This article is intended to help readers better utilize the new Teaching in the Savior's Way manual that was recently released.
Testify of True Doctrine
Testifying of the truthfulness of the doctrine you teach can either be easy or nerve wracking. It is easy if you have had experience with the doctrine and you have gained a personal testimony of it. But if you have not had any experience with it, or you haven’t ever thought about it before this lesson and now you have to bear your testimony about it—that can be scary.
This is a good reason to prepare our lessons well in advance of the week we need to present them. This gives us time to seek answers to our own questions about the doctrine. Sometimes we just simply don’t have any experience with a particular doctrine, what then?
Let’s say you are single and haven’t been through the temple yet to be sealed to a spouse but you have to teach about eternal marriage. What can you bear your testimony about? What has been your experience in your studying and praying with regards to this doctrine? Has the Spirit whispered to you that it is a true and necessary thing? Do you know that a certain prophet was a true prophet of God? If you do, perhaps you can defer to his testimony about the subject.
The point here is that when we can, we need to bear our personal witness of the truth of what we teach. Sometimes we just don’t have any experience with certain subjects. It is in those times that we can turn to our class and ask others if they would like to bear their testimony on the subject.
As the manual states, it was the Savior’s personal testimony that gave authority to His words. As we bear witness of truth, if we have done all that we can to invite the Spirit to be in attendance in our class, He will enter the hearts of those who listen to our witness. He will then confirm that witness to their souls, helping them believe in what we teach. Remember, He is the real teacher in our classroom. We are just the mouthpiece. We can’t do this without His influence and guidance.
One thing you can consider as a teacher is to encourage your class members to study the materials you cover during the lesson at home. Perhaps you can send them home with some questions to answer. These answers will require some additional study time on the class member’s part. At the beginning of the next lesson, take a moment to ask the question(s) again, and ask your class members if they had any experiences in their studying that they would like to share with the class.
At first, if they are not accustomed to studying at home, they will probably not do anything. But be persistent in your encouragement. Call some of your students or email them during the week to encourage (remind) them about the question(s) you gave them. Perhaps even ask one or two if they would prepare an answer to report to the class the following Sunday. It may take a while to get them into the habit of taking you seriously but if you are consistent about it, they will eventually realize you mean business and expect them to do something more than just attending class.
You will find that when students come to class prepared to share what they learned from the scriptures during the week, there will be times when a good part of your lesson will be taken up discussing their spiritual experiences. This is highly motivating to the class members and they will become more eager to personally share in these experiences.
I once spent a year and a half with a brother in his home once a week reading the Book of Mormon out loud. I didn’t do the reading, he did. In that amount of time, we got half way through Alma before he moved.
He didn’t have the gospel vocabulary or the knowledge of history and world events to understand or place things in perspective, so we spent a lot of time discussing the meaning of words and events, especially in the early part of the book.
When I spoke with him on the phone a couple of years later, he still spoke with fondness of our time together. Reading out loud gave him the confidence to read other things, and he had been reading consistently anything he could get his hands on since that time. He expressed that he missed our time together discussing the scriptures. Studying the scriptures at home really did have a positive impact on his life, even if it wasn’t what I had hoped for.
Use Music, Stories, and Art to Teach Doctrine
If all we do is lecture, our students will quickly tire of the monotony of their class experience and will mentally, if not physically, check out of the lesson. This is why it is so important to use various resources. We are a visually rich society and people crave a variety in their learning experience. They have come to expect it.
The Church has produced a wide array of imagery we can draw upon when we teach. There are the gospel videos on lds.org, a library that is constantly expanding. There is an ever-growing library of still photos created by both professional and non-professional photographers. There are music and audio recordings as well.
Be careful about the use of videos. If you use them too often, or they are of a lengthy nature, people begin to assume you don’t want to teach the lesson so you are shoving yet another video at them to babysit them. That is probably not an image you want to be attached to your name.
When you use pictures, make sure there is a specific point to the use of that picture. Show it when you are making that point, then put it away, unless you need them to continue to look at it instead of listening to you.
Use Music to Invite the Spirit and Teach Doctrine
Hymn are especially powerful at inviting the Spirit into your lesson. The poetic nature of their lyrics are often very moving when read aloud. Add to that power the moving performances of the Tabernacle Choir or some other well-rehearsed group, and you can create a real experience for your class. Even just having the class sing a hymn without the piano can be a moving experience when accompanied by the Spirit.
The Lord considers the hymns to be prayers. When we reverently sing a hymn, we invite the Spirit of God to be with us and people are moved and touched by the Spirit. So consider music to be a valuable resource, especially when you are looking for a way to bring the Spirit into your lesson.
Use Stories and Examples to Teach Gospel Principles
Stories are powerful. The Savior used them all the time to teach principles of the gospel. But we need to be careful with our stories. Care needs to be taken that our story really has a point in the lesson, is not distracting from the points we want to make, is appropriate to the setting and audience, and is not so light-hearted that the class will think of it as a diverting joke rather than a story that invites the Spirit of learning and testimony.
We also need to make sure that when we choose a story to tell the class it is true. Many teachers turn to books outside the approved curriculum for stories of miracles that may be of questionable truth. We need to make sure we have a reliable source for any story we tell that is not our own personal experience. If we are not careful with the stories we relate, no matter how tempting they may be to tell, we could damage our reputation as a teacher. Be wise in your selection of the stories you pass along in class.
Many stories about the early members of the Church make great copy, but may be hearsay or completely fictitious. Make sure you have the original source or can quote a prophet before you pass along anything that might be called into question.
When using personal examples, it behooves us to be careful about what information we relate. By telling our personal example, are we injuring the reputation of a loved one? Are we sticking to the point of what needs to be taught or testified about or are we just passing along something juicy? Have you gotten permission from those involved if you are going to use them publicly to make a point? That is important. This is why we prepare well in advance. This gives us time to contact those involved and ask permission to use their story, even if you don’t name them by name in the story.
The point of stories and examples is to make your doctrinal point more personal. We just need to use good judgment in what we choose to relate to the class, and how we choose to relate it.
Use Art to Engage Learners
The art here doesn’t mean just pictures. We can dramatize points as well. Acting out the story of the prodigal son might point out to the whole class, even to the teacher, that certain assumptions about the story were not in harmony with what the scriptures actually say about the story. What is said and what is portrayed in a dramatization can have a lasting impact on a class.
You can also bring props from home to demonstrate principles for the class. This is especially good for young learners and those who learn visually. Just make sure that when the point has been made, the visuals are put away so they don’t distract from the rest of the lesson.
Respond to Difficult Questions with Faith
This is probably one of the greatest fears for the new teacher, that someone will ask a question and you don’t know the answer. It sounds trite to say this, but that is okay. None of us knows everything. We all get questions that are highly sensitive or difficult to answer. Some questions shouldn’t be answered in public. It is better to address their concerns in private. And sometimes certain questions shouldn’t be answered by the teacher, but by their priesthood leader the bishop. The trick is knowing when to defer answering a question.
If it is a basic doctrinal question, there is nothing wrong with asking the class for help in answering the question. This can either get it answered quickly or you will have just opened a can of worms because there may be many answers based on different perspectives of the issue, none of which may be truly helpful to the one asking the question.
It is fine to write the question down, along with the name of the person who asked it, and promise to research it and come back with an answer the next lesson. This is not cowardly, but honest. Your students will appreciate your willingness to spend time outside of class helping them answer their question. Just make sure you don’t forget to do your homework and come back with the answer the next week!
Prepare in Advance
As teachers, it is important to think not only like the teacher but to think like your students. You have your own questions you need to answer. But you also have to wonder what questions your class might ask. Are they new converts? Are they children? Are they teens? Are they experienced members of the church who have served in high capacities? There are so many possibilities.
I have been surprised to have people who were former bishops ask me questions in class that new members have also asked. You never know just what the background of your students is until you start exploring what they know and what they don’t. The point is, it takes time to prepare for each lesson. Don’t treat your responsibility to teach and prepare in advance lightly or it will show when you step up in front of the class.
Refer to Official Church Resources
The Church has published many resources to answer questions members all have at one time or another. Anytime someone starts asking questions about Church government, like how such-and-such is supposed to be done, don’t rely on past experience. Turn to the handbook of instruction and read the answer there. The Church is the only organization in the world that has outlined everything we do in a handbook that people all over the world can turn to for direction.
Anything that is an official publication of the Church can be used as a resource. We often think we know the answer to a question, only to have someone in the room point out an exception to what we were thinking. That is when we need to know where to find the official teaching of the Church. Don’t be afraid to put them off for a week if you need to look something up. If you know where to find it, encourage the questioner to go to that source to look up the answer and ask them to report their findings to the class the next week.
Invite Learners to Help Answer Questions
The goal of teaching is to convert. The Spirit converts, so when someone asks a question if they can answer it for themselves, or even if the class can help, it may not be in their best interest for you to answer the question. Listening to the Spirit’s promptings will tell you when to hold back and let them find their way to the answer and when to just feed it to them.
A great way to answer a question is to direct them to the scriptures that talk about their topic and have them read the verses and see if they can find the answer themselves. This teaches them how to search the scriptures on their own to find answers. The point here is that spoon-feeding isn’t always the best option to answer a question.
When we take time out of the lesson to help someone learn how to study the gospel, we haven’t done anyone a disservice by not covering every point of the lesson. What we have taught is of far greater value in the long run.
You will also quickly learn who you can trust for most questions and who to avoid. Sometimes we have people in our class who like to “stir the pot” just to see what kind of controversy they can cause. Others will always give faithful answers. We need to learn who is who and use them to our advantage as teachers.
Admit When You Do Not Know
There are doctrines, like the blacks and the priesthood, which went for millennia without any word from the Lord as to why it was the way it was. A mature answer to questions we really don’t know the answer to is, “I don’t know.” Whatever you do, don’t let the class take off on speculative theories. That drives away the Spirit and brings confusion.
Some questions have to be put on the proverbial shelf. They may stay up there for years before the Lord gives us an answer. Some questions won’t ever be answered in mortality. We may have to wait a long time for the answer. What we do know is that anything that is vital to our salvation has been answered. So all the important or critical questions can be answered. The rest will just have to wait until the Lord decides he wants us to know the answers. This is where our faith comes in. We have to trust the Lord and continue on in faith.
Like the manual mentions, always bear your testimony of the basics of the gospel. Those are the saving principles that bring salvation. When you don’t know the answer to something and you don’t see any way to get a verifiable answer, go back to the basics of what we do know and leave it at that. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland declared, “In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know.”