We have entered an awkward time in the Church where the method of what is taught in nursery and Gospel Doctrine classes is different from the method used to teach the young men/young women Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society classes. Some classes are being taught old school and some are supposed to be taught new school. This article gives general principles for developing a lesson based on the intent of the lesson, and applies to all classes being taught in Church.
There is a numbered list at the bottom of the article that includes each of the major points made.
Referencing Church literature
Since we are all reasonably new to the council system and lesson format recently implemented by the Church, let’s review some directions gleaned from the Ensign and a Deseret News article on how to conduct and teach the new class format for adults.
While we counsel with each other in the council meeting on the first Sunday of the month, during the remaining weeks we also counsel with each other as we learn together in lessons and discussions. Don’t let the word counsel trick you into thinking you can only counsel with each other during the first Sunday council meeting. Not true.
The following list is found in the November, 2017 Ensign, page 138. Read this list then we’ll talk about some points to remember. This is the pattern for all Gospel Doctrine, Relief Society, and Melchizedek Priesthood classes.
A Pattern for Our Meetings
1. Share experiences resulting from impressions and invitations received in previous Priesthood or Relief Society meetings (led by a presidency member or group leader).
2. Counsel together (first Sunday, led by a presidency member or group leader) or learn together (second, third, and fourth Sundays, led by a called teacher).
3. Plan to act as a group or as individuals (led by a presidency member or group leader).
Note that the teacher portion of any class is only the second item on the list. The leadership of the class handles the first and third items on the list every week of the month. And the topics to be discussed for the second and third weeks should be chosen by the presidency or group leadership. For the second and third Sundays the Ensign says, “Study recent general conference messages chosen by presidency or group leaders or, on occasion, by the bishop or stake president.” (Emphasis added)
Notice that the sharing experience at the beginning of the lesson should be handled by a member of the presidency or a member of the high priest group leadership. The plan-to-act portion at the end of the meeting should also be done by a presidency member or a member of the high priest group leadership.
It makes sense to have this portion of the meeting led by the leadership members because through their calling they are charged to be spiritually responsible for the development of the members of their group, not the teacher. It is the leadership’s responsibility to help their organization set or review goals, rather than the teacher/facilitator/discussion leader. (I’m sure we will eventually settle on a common designation for what this person is called.)
Determining the intent of the lesson
Having spiritually responsible lessons comes from figuring out the intent of the lesson. When preparing lessons it is important to remember that it is the intent of the lesson that is most important, not the words written on the page. Whatever principle of the gospel is being taught is of greatest importance. Each age group and class will have slightly different needs and resources available. It is up to the called teacher to determine what material from the lesson is most important for that class. This is true for all classes. Am I saying that the teacher should just throw out the manual? No, I am not. I am saying that it is the teacher’s responsibility to take the material provided by the Church and modify it to the needs of the class.
The intent of a lesson is not as simple as it may seem on the surface. A lesson, whether developed from one in a manual or one from a Conference talk can address several principles of the gospel, and there may be different ways you can approach the main themes of the talk or printed lesson. It is up to the teacher to decide which themes or principles will be the major focus for that class period.
For example, I wrote an article for mormonbasics.com to help people study for, or prepare a lesson for Gospel Doctrine this year. It was lesson eight entitled, Living Righteously in a Wicked World. Now normally, we would focus on Abraham in this story, since he was the prophet in this lesson. But I found that, in this instance, focusing on the mess Lot made of his life because of his choices, illustrated my perceived intent of this lesson much more clearly than anything I could think of to learn from Abraham. So my whole article is about Lot, instead of Abraham. The printed lesson mentioned, briefly, Lot and his plight, but focused more on Abraham.
The point here is that each lesson can usually be taught from multiple angles and still teach, and reach, the stated intent of that lesson. And in the case of the Conference talks being taught in Relief Society and Priesthood, it is up to each teacher to determine what they perceive to be the real intent of that talk. What I may see as the take-away point from the talk may not even occur to another teacher who gets something completely different from the talk. And both lessons may be just what the Lord wants their classes to discuss.
Feel the intent
Some lessons, like those in Gospel Doctrine class, spell out the intent, or purpose of that lesson. But the teacher should be seeking the Spirit each week as the lesson is prepared. Sometimes the feelings that accompany the study and preparation of the lesson don’t square with the stated purpose in the manual. If the Lord wants you to take a different tack or direction that week, go with it.
The Spirit teaches largely through feelings. Learn to follow those nudges as they come. You will be pleased and surprised where they can take you. If you try to head off in a different direction on a lesson, but keep running into a mental wall that prevents you from advancing any further then perhaps you need to rethink your direction. Perhaps you need to go back to the lesson manual and reread the stated purpose of that lesson and try again. Just as the Spirit can lead us down a new path of discovery, he can also hedge up our way to keep us on the strait and narrow.
Preparing for the unknown
With the increased emphasis on individual class member contributions, the teacher needs to be ready for more that is unplanned and unexpected. When we stop lecturing and start asking for input we are opening the proverbial can of worms.
How often have you heard one of the Brethren say at the beginning of a General Conference that we are not supposed to just listen only to what is being said, but also take heed to what we are being told by the Spirit during their talks. They encourage us to have pen and paper on hand so we can write down the spiritual directives and thoughts as they occur to us during the sessions of Conference. Ideally this is also what should happen during our classes at Church.
When the teacher prepares their material for the lesson then starts a discussion on that material, almost any idea under the sun can suddenly make an appearance in the classroom. I don’t know about you, but I have had at least one occasion where I was caught up in a line of thinking, only to find myself stating to the class my deeply felt convictions about a topic from my thoughts that was not the topic the rest of the class was discussing. (Yes, I’m THAT guy.) Though it did me a world of good to have my say on the matter, it can be very embarrassing. You generally know you have fallen into that hole when you finish your statement and the instructor, and the rest of the class, just sits there in silence wondering what they are supposed to do with your comment. God bless our patient teachers.
Whether it be a council, discussion, or an old-fashioned lesson, teachers need to prepare themselves with key stories or verses that back up what they are teaching. These reserved materials can help the teacher bring the class back to the topic they are supposed to be discussing when the class starts to wander off the beaten path.
A trick to help teachers stay in charge of a discussion is to have the main points of the lesson written where the teacher can read it easily, without distracting the class. If you as a teacher can glance down at your list and see that you have covered the points you wanted to cover, but you are straying from what still feels like the needed next point, this helps you determine a way to steer the class back onto the desired topic.
Another option for the teacher is to put the main points of lesson on the board, or at least mention them, so the class can be steered to the next point by reminding the class that, as good as the discussion has been on the current point, it is time to move on.
The Spirit is there to help each person “connect the dots” in their own life. That may or may not include what you are covering in your lesson that day. This is why some people seem distracted or are not completely focused on what you are doing with the class. They might just be having a private lesson of their own with the Spirit
To better facilitate these learning moments, it helps to encourage class members to bring something to write with, and on, so they can record what comes to them during the lesson. As teachers we need to be patient with what our students feel is important to their learning. Only the Spirit knows where they are truly at in their spiritual progress.
The importance of the Spirit
For years I have maintained that the currency of heaven is knowledge. I believe the scriptures and the prophets uphold that opinion. When the Spirit teaches you something or reveals something to you, it is knowledge you are being given. When we stop listening to the Spirit and start to stray from the truth of the gospel, it is knowledge that is taken away from us. This is why those who have strayed far from the gospel have to relearn everything when they come back.
Just as we need the Spirit to teach our lessons and lead our councils, so too do the participants need the Spirit to have revealed to them what they need to know. As teachers we cannot control who has the Spirit and who doesn’t, but one thing is for sure, that we should strive to have Him with us.
As students it is just as important that we be concerned about bringing the Holy Ghost into the classroom with us as it is for the teacher to have access to him. We should come to class expecting and hoping to be touched by the Spirit and to have our minds enlightened. It also helps if we come with a helpful attitude that we will support everyone else in the class in their efforts to learn and grow.
Don’t forget the scriptures
There is a danger in our new way of teaching. It is easy to let the class start doing the talking, relieving the teacher of the need to say much. But when we do this our class time tends to turn into a general discussion, and that which edifies the most, the scriptures, rarely get used. This will happen more often in a lesson that isn’t based around an actual set of verses in the scriptures. When studying the Conference talk, be sure to look up all the references at the bottom of the talk, so you know which verses will help you steer your class members back to the scriptures.
Of all the tools you have as a teacher, the scriptures are the most powerful and versatile. We cannot be true teachers of the gospel of Christ and not use his words and instructions as recorded in the Standard Works. If you want to leave a legacy of spiritual growth behind when you are released from your calling, just use the scriptures as often as you can. They should be our first line of inquiry, and our main source of doctrine. Even the great quotes from the prophets are often just supporting what can already be found in holy writ.
And don’t forget that bearing testimony of the things you are reading in the scriptures is a powerful way to bring the Spirit and change hearts. Testimony doesn’t have to be given in a formal way. Relating experiences you have had with the scriptures and what they teach will do the same thing as a formally given testimony.
Here are the basics of what we have covered in the order they were discussed:
1. If your priesthood or auxiliary leader needs some time at the end of the lesson to discuss action items from your lesson, or to set goals with the group, you will need to agree with your leaders to end early enough for them to do their part.
Remember that the second and third Sunday lessons are labeled as a learn together experience. These are not supposed to be lectures, nor are they supposed to be a free-for-all discussion. The class still needs someone who has a plan for their learning. You just need to learn how to steer them in the right direction.
2. Your first responsibility is to discern what the intent of the lesson should be for your class. In other words, how will you approach this topic? What are the needs of your class? Seek the Spirit’s approval of your choice of direction so you don’t waste your time heading off into the great unknown, only to be brought face to face with a brick wall and not be able to go any further. No one likes to have to start all over again with their lesson preparation at the last minute.
3. You don’t have to have a boat load of material prepared for your lesson. But you do need to have enough material in your arsenal that if you hit a prolonged blank-stare period you have something to help move the discussion along to the next point.
4. Prepare for the unexpected. After all, if we are encouraging people to listen to the Spirit during your lesson, sometimes they will really do it and get off on their own little mini lesson in their heads. That may mean that when you call on them they won’t have the slightest idea what you are talking about. You’re not a bad teacher, they were just occupied elsewhere. We will need an increase in patience in our classrooms.
5. Encourage your class members to have paper and pencil, something to write with. On the weeks you are not teaching you will need to carrying them also. We should all be seeking to be taught by the Spirit when we attend our meetings.
6. Be patient. You are learning new ways to teach as the Savior taught. As students we are all learning to participate in our own learning in new ways. This needs to be a cooperative effort on the part of every member of the class or council.
7. Don’t forget to include frequent reference to the scriptures. The scriptures should be our main focus. The Conference talks do not lay outside the purview of the scriptures, they use a lot of scriptural references. Use them! Finally, bear testimony in the course of your teaching. Testimony brings the Spirit, and without the Spirit you cannot teach. None of us wants that to happen.