I’m back from vacation, sunburned and happy and ready to answer your questions.  This week’s question is from “Feedback Wanted” — a Sunday School teacher who wants to know what Gospel Doctrine students hope for on Sundays.

We didn’t get too many answers, but the ones we got were good ones.  Here’s what Meridian readers had to say:

I’ve taught Sunday School for 17 of the past 30 years (three years to the teenagers, fourteen years in Gospel Doctrine class).  It is my favorite calling in the Church, though I haven’t done it for about six years.

What I have noticed is that it is the instructor who motivates learning and participation in the classroom, not really the students.

For example, and I learned this from another Sunday School teacher, I used to bribe my students (adults and teens).  I’d bring in a bowl of candy each Sunday.  It was always something cheap like a bowl full of Hershey’s Kisses or Starlight Mints or butterscotch candies.  I’d then say that “the Lord blesses you for reading your scriptures, and we help him bless you for this class.  If you read your lesson for this week, you can take three pieces of candy.  If you opened your scriptures at any point in the week, you may take two pieces of candy, and if you were a slothful and not a wise servant, remember that the Lord still blesses you with the air that you breathe, and you may take one piece of candy.  Remember, however, the lessons of the Old Testament and that you may be struck dead for touching extra candy that you do not deserve. Honesty is still the best policy.”

When I did this, people actually read their lesson and came prepared to discuss it!  I had teenagers who read the entire Book of Mormon so that they could get a few, small pieces of candy each week in class.  The cost on this was a meager investment to me of about six bucks a week.  The blessings to the students cannot be measured.

Was it bribery?  Sure it was.  Is it a gimmick?  Sure it is.  However, it gave people an experience in the scriptures, and that is never wrong.

I also always did my research.  I looked up suggested lesson plans on different LDS websites.  I didn’t always use them, but I at least read them.  I also had the Institute manuals handy for whichever course of study I was teaching.  I had other recourse materials at home that I could refer to, such as historical books or works like Doctrinal New Testament Commentary.  I made sure each week that I was prepared to answer any question.

I also tried to put the lesson into historical context.  If something was going on geopolitically at the time that affected the people, it was often important to the lesson that they learned or the message that they received.

I also tried to control the class to keep us on target.  Yes, you can dovetail or branch out into a thirty-minute discussion on some minor or insignificant point in the lesson, but this often causes you to skip over a major theme.  Go by inspiration and learn where to let these tangents continue and when to bring things back to the target.

A very important point is that a teacher should never prepare the lesson during the sacrament meeting talks.  The students can tell when you are not prepared and when you just “wing it.”  Never, never, never just read the lesson manual from beginning to end and ask the prepared questions word for word.  Anyone can read a lesson manual; your calling is to teach the material.

Finally, a teacher should approach the class and the lesson prayerfully.   Find out what it is in the material that the Father wants your students to learn.  Discover the spirit and meaning of the materials beforehand.  President Hinckley said “preparation precedes perfection.” 

Alan W. Hatch

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Thanks for a great letter, Alan.  I, too, have found the motivational power of candy “bribes,” although after a bishop objected to the term I began referring to them as SMODS (Spiritual MOtivation Devices).  A few pieces of candy per week is a cheap way to get teenagers to read The Book of Mormon — or even adults to prepare for Sunday School class.

We have been blessed to live in many places and attend many Gospel Doctrine classes over the years.  I hate being lectured to — no discussion allowed.  I get frustrated when a teacher focuses solely on the historical aspects of the passages comprising the reading for the week.

What I have truly loved — what motivated me to search and study deeply — has been those few teachers who teach from the scriptures, focus on how we can apply the teachings, and encourage open discussion in the classroom.  Many times in the course of discussion, some remark impresses me profoundly, and I leave the class wanting and trying to be better, do better.

I thrived on and cherished those classes and credit the teachers for fostering my growing love for the scriptures and the gospel.  On the few occasions I got to teach this marvelous class I encouraged discussion.  I learned in preparing the lesson and then learned again from those who joined in the discussion.  It was wonderful and a time of all being edified by all.

P. Boehner
Exton, Pennsylvania

You make a good point about discussion, P.   No matter how well prepared a teacher is, he doesn’t know everything.  You can get a lot of good stuff from a well-moderated discussion, and it’s great to have a teacher who has the confidence to let the students participate.

Skipping Gospel Doctrine classes? The bishop always asks in recommend interviews, “Do you attend all your Sunday meetings?” By skipping them, one is not sustaining the teacher in her calling.

When I was the Gospel Doctrine teacher I used to enjoy introducing the principles learned into everyday situations — “What would you do if…?”  Once you’ve understood the principles you need to know how to apply them.

I also enjoy listening to teachers explaining the historical and social setting so that the scriptures can be put into their true context.

Vim, UK

You make a great point, Vim, that the act of sustaining a person in a calling means that you attend the meetings to support the person in question.  I might add that if you really want to sustain a teacher, it helps to read the lesson material beforehand.

You asked a question I love to answer!  I even have a little soapbox I get on!  

I want to feel the Spirit and enjoy the camaraderie of pondering the gospel with my ward family.   We’ve had these lessons since Primary, but the Spirit will quicken the lesson to address our current life issues, so that it’s never stale.   I think this process is muffled if the teacher wants to display his/her own genius/wisdom, or if the teacher controls every moment of the class or tries to fill up every moment, determined to “cover the material,” ignoring the testimonies and thoughts of the class members.

It is true that allowing discussion runs the risk that people will bring up nonsense, quote Oprah (shudder) or other disasters, but discussion also invites the Spirit and is good for “team building.”  You may have to “train” your class and occasionally count to 10-15 to give the class a chance to prepare a response to questions and contribute.


 

 

 

I see gospel teachers as facilitators of our basking in the light of the gospel.  I even do this in Primary.  I present some material, invite discussion, and am prepared to present material the whole time in case the class is resistant to participation, but I pause often and quickly let go of my script when good discussion gets going.  It means the class has become engaged in the topic.

It’s not just teens who tune out when a teacher drones on.  I like to encourage people to record their thoughts in their journal if there wasn’t class time for everyone to share — and I try to do that myself.

Leah in Puyallup, Washington

I really like your practice, Leah, of preparing a whole hour’s worth of material and then having the freedom to let it go if the discussion takes offin a positive way.  Good for you!

Here are three ways to improve adult Sunday School lessons.

  1. Realize that your objective is to inspire, not to teach us something we don’t know.  Most of us had studied the New Testament many times before.  There’s no need to rush through the lesson to hit all ten points listed in the manual.  Slow it down, focus on one or two points, talk about the whys, and allow class members to talk.  Make sure each lesson ends with testimony.
  2. Don’t use the scriptures as a quote book, and don’t scripture chase.  If we are studying Ephesians, then read Ephesians.  Don’t drag us through 15 supporting quotes in the D&C and the Book of Mormon.  Tell us a story, who was Paul talking to?  Why did this subject come up?  Give us some background for color.  The Savior taught with stories and parables, not by rattling off a scripture chain.
  3. End a few minutes early.  Really!  Most of us have a need to chat with a fellow member about home/visiting teaching, car pooling to a stake meeting, etc.  The rest can sit and ponder the talks and lessons of the day.  Nothing says, “I love you, class” as much as wrapping up a lesson and a closing prayer with 5 minutes to spare.

Dave Lohr

Bel Air, Maryland

Great list, Dave.  Gospel Doctrine students all over the world will thank you for #3, but my personal favorite is #2.  By the way, I’ve got my own personal #4:

4.  Never, ever divide the class into discussion groups.  As soon as you do that, you’ve lost ‘em.  

I have been a Gospel Doctrine teacher several times in my long life. I have always prayed for the guidance of the spirit in preparing my lessons and, hopefully, I have had that guidance.

I do sometimes use outside sources. Once I found a poem by a monk in the Middle Ages comparing Abraham’s intended “sacrifice” of Isaac to God’s sacrifice of His Son. Since this fit in very well with the lesson, I used selected portions of the poem (it was a very long poem). Class members always told me I taught good lessons and this one was no exception, so I guess they liked my additions.

I also appreciate it when Biblical or theological scholars add depth to a lesson with their insights. Although much good can come from just using the scriptures, I always like to dig a little deeper. I read recently that many Biblical scholars do not believe that Peter wrote the epistles ascribed to him, because they were written in a more erudite form of Greek that Peter would not have known, although he would certainly have known some Greek. Now, that may have nothing to do with the content of those letters, which give us gospel lessons, but it is something that adds interest.

If Peter didn’t write those letters, who did, and when?  Of course, Peter may have just dictated what he wanted to say to a scribe, who may have then written the letters in the more learned Greek. Suffice it to say, the possibility was not mentioned at all in Sunday School yesterday and there wasn’t even a possibility for me to bring it up. It was a good lesson, anyway (since I live in the best ward in the Church, we have really good teachers).

I remember Brother Richardson’s talk in conference, where he urged teachers to teach the class, not the lesson. So I like your idea of asking the class members what they want out of Sunday School. Doing that and seeking the guidance of the Spirit are surefire ways to being a successful teacher.

Sharee 

Thanks, Sharee, for reminding us of the admonition to teach the class, not the lesson.  I had forgotten that already, but it’s something that teachers need to remember.  Thanks for the tidbit about Peter, too. That was interesting!

As an experienced attendee of Gospel Doctrine classes, and as a former Gospel Doctrine teacher, I feel there are simple things that can turn that time into something great.

First, sacrament meeting needs to end on time (and that is under the complete control of thebishopric).  

Second, Gospel Doctrine class can be wonderful if the teacher creates an interactive atmosphere that stays focused on the lesson.  Our large class meets in the chapel where by necessity the acoustics are poor for the teacher and the audience.  (That is why there is a microphone on the podium, on the sacrament table and for baby blessings.) The only time the instructor wears a body mike is when there is a public open house sacrament meeting. 

The mike makes a big difference for those whose hearing is not what it once was or if there is a baby loudly chatting.  There is a building personal mike and it is in the stake’s closet and the teacher can’t/doesn’t use it.   Please do not tell me to listen harder or sit closer to the front!  There are other needy class members.

Does the teacher use a blackboard to list the lesson and/or scriptures being studied?  Does the teacher repeat the question/ answer so that all class members can know what is happening? Teaching No Greater Call has great suggestions that include considering the learning styles of class members.  All of these teacher-generated problems help create the “class of the hall.”   

Third, just because the teacher knows the material does not make the Gospel Doctrine class a learning place.  That desired state of excellence comes when all in attendance are treated as learners, not just pew decorations.

Perhaps the teacher should get an evaluation form from the class like they do at the community college classes!

Judy Gaskin
Richmond, Virginia

Thanks for the reminder, Judy, that if most of the Gospel Doctrine students participate in the “class of the hall,” there is a reason for it.  Yes, we should attend our meetings regardless of how good the teacher is.  But if a lot of class members are voting with their feet, the teacher may want to look inward and see if changes can be made.

As for it being the teacher’s responsibility to make himself/herself heard, I agree with you completely.  You might as well not even prepare a lesson if nobody can hear you.

I want to learn something when I go to Sunday School.  Lessons that are well organized and have a purpose/theme make me happy.  When I leave, I want to have an outline in my mind of key points to chew on, ideas to ponder, and thoughts that may trigger some personal research and reflection.


 

 

 

I don’t like the touchy/feeling feel-good lesson structure that is popular in Relief Society lessons.  I want something that challenges both my mind and spirit.

Hopeful

That’s a good reminder, Hopeful.  Teachers, your students do need to be challenged mentally and spiritually.  Perhaps some of the suggestions here can give you some ideas that will help you make it work.

I enjoy teachers that actually get to the scriptures.  Many only talk about themselves and their families.  I also enjoy teachers that teach at our level.  When a Gospel Doctrine teacher asks questions like, “So how old are we when we are baptized?” I really do wish that I had skipped and gone home.

Looking for Substance

I know how you feel about the “Duh questions,” Looking.  Asking questions where everyone knows the answers is one way to drive students crazy.

Scary as it may seem, Feedback Wanted appears to be doing exactly what teachers are called to do. I would love to be in that class. In fact, it sounds like our class. We have two good teachers for our Gospel Doctrine class, and this is what they do.

Gospel Doctrine is supposed to be a discussion, the students having read the reading assignments before coming to class so that a teacher can guide a discussion of what they learned through their reading. I commend this teacher! And, if the teacher is really lucky, the students have even cracked open the Bible Dictionary and read background material so they (and the teacher) can share it with the rest of the class.

When I taught Gospel Doctrine I discovered that most of the students’ questions could be answered in the Bible Dictionary and the footnotes. 

Bruce Forbes
Kearns UT

I agree with you, Bruce.  The Bible Dictionary is a great source of information.  Readers, if you haven’t read the Bible Dictionary from beginning to end, it’s fascinating reading.

Okay, readers, next week’s topic is yours.  If you have any more to say that hasn’t been said about Sunday School, feel free to add your two cents.  Do not under any circumstances use the “feedback” form on this page!  Send your letters to  [email protected], with something in the subject line to indicate that your letter isn’t spam.  If I don’t get any new letters on this topic, we’ll begin a new discussion next week.

Until next time — Kathy

“The best way to hold on to your man is with your arms.”

Mae West

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