Advice on Teaching – Preparation

jesus teacher

(This is the second post in a series. The first post is here.)

1. Strategies for beginning: The first thing to note is that you can’t do it all, at least not every week. Life won’t let you. God understands this and will still bless us if we give our best effort. But our best effort always entails disciplining ourselves and our schedules so as to put forth the requisite labor and reap the reward (at least, usually; we all have bad weeks and sometimes God simply bestows grace on our lessons). So do as much as you can and don’t feel guilty or overly inadequate. Instead reflect on how you can do more and improve.

1A Be a GREAT student. Part of what it means to be a teacher is to be a great model. If you’re always learning, you’ll always be excited about what you’re learning, and that excitement is contagious. This is true even if your class is supremely prodigious and already knows everything you’re sharing.

1B Prepare early. This will give you the chance to go over the material more than once and to ruminate. Throughout the week, in the midst of unrelated activities, you’ll be struck with ideas for or changes to your lesson. This can’t happen if you’ve not already begun to seriously consider what the lesson will be. In your early preparations, you’re going for two things:
1Bi Familiarity with all of the material and the overall context out of which your lesson arises.
1Bii The specifics of what you’ll actually be teaching.

1C Think about it in a new way. This is something I can’t stress enough. Do not let your past understanding or thoughts dictate your lesson. God didn’t call you to teach because you already knew exactly what God wants you to share each week. Just as importantly, do NOT approach things like this: “The lesson’s already there and done, and I’ve just got to be the conduit for the manual/committee who wrote the lesson.” That’s the opposite of teaching by the spirit. The lessons laid out in our manuals are meant merely as a general framework, guideline, or help for you. Consequently they are incorrigibly general and must (at the least) be specifically applied to your class, otherwise their generality inevitably becomes superficiality.[1] We’re all familiar with the danger of teachers throwing the manual out the window and failing to teach the assigned scriptures, doctrine, or themes.[2] Another danger that is just as extreme (and in my experience far more common) is failing to prepare anything and simply leading the class through whatever is in the manual. This won’t happen if you honestly approach the text in new ways, because you’ll see and learn things that aren’t in the manual. So how do you do this? Here are some ideas:
1Ci Interrogate the text – ask lots and lots of questions (check out a Julie M. Smith or a Jim Faulconer post for example).
1Cii Ask naïve questions (e.g., Why did Christ need to be resurrected so that we could be?); naïve questions are sometimes a good way of undermining stock answers.
1Ciii Play devils advocate – I find this one the most fun (and it is, I suspect, the reason why everyone’s favorite section of Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon is his subversive Laman-perspective reading of I Nephi). The point is not to heretically challenge what the prophets have written; rather, it helps to keep you from failing to grasp what the prophet is actually saying, a way of challenging simplistic or superficial or downright unworkable interpretations of the text that lead us to dismiss rather than learn from the prophets.
1Civ Look for new connections – footnotes help here, as does searching through the talks/writings of apostles and prophets. But also don’t forget to look for ways in which the scriptures/themes connect to aspects of your life in ways that you might not have thought about before.
1Cv Ask others’ their opinion on anything that seems relevant or conspicuous. Again, since being a great teacher means being a great student, try and learn from others. (Example: God says the song of the righteous is a prayer, but I can think of all kinds of ways in which songs are very different than my prayers, and ways in which they’re the same but that sameness seems irrelevant. How are songs like a prayer in your experience?)
1Cvi Read it in a different translation or media format. It’s both tautologically and neurologically true that your mind works different when engaged in different activities. You’ll have different thoughts hearing the scriptures or reading them in Lingala then you will going over them in your normal way.

1D Think out loud. The best approach is to have someone to think out loud with. Studying and preparing lessons with my wife is infinitely more valuable to me than preparing to teach alone. But even if you don’t have another warm-blooded body to think out loud with, talk it out loud anyway. Go over the subject, or the themes you’re considering, or the lesson outline. If you’ve done the “Prepare early” thing, then teach your whole lesson. You (and even more likely, your candid friend) will hear the weaknesses, tangents, undue repetitions, as well as the strengths.

1E Ponder relevant life experiences. What personal experiences do you or others in your class have that would contribute? We’re all familiar with how powerful personal narrative is in gospel teaching. A lot of this happens spontaneously in the course of your lesson – it’s one of the most common ways in which students in our classes participate. It’s also very effective, however, to prepare these before hand. Often times it not only improves the delivery, but also gives the person you’ve called on a better chance to genuinely reflect on and learn from their experience.

In doing so, don’t shy away from hardship and struggle. Antiseptic lessons are untrue to our experience and untrue to the poignant accounts in the scriptures. Sanitized lessons are also one way that we fail our classes, running away from precisely what they need (honest and faithful exploration) as well as what the gospel is meant to give them (a balm in Gilead – or at least, a meaningful framework through which to experience and understand the difficulties in life). The more honest and open and vulnerable you are as a teacher, the better your class will be.[3]

1F Plagiarize. If the goal is to write an original term paper for class, then stealing someone else’s ideas is bad. If the goal is to share the best message for your class that you can, then take advantage of others’ work and insights. In doing so, and in reading others’ thoughts outside of the scriptures, remember that there’s good, better, and best. Don’t ever let others’ voices be a distraction from the scriptures. But regularly try to glean wisdom and insights and effective teaching styles from others.

On a related note, find an unofficial mentor (or mentors), someone you value as a great teacher. Observe and try to mimic or incorporate what you find effective in their teaching. Never stop doing this.

1G Pray about the needs of the class. This needs to be a part of your study.

Note: One of the most difficult things that I think we all have to grapple with is learning to be genuinely sensitive to and aware of our students needs, rather than pride-fully selecting our own pet topics and soap-boxes or turning our lesson into a narcissistic personal catharsis.

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2. Narrative of the lesson. Your lesson needs to have an overall structure – specific themes together with recognizable connections and an overall picture. After studying the lesson and selecting specific scriptures, themes, and experiences that you want to discuss in class, your job is to mold it all into a coherent whole.

2A Two effective options: First, you can make your structure explicit. Tell your class outright, “Here’s what I want to focus on” and “Here’s how this point connects back to our main theme.” Write the different themes and subthemes and draw connections on the board. This is perhaps the simpler option, and it ensures that you won’t be misunderstood. Invisible structures can also be very effective, a way of presenting your themes subtly, but in such a way that the students themselves make the connections. Personally, I think this latter is more difficult to do well but also ultimately a better form of pedagogy. Either way, you need to know exactly what the narrative structure of your lesson is and present it in a manner that the students will also grasp it.

2B The hook (or catch): You’ve got to begin with something that helps to pull everyone out of their post-sacrament socialization and into the lesson.[4] This is perhaps one of the more well-known tricks for teaching, but in my experience it’s often done poorly. The whole point of a hook is to get your class directed and warmed up and ready to think seriously about the gospel and their lives.
2Bi Warning: don’t let the hook dominate time or attention! This is perhaps the most common mistake made with hooks.
2Bii The hook need not be weird/crazy/funny/super creative. If you are super creative, then by all means, make use of that talent. But remember that gimmicky hooks are always distracting. Some of the best hooks are things like a really good question, a relevant experience, or a seemingly unrelated scripture or quote.

2C Highlight the main theme or principle. Again, you can do this explicitly or subtly. But make sure that everyone in your class will be able to tell their family or friends on the ride home exactly what the point (and not just the topic) of their Sunday School class was. Repetition is helpful, sometimes necessary—just make sure that you’re not condescending or otherwise teaching at an inappropriately low level.
2Ci What’s the distinction between topic and main theme? It’s a matter of generality vs. specificity. ‘Keep the Sabbath day holy’ is a topic. ‘D&C 59 helps us to recognize that there is a direct connection between celebrating the Sabbath as holy time and being able to fully enjoy the blessings of the earth’ is a specific theme.
2Cii Make your supporting themes do just that: support the main them. For example, maybe I also want the lesson to focus on the multitude of ways that nature is a blessing, on what the “Lord’s Day” has meant historically, and on the nature of “oblations and sacraments.” In isolation, it’s not clear that these relate to the main theme or how they might connect together. Part of your goal is to present each subtheme in a way that your students will perceive the connections.
Sometimes, it’s effective to lead your class in exploring the connections themselves. Again, you don’t have to be a genius and you don’t have to have everything perfectly worked out beforehand. But you need some already-thought-out ideas and some strategies for helping your class do more than randomly fire from the hip.

2D Questions: In my opinion, good questions are the most important part of the lesson. If all else fails, a series of good questions will carry a lesson off successfully. Good questions, however, need to be thought through and articulated prior to teaching the lesson. This is true even for the seasoned Socratic. I have a post on asking good questions here.

2E Application: This is another popular but oft-abused part of the lesson. The gospel has to interact with our everyday lives. If there’s no pragmatic upshot, there’s no upshot at all. Nevertheless:
2Ei Don’t come up with rules and lists! “Teachers who are commanded to teach “the principles of [the] gospel” and “the doctrine of the kingdom” (D&C 88:77) should generally forgo teaching specific rules or applications. For example, they would not teach any rules for determining what is a full tithing, and they would not provide a list of dos and don’ts for keeping the Sabbath day holy. Once a teacher has taught the doctrine and the associated principles from the scriptures and the living prophets, such specific applications or rules are generally the responsibility of individuals and families” (Oaks “Gospel Teaching”). So what does application mean in our lessons? What can we do on this end?
2Ei1 Ask others for ideas of how their family applies a given principle. This is a way of being specific and concrete without creating an orthodox list of imperatives. For example, ask, “What are some of the specific ways or traditions that your family has for celebrating the Sabbath?” These are brainstorming sessions as opposed to “Apply it this way” directives.
2Ei2 One way to think about application is as a means for getting students to do something outside of the class—that is, to connect what’s taking place in the discussion to their outside life. Homework is a virtue. At a minimum, you can always assign your class to discuss application as families.

2F Conclusion: You ought to have a great conclusion. Like good questions, it’s a great way of ensuring a worthwhile lesson. I think there are lots of different ways one can have a solid conclusion – ending with a specific testimony, powerful quote, an explicit tie-in, a moment of silence for students to reflect, etc. It ought to be a powerful final thought on the matter, and somehow help to connect all of the dots.
2Fi Prepare so as to be able to end at numerous points in your lesson: Remember time is short! 30-40 minutes is usually it, and sometimes less. One rarely has enough time to share everything one’s prepared, so write your conclusion so as to be able to stick it in smoothly whenever time runs out.

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3. Preparing for the lesson you don’t want to teach: This happens to everyone, and there’s lots of reasons why one might not want to teach a lesson—one lacks a testimony on the matter, one finds the topic emotionally or psychologically difficult, one really didn’t like the talk the lesson is based on, one feels like it’s guaranteed to be a disaster in one’s particular class, one dreads the comments that are sure to be raised, etc. Here are some options:

3A Don’t teach it. This is easier to do on the scripture-based lessons, but it’s almost always an option. I commonly ignore the suggested themes given in the manual and sometimes even the suggested scriptures. Each week covers so much that it’s usually easy to simply pick a different set of scriptures or highlight a different theme. Remember, you’re obligated to teach scripture and doctrine, not Correlation’s suggested theme.

3B Modify it. For example, instead of emphasizing priesthood hierarchy, one might emphasize the power of priesthood to bless or priesthood ritual or the fullness of the priesthood in the temple. Instead of emphasizing the ascetic nature of fasting, one might emphasize the way in which it unites the saints in a common practice of worship. Examples could be multiplied.

3C Confront it. Sometimes, and when done tactfully, simply confessing one’s struggles or difficulties with an aspect of the gospel and then inviting discussion not only stimulates constructive, faithful dialogue, it can also be a blessing to others who likewise struggle (we’re rarely alone in our struggles, even when we think we are). It can also help others who do not struggle with a given principle to understand why others might, and so to be more sensitive and connected.

3D Call for assistance. My wife once taught a lesson based a General Conference talk. The talk discussed reasons why our faith might wane and how we should help others whose faith is waning She dreaded teaching the lesson because the situations and solutions discussed in the talk were so completely foreign to her own experience and the struggles of others with whom she was familiar. She was convinced that there were those in her Relief Society who would only feel further alienated if she were to focus on the talk’s specifics. Then inspiration struck. She took the intro of the talk and asked multiple members of the RS in advance what they would say to someone struggling with their faith. Their answers were open, vulnerable, honest, varied and heartfelt. It ended up being one of the most powerful lessons she’s taught.

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4. De-brief after the lesson. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think that the de-brief is actually a critical aspect of preparation. Critiquing and getting feedback on our lessons—when done well—is always oriented toward the next opportunity to teach. My wife and I are in the habit of discussing our lessons on the ride home and as we prepare lunch. This has been an invaluable part of my improving as a teacher. We all need the opportunity to rigorously go over our lessons, discuss what worked and what didn’t.

4A Another related note: be humble and willing to change or accept criticism. Your ability as a teacher is a not a measure of your personal worth – criticism of your lesson or delivery is not condemnation of you as an individual.

4B Likewise, all of us have or will have the experience as a teacher of delivering a message or lesson that we felt really good about, only to find out that others thought it insensitive, inappropriate, overlooked the important stuff, or the like. Be willing to reflect honestly in these situations and change as needed. We’re called to teach everyone in our classes, including those we might think are oversensitive or obnoxious, and we can’t do this by stubbornly ignoring their concerns.

But note: part of honestly reflecting on criticism is judging when that criticism is misguided. Key to making sure that you’re not being dismissive, however, is to have others involved in your de-brief, including those whom you trust to love you enough to be honest.

[1] This footnote exists simply to emphasize that point: generality in particular contexts often equates to superficiality.

[2] As Elder Oaks says, “a superior teacher of the gospel will teach from the prescribed course material, with greatest emphasis on teaching the doctrine and principles and covenants of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is commanded in modern revelation, where the Lord said: “Teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel. “And they shall observe the covenants and church articles to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit” (D&C 42:1213).”

[3] That said, I think we all recognize that there’s an appropriate and sensitive way to discuss difficult points in both the gospel and life. I think one of the most powerful aspects of the Book of Mormon is the way it portrays the real and wrenching difficulties and even horrors in life, but does so in such a way that the focus is on the hope and even joy that is likewise very real. Moroni 9 is perhaps the paradigmatic example.

[4] For the record, I think that socialization is second only to the ritual of the sacrament in terms of reasons to attend church.

5 comments for “Advice on Teaching – Preparation

  1. Sam Brunson
    June 16, 2013 at 7:16 am

    Thanks, James. There’s a lot of good stuff here.

  2. June 16, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Helpful advice, James. If we know the material and are comfortable teaching, we can sometimes just wing it with minimal preparation. But *sometimes* isn’t the same as every time, and it is terribly disconcerting to realize, in the middle of a lesson, that you don’t quite know what you’re doing with a point or a topic. There really is no substitute for good preparation. You won’t come up with a new idea or a new angle or a new scripture unless you do the preparation.

    I like the discussion of hook, theme, and narrative. I’ll try to use those today in my lesson on sacrifice.

  3. Cameron N
    June 16, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Of course, you would write this post one of the few months that I procrastinate my lesson preparation until Sunday morning…

  4. James Olsen
    June 16, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Cameron, not only did you procrastinate until Sunday morning – but then you wasted your time reading T&S. Repent!

  5. January 25, 2014 at 10:56 am

    This was really helpful, stealing a lot of it for a lesson I am teaching this week on preparing lessons. Great work.

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