Since many of my posts are going to be devoted to creating materials that will assist in teaching lessons in church, I thought I would have an introductory blog post about my general guidelines for teaching in a church setting.
At this point in my life, I’ve taught Relief Society for a combined total of four years, so I’m beginning to get the hang of it. I feel confident that I’m a good teacher because I regularly get teary-eyed hugs from sisters after the lesson and phone calls or emails from sisters who wanted to thank me for the lesson.
If I were teaching Melchizedek Priesthood lessons or Sunday School, I would probably make some modifications to my teaching style. Nevertheless, here are the general principles I follow as I’m preparing a lesson plan for Relief Society:
1. A good Relief Society lesson is one that is centered around having a thoughtful discussion. There needs to be a good balance between the material from the lesson manual, the teacher’s unique insights, and comments from the sisters. But of those three elements, the comments from the sisters are the most important. For that reason, I believe my role as a Relief Society teacher is to be the facilitator of a good discussion. My job is to come up with open-ended, thought-provoking questions that will encourage the sisters to share their perspectives and personal experiences. I let the sisters teach the lesson for me. I intentionally plan to let the sisters share their own insights for 1/3 or even 1/2 of the lesson. (FYI, I usually pull approximately 3 quotes from the manual to use in my lesson.)
2. Every sister needs to feel validated. When I give out quotes for sisters to read before the lesson begins, I write down who I gave it to. Then when it’s time for that particular quote or scripture, I call on them by name. Not only does it help to avoid the confusion that occurs when someone forgets that they were assigned a quote, but it communicates to them that I know their name. Also, when sisters are sharing a comment, I make sure I listen to them with full eye-contact the entire time. When their comment is done, I respond to what they have said by building on what they have said, talking about why I think their comment is valuable or responding to it in some way.
3. Good teachers are good readers/thinkers. You need to identify the “thesis” of the lesson (either from the manual itself or from your own studies into the topic) or some other organizing principle or objective for your lesson. Once you can see what the thesis is, it’s then helpful to identify the supporting ideas in the lesson’s “argument.” To put it into different words, you need to identify the most important ideas from the lesson. Then center your lesson around those key concepts, brainstorming the best possible ways to communicate those concepts and/or how to have a discussion about them. Usually, I make a concerted effort to make one of the concepts connect to Christ or the Atonement in some way (and I usually save that concept for the end of the lesson). It’s an interesting intellectual challenge to connect the lessons to the Atonement and I find that any concepts that can connect to Christ usually turn into the biggest “wins” for the lesson—meaning that I can see that this section has had a noticeable impact on the sisters.
4. Try to stick to the doctrine when incorporating outside material. Not every lesson gives you a lot to work with and you may sometimes find that you have to “massage” it a little bit by bringing in supplemental material. I think that’s definitely understandable, but I generally think it’s a good practice to try to limit yourself to doctrinal materials wherever possible. I would stick to the standard works and quotes from General Conference by past and present church leaders—keeping in mind that Auxiliary Leaders are included in that. (I feel a need to say that since I think it’s a great idea to incorporate quotes from female leaders into the lesson. It really helps give women a positive female spiritual role model to look up to.)
5. End the lesson on time. When you end a lesson late, you are forcing a woman’s entire family to wait for her in the hall. I have a goal to always end 5 minutes before the hour. In order to make that happen, I build flexibility into my lesson. I plan for things I will cover if I have extra time and I plan for things I will cut out if I don’t have the time.
6. A few cautions:
- Never begin the lesson with a self-deprecating remark (like talking about how you dreaded teaching today or how you’re a bad teacher). It makes your audience lose respect for you.
- Never incorporate group work into the lesson. Although group work is really effective in other educational settings (I use it constantly in secular teaching environments), it’s usually the opposite in church. I’m not entirely sure why it doesn’t work in a church setting; I just know that it doesn’t usually accomplish what the teacher had intended it to accomplish.
- Try to avoid negativity, singling out ward members who are “different,” or talking too much about aspects of the gospel that are controversial. Whenever I prepare a lesson, I try to think about what things I don’t want to talk about and make sure I steer clear of those topics. I generally try not to talk about things that the Brethren have intentionally left up to our personal discretion (like whether or not we should pay tithing on our gross or net income, for example) or anything that will make someone with different circumstances feel excluded or different (such as ward members who are single/divorced, ward members who are childless or unable to have children, etc.). Add disclaimers or qualifications where appropriate.
Hopefully that will give you a sense of the teaching decisions I make when I post future lesson plans.
What are some of your own guidelines or best practices when preparing to teach in church? What modifications do you make to your lessons based on whether you’re teaching young children vs. the youth vs. Sunday School, etc.? Feel free to share.