.

    1. Involve other members of the ward in small segments. You do not need to stand and deliver the whole time.

    2. Have a on topic musical number.

    3. Have a white board discussion

    4. have a ward member share an applicable on topic personal exp.

  31. This is going to be really short, and way down the list of comments here you may never see it, but these two things have been the most important for me in any lesson I’ve taught:

    1. How does the topic help us to understand the atonement of Christ?
    2. Encourage class members to share personal experiences about how they came closer to Christ through the topic of study – and allow them time to think of experiences (sometimes it takes 30 seconds of silence before someone has time to process their past experiences).

  32. GD students will not remember the reading assignment for next week after they walk out of class. I email them the reading assignment and student manual questions in the middle of the week, and when possible, even cut and paste the scriptural passages to be read into the email itself. That way, if they read their email, they’ve read the lesson. I even email it to folks with Primary callings so they can be unified with the rest of the ward, if they want to be, in reading the scriptures.

  33. Remind me to tell you about my “crock-pot” method. Mmm…it smells like a good lesson.


  34. Still there? A few thoughts:
    1 Margaret (#24) – that’s not “the other side” in my ward. OUr GD class is often as “dead” as a youth SS class. I think GD teachers should FEEL FREE to call on people to comment or answer questions, especially as the Spirit directs. Too often, I think the teacher is afraid to “put people on the spot.” But why to people come to SS if they expect to not have to say anything? Really – I expect a little apathy from the youth, but adults?!
    2 One very important part in becoming an effective teacher is knowing your students well. This may be the most difficult thing about teaching GD, because of the size of the class, among other things. As much as you can, try to involve people who are less likely to speak – maybe ask them ahead of time to share something.
    good luck!

  35. Still there? A few thoughts:
    1 Margaret (#24) – that’s not “the other side” in my ward. OUr GD class is often as “dead” as a youth SS class. I think GD teachers should FEEL FREE to call on people to comment or answer questions, especially as the Spirit directs. Too often, I think the teacher is afraid to “put people on the spot.” But why do people come to SS if they expect to not have to say anything? Really – I expect a little apathy from the youth, but adults?!
    2 One very important part in becoming an effective teacher is knowing your students well. This may be the most difficult thing about teaching GD, because of the size of the class, among other things. As much as you can, try to involve people who are less likely to speak – maybe ask them ahead of time to share something.
    good luck!

  36. Okay, here’s the crock-pot method. It’s similar to some suggestions already offered, but it adds a nice visual (and if you’re really good, a nice olfactory) reminder.

    If you are prepared, you shall not fear. At the beginning of the week — usually on Sunday after you get home from Church (you really don’t need to turn on the TV) — open up the lesson manual and read everything for next week’s lesson. Yes, everything. Sometimes there is actually good stuff hidden between the crap. This means all the quotes, all the stories, and most importantly, all the scriptural references. Always read the scriptures — all of them. This is the meat of your lesson.

    After you’re done with that, read the appropriate chapters in the CES/Institute student manuals. (This is your potatoes.) Gospel Principles is another great source and one of the best kept secrets in the Church. (Carrots.) The recently published True to the Faith is fantastic — if you don’t yet have one, tell your bishop to order a case for the ward. (Onions.) These books often have some hidden treasures and explanations that you might not find elsewhere. Plus, they are generally safe sources — more about that later. Some of the student manuals are desperate for a makeover, but they’re better than nothing, and the newer Church publications really are quite good.

    If you still absolutely have to add some of your favorite spice, go digging around in your favorite Bushman or Shipps or Robinson or whatever, but the natural flavorings are the best, and those exotic seasonings sometimes distract more than they add to the meal.

    So after you’ve tossed in the meat (scriptures and lesson manual) and the veggies (other good Church publications) into your crock pot, you close the lid and let it simmer all week long, and the flavors and the juices start to mix together and the smell starts to slowly fill the rest of the house. Every now and then a thought will pop up, as you’re standing there in the shower on Tuesday, for example, and you think, “Oh! that’s a great idea!” and you toss it in. Or you’re reminded of a favorite story while you’re shopping for groceries on Thursday afternoon, and you throw that in, too. Or you receive some piece of insight or inspiration while you’re driving home from work on Friday, and when you pull of the lid to add that to the mix, too, you catch a strong whiff of a lesson that’s starting to smell really good.

    Finally, on Saturday night, or Sunday morning (depending on your weekend dating plans and sacrament meeting start time) you sit down with the scriptures, lesson manual, and other good Church publications, and you start to organize all of the thoughts and ideas you’ve been having all week long. This is when you write down what questions you want to ask (more about this later, too) and what points you emphasize. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Quantity is the enemy of quality here. You only have 40 minutes, and if you’re enjoying a good meal, that time just disappears. Don’t put too much on your plate. It’s not as important that you get through the lesson, as it is that the lesson gets through you.

    And that leads to the final point. The lesson is not about you, and it’s not about your preparation, and it’s not about your brilliant insights. Teach the doctrine. The actual, unfiltered, unacademic, unspeculative doctrine. The flavors are far too rich to be adding your own sauce. And don’t rush through it. Some of the best things need to be savored, slowly, gently. You don’t want to give yourself heartburn my trying to cram down too much at once. Remember, in good food as in good lessons, quality trumps quantity. And quality takes time.

    My wife thinks I cook slowly; I keep telling her I cook with love. Take the time at the beginning of the week to add the meat and potatoes and carrots and onions to your crock pot, let it simmer, and at the end of the week, when you pull off the lid, you’ll get hit in the face with a powerful aroma that explodes from the stewing goodness, and you’ll say, “Mmm…that smells good…”

    Now, some other thoughts.

    First, don’t teach your interpretation of doctrine; teach the actual doctrine. Teach from the scriptures. That is your text; that is the surest source of Church doctrine. If an apostle or prophet said something in General Conference, that’s pretty safe, too. Anything else, I’d avoid, unless you want to recite something for purely entertainment values. But then you run the risk of diluting the doctrine. Even new translations from ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, which might sound really, really good, are not official doctrine. If it wasn’t published by the Church, and if the First Presidency hasn’t put its stamp of approval on it, I’d be very hesitant to introduce it into a classroom, no matter how solid the adult listeners’ memberships are. It is an authoritative position, and it is expected that official Church doctrine, from it’s source (i.e., from the scriptures, not from your favorite Institute teacher), is what is being taught.

    Second, no obvious questions, period. Unless you enjoy the sound of nervous, annoyed silence. The most difficult part of planning lessons is writing out (yes, actually writing them) a list of pertinent, thoughtful, challenging questions. Do this, and everyone will enjoy the lessons, especially you. Be warned, though — this takes the most thought and requires that the preparation has been done well in advance. (Make sure you turn on the crock pot after you fill it.) Again, if you are prepared, you shall not fear.

    Third, stick with the Spirit, always. Don’t go wandering off on some academic, philosophical tangent. Absolutely no speculation or extrapolation! (This blog is for that, not the Church’s classroom.) I love talking to good, intelligent friends about possibilities and theories and speculations and extrapolations, but never in a classroom; never in front of students, regardless of age or status in the Church. The lesson is not about you, or even about how much you learned. (I have some wonderful insights that I’ve learned and consider to be very possibly true interpretations of what I read in the scriptures, but I have kept them, for the most part, to myself, partly because I consider them personal revelations and partly because it is not my place to be interpreting scriptures for my class, or even for my friends in private conversations.) The lesson is about the true and living gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Finally, and related to the previous point, never teach the doctrines of Christ in isolation. Always, always, always ask, “What does this have to do with Jesus Christ and the atonement?” Make sure you figure that out, and make sure the class understands the connection, too. If the lesson is about tithing, relate it back to Christ. If the lesson is about home teaching, relate it back to Christ. If the lesson is about the Word of Wisdom, relate it back to Christ. If the lesson is about food storage, relate it back to Christ. Whatever is the topic of the lesson, it can and should be related back to Jesus Christ and the atonement.

    The secret to the crock pot method is good ingredients and plenty of time to simmer. Make sure you use plenty of both, and you’ll treat your students. They’ll walk out of class every week saying, “Mmm…that was a good lesson…”


    P.S. Please feel free to share my recipe with anyone you’d like.

  37. Holy cow, that was long.

    One last thought, regarding questions. I hate speculative questions. Questions such as “What would you do…?” or “How would you feel…?” always require the answer “I don’t know.” I can’t predict the future. I can’t leap across space or time. I simply don’t know, and anything past that is speculative. Such questions are cop outs. They don’t teach me anything because they require nothing from me , other than the aforementioned impossible leap in space and time, and it shows me quite clearly, plain as day, that the asker refused to put any thought into the formulation or asking of the question.

    I know that the lesson manuals are chock full of such lazy, horrid questions, because I am constantly crossing them out when I find them. That doesn’t mean you have to use them.

    Please, for the love of all good and eager students in your classrooms, ask good questions (i.e., not speculative, and not obvious).



  38. They don’t teach me anything because they require nothing from me , other than the aforementioned impossible leap in space and time, and it shows me quite clearly, plain as day, that the asker refused to put any thought into the formulation or asking of the question.

    One thing I’ve learned from President Kimball is that mentally working through a situation before it happens to you can prepare you to do the right thing in that situation. Its not close to infallible but it does help.

  39. Adam (44), agreed. We’ve all heard the stories of golfers improving their game by three strokes while imprisoned in Vietnam, and NBA stars bumping their free-throw percentage. But this is achieved through a process of continuous meditation, not in response to a fleeting question.

    One is the product of persistent, even exhaustive, mental effort. The other is the result of no thought whatsoever.


  40. But this is achieved through a process of continuous meditation, not in response to a fleeting question.

    The process I have in mind doesn’t have to be continuous–though repetition is helpful–and it isn’t exactly meditation. Moral imagination would be a better term.

    At least in my own case, just one fleeting question has occasionally been enough to prompt a process of beneficial moral imagination. It has frequently been a question I’ve heard lots of times before and never grappled with. Likewise, in some instances fleeting questions repeated throughout the years in various Sunday School settings have had a cumulative beneficial effect on me even though the exercise of my moral imagination in each individual instance was not very profound.

  41. Adam, I guess you have a better imagination than I do. Most of the time when I hear these fleeting, speculative, thoughtless questions, they are immediately preceded by a nervous silence from the teacher, who’s not quite sure what to say next, and immediately followed by a nervous silence from the students, who are not quite sure if they are really meant to answer yet another fleeting, speculative, thoughtless question.

    All I’m saying is, the questions that are posed in most Church classrooms could use a little more effort. I think you understand that, and I think you understood what I was trying to say. It’s all in the recipe.


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