Feast upon the Word Blog

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Teachers: Called or Chosen?

Posted by robf on April 21, 2008

Yesterday, one of my Gospel Doctrine teachers was released unexpectedly, and as I sat in Sacrament Meeting pondering who might best replace her, I wondered if instead of calling a new teacher, I might take D&C 50 to heart and, considering everyone a potential teacher, ask ward members to take turns leading the weekly Gospel Doctrine discussion. The upside would be giving everyone the chance to facilitate the weekly scriptural feast, and hopefully thereby raising the level of gospel study in the ward, and increase the flow of the Spirit. I want class members to take greater responsibility for the class. To help them become better bearers, and not just consumers, of the Word. Is that a reasonable approach? Or is there something about Gospel Doctrine that requires a called and set-apart teacher to make the class really work?

30 Responses to “Teachers: Called or Chosen?”

  1. BrianJ said

    Funny: I was just released as Gospel Doctrine teacher yesterday….

    I like your idea and can’t see any problem with it, at least for a while. I think there is something nice about having some continuity in class, especially when the teacher really utilizes it to tie lessons together or highlight a certain theme over a few weeks. But I think what you propose could be really nice for the reasons you state.

  2. JrL said

    Class members certainly could take turns, and it might well make those who taught take a greater responsibility for “the class.” But I put “the class” in quotes because it sounds like you mean a period of time – the 40 minutes on Sunday – instead of a group of people. But I don’t understand why you’d use the word that way. Surely the youth teachers in your Sunday School see themselves as having a reponsibility that extends beyond presenting a lesson to those on the roll, not just those who happen to show up. Is there some reason a Gospel Doctrine teacher should have the same vision? If you switch class members to teach, you’re officially endorsing the erroneous, restrictive view of a teacher’s calling. And you’re depriving those who a teacher with a fuller understand of his or her calling would reach out and touch.

  3. Jim F. said

    I think that the “only” thing which requires a called, set-apart teacher for Gospel Doctrine is custom, but custom can be pretty strong, so if you try something like this, you’ll have to structure what you do pretty carefully. I assume that, at least, you’ll have to have a good discussion with the class about why you are doing things this way, schedule people several weeks ahead, and actively help many of those who are preparing their lessons. You’ll probably also have to review the reasons for doing things this way fairly regularly. We forget fast, and it is easy to agree “I have a responsibility for x” without actually taking any responsibility for it.

    The lack of continuity that Brian mentions could be a problem, but if you can keep the excitement level high in the class, it could off set the difficulty.

    My guess, however, is that it will be difficult to do.

  4. BrianJ said

    JrL,

    When I was called to teach Gospel Doctrine, I was asked to teach and lead a discussion during the class period that fell between sacrament meeting and MP/RS. There was no mention whatsoever of people “on the rolls but not in class.” I did not take it as my *special* responsibility to reach out, in the capacity of a teacher, to those not in attendance. A bishop can, of course, make that part of the calling of a Gospel Doctrine teacher, but mine did not and I don’t think it’s fair to assume that every Gospel Doctrine teacher has such a calling.

  5. JrL said

    Why not? Why wouldn’t the Gospel Doctrine teacher automatically have the same responsibility for class members that teachers in every other Church class and organization have? Does a bishop really have to explain that to each teacher when called, or otherwise the responsibility is so limited? Wow – that would have let me off the hook when I taught Primary, when I taught young men, when I taught youth Sunday School, etc.

  6. Kim M. said

    I was recently released from a year of teaching Gospel Essentials in my BYU ward. Perhaps it’s due to my inexperience in all matters Church-related, but I could not have learned how to teach by the spirit and communicate with class members in a single week.

    Your concern is obviously different, but having looked back over the past year, I have recognized *considerable* growth in how I respond to the spirit in teaching situations.

    On the other hand, I can see class members growing closer and more engaging with the impending threat of “their turn” looming in the future.

    I see many possible benefits to this idea, but like Jim F., I imagine that it will be difficult to do.

  7. Jordan F. said

    Rob:

    I think something like that could be done in a ward willing to try it. We did something like that in an Elders’ Quorum I was in for a few years. Each quarter, the Elders’ Quorum President would officially call and have sustained one-time Quorum teachers for the next three months, each of whom would actually be set apart to teach their lesson. Because each teaching calling was a one time thing, the teachers were urged to prepare very carefully, and their preparations were to include steps of personal repentance and fasting, etc. We did get a lot of very good lessons (and, even better, quorum participation) out of the experiment from those who took it seriously. I could see something like that being done on a ward level for a while…

  8. robf said

    Thanks everyone, it’ll be interesting to see if we can pull this off. Jim, what sort of things do you think I should be considering in structuring what I do “pretty carefully”? At one point I was considering teaching a lesson next week on what we were going to do–as a lead in to our King Benjamin lesson–and pass a sign-up sheet around. Buy my wife thinks I should be more careful and approach people individually. Maybe not even tell the class that’s what I’m up to. Any thoughts, anyone?

  9. RuthS said

    many people are intimidated by teaching adults. So it might be interesting to see how this could work. I suspect that over time one person might emerge as the one the class respects and listens to. It has always been part of the job description of a Sunday School teacher that they are to reach out to less active members of the class and encourage them to come. This aspect becomes a bit unwieldy when there is more than one class because people tend to gravitate to the place they want to be.

  10. BrianJ said

    I would say “no” to the sign-up sheet—meaning, I don’t think you should do it, and if I was in your ward I don’t see myself signing up. I’d make individual requests/assignments, putting some prayer into that. I’m not opposed to volunteering, and you may even invite members to contact you if they would really like to be put in the rotation, but using a sign-up sheet would make this feel very much like a “program.” I still vote yes to telling the class what you’re doing.

    One more thing: it would probably be wise to set a time limit up front, with the idea that you could always continue if so inspired.

  11. Sterling said

    I think that, with the right kind of feedback, teachers who teach on a regular basis get better at helping their students learn. Otherwise, if we just take turns at teaching, I don’t think the same opportunity for sustained improvement exists. What do people do these days for training and feedback, now that teacher improvement is gone?

  12. robf said

    Teacher improvement is not supposed to be gone, neccesarily, but just under the auspices of the sunday school. But perhaps most ward sunday schools don’t do as much teacher training now? Perhaps if I do this alternating of teachers for a few months I can run it as a kind of teacher training clinic?

  13. joespencer said

    Indeed, teacher improvement is not supposed to be gone! The change has been widely misunderstood. Since I’m in the elders quorum presidency in my ward, I’ve pressed very hard to keep up teacher improvement for our instructors, but I don’t see any other organizations doing it at all. Sad, sad, sad.

  14. Sterling said

    Is the twelve-week Teaching the Gospel course still offered? Are the quarterly inservices still held? Who has taken over the responsibilities of the teacher improvement coordinator? If this stuff is happening in the Quorums, I am glad to hear it. But it still seems like teaching has become a lower priority.

  15. Robert C. said

    Rob, I’m all for mixing things up b/c I think it keeps people more on their toes—I think we have a tendency to get stuck in ruts, and I don’t think ruts are good for the Spirit. If it doesn’t work out that well, another idea would be to have teachers get others a lot more involved, perhaps even have the SS secretary help the teachers make mini-assignments to others in the class to get them involved, perhaps assigning a couple different people in class each week to lead a discussion regarding a couple different passages from the lesson. Nothing like getting making assignments to get people involved, and nothing like getting people involved to get them to pay more attention in class. Let us know how it goes….

  16. robf said

    Thanks for all the input. I’ll do periodic updates here so we can see how it goes.

    Sterling (#14), all those resources and programs are at the disposal of the bishop and ward sunday school president, who now have the responsibility for teacher training in the wards. One problem is that the ward ss president position is sometimes a bit of a blow off position, or mostly focused on making sure the teachers show up each week, and perhaps we don’t have a tradition of really magnifying that calling or expecting much from it.

  17. BrianJ said

    “…perhaps we don’t have a tradition of really magnifying that calling or expecting much from it.”

    True. And I’ve never been in a ward that actually did any teacher improvement training, even when it was a specific calling. (I don’t mean to sound pessimistic with this comment, just to point out that this is a problem area that needs work.)

  18. robf said

    Brian, perhaps we’ll have to modify the old maxim: Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers to teach.

    Many are called, but few are chosen to teach teachers to teach.

  19. CEF said

    I will throw this out just for thought, nothing I am in love with, but it is different.

    Why not let the members use one class period in Dec. to make their own schedule of topics they wish to study for the coming year. There should be a teacher assigned to each topic. More than likely, it would be the one that suggested the topic in the first place. Asking for volunteers would be just fine.

    I am sure the Bishop would have to approve the list of topics, but he should respect the members and within reason, let them study what they want. I really believe this would create more enthusiasm and class participation. Of course — it might not. :)

  20. MattM said

    CEF,

    I would hazard a guess that most Bishops/Branch Presidents would have reservations about a planning session like that unless it were creatively tied to the course of instruction for the year.

    Thus, if I were proposing a late-December “scheduling” Sunday, I probably would come prepared to link each suggested topic to the coming year’s lesson manual. That way, perhaps the lessons could go “out of order” or some lessons would be repeated or taught in bunches (e.g., March’s lessons all dealing with Faith as taught in Lessons 2, 12, 7 and 21). I imagine leaders might see that as a useful adaptation of the curriculum to make the programs of the church support the members rather than vice versa (see WWLM Feb. 2008). I certainly would, for what that’s worth.

    -Matt

  21. BrianJ said

    cef, mattm: interesting ideas, which I think could work very nicely in some wards. A potential problem—but one I think could be easily avoided—is having members select only those topics they want to hear. That’s okay and the scriptures are good for that, but there needs to be a healthy balance of letting the scriptures tell us exactly what we do not want to hear, what makes us uncomfortable, and what calls us to repentance. Again, not too hard to avoid that problem, as long as one is aware of it.

  22. CEF said

    Hello Matt – BrianJ – It is good to talk to you again. I am a little unorthodox, as I am sure you remember form some of our last conversations. Here is a problem as I see it.

    Matt, you are very correct that most Bishops, Branch Pres. and of course Stake Pres. would have a problem with this idea. Is there a potential for problems with this kind of format? You bet. But what does that say about our members and leaders?

    If we lack enough members that can handle that kind of freedom without loosing the spirit and therefore the ability to teach the truth, what does that say about us as a church? If our leaders do not have enough faith in the members to exercise that kind of free agency without going off the deep end, what does that say about our leaders/members?

    BrianJ, I think your idea, if all else fails, would be the most workable in the Church. But what I am getting at, is a change/paradigm shift in the way we do things in the Church. If we continue to do things the same old way we have been doing things, then nothing will ever change. If you think things are just fine the way they are, then of course we should not change anything. I for one, vote for change.

  23. MattM said

    CEF, those are questions that more of us should force ourselves to confront more often. I would love to see a unit of the Church that embraces the freedom and personal accountability that lead to true teaching and learning by the Spirit to the mutual edification of “teacher” and “learner” (with members playing both roles during the course of a lesson).

    BrianJ, perhaps, the Ward Council could oversee the actual implementation of the “Suggestion Sunday” and intersperse the “uncomfortable” topics to which you allude with the suggested ones. I agree that this alternative approach would likely fit for many wards, but not all.

    To take up the idea of teacher improvement, as a Ward mission leader, I have wondered if the Ward mission might be an appropriate organization to fill the void that seems to have been created by the restructuring of teacher improvement. My present Ward’s Sunday School does not actively pursue it, to my dismay, although our Gospel Doctrine instructor (from what I hear–I attend Gospel Essentials) does an admirable job. A part of me would truly enjoy helping with that, but the other part of me tells that first part that it’s probably a product of megalomania and that I should first be more proactive about bringing the topic up in Ward Council or PEC.

    Either way, the task of teaching teachers to teach (which, incidentally is my father’s profession–elementary education professor) seems underdeveloped. Without that, we end up with the culturally inspired lessons and talks that have been parodied elsewhere. But to delve too deeply into teacher development/improvement would probably unjustifiably hijack this thread.

    Thanks, all, for the thoughts so far.

    -Matt

  24. robf said

    Matt, I think teacher development/improvement would be a fine conversation for this thread, since that’s part of my calling as a Sunday School president and part of what this whole experiment is going to be about.

    In the ward, each auxiliary and quorum presidency is responsible for the teaching in their organization, with the Sunday School presidency and the bishopric there to help them. The process can, and often does, break down at any point in that chain.

    Bringing up teacher training in Ward Council is appropriate for anyone tasked with overseeing teaching in their organization, and pro-actively soliciting help from the ward SS president is probably a good idea. I try to make myself available for auxiliary board meetings and quorum presidency meetings, but in over a year have been invited to only a couple of meetings so far to do any training.

    I think in general, we have pretty low expectations for teaching (and public talks–but that’s another topic) in the Church. I’m not sure if part of it comes from a “hey, we’re all just volunteers and we’re doing the best we can” mentality, or what.

  25. MattM said

    Robf, Possibly Church members buy into the volunteer mentality excuse for less-than-stellar teaching (and talks, leaving that topic for another discussion). In the spirit of optimism, I wonder if part of the low expectations stem from the origins of our approach to scripture. I’ll explain…

    In the vein of Givens’ By the Hand of Mormon, the practice of turning to the Book of Mormon (and by implication scripture more generally) for serious study seems to have developed subsequent to other endeavors. With the Church’s emphasis on history, perhaps some interpreted the chronology to indicate that serious (heaven forbid we call it “scholarly” or “intellectual”) interplay between believer and scriptural text represents a “philosophy of men” creeping into the Church and tempting us to abandon our true faith-based relationship (wherein we hardly crack the scriptures, but they make for pretty living room decorations). Admittedly, I exaggerate and paint a black-and-white picture, but the idea hopefully comes through.

    I know that in talking with my parents and grandparents, I find that they do not recall having been raised on the same notions of spiritual education that I have enjoyed. The 1979 version of the scriptures may gradually dissipate the attitudes described above, but the change will likely be (and so far is) very gradual.

    That said, perhaps the approach best-suited to improving teaching (and public discourse) in the Church centers on improving individual study. (If we haven’t learned how to adequately teach ourselves, how can we hope to teach others?) We as a Church could do more to demonstrate and encourage genuine interaction with our sacred texts rather than merely turning to them for support of our preconceived notions of what we believe. Perhaps smaller study groups or mentoring or even follow-up discussion groups spinning off of Sunday School lessons could promote that kind of approach. (Maybe it’s my technophobic tendencies, but perhaps a sabbatical from videos and PowerPoint in Sunday School lessons would also be appropriate–just a temporary moratorium, we won’t have to abandon them entirely.) Another idea is to have some sort of course of instruction teaching how to use the resources we have–I’m amazed sometimes how few members have read the Bible Dictionary or know how to use some of the most accessible gospel study resources.

    Likewise, Church members adapting the curriculum (I don’t think that the curriculum itself necessarily needs changing so much as our approaches to it) to accommodate intense engagement with scripture rather than a quadrennial retelling of the stories without delving deeper could greatly contribute to that change in mindset.

    Good for you in exploring ways to appropriately make such adaptations.

    -Matt

  26. BrianJ said

    CEF, MattM, Robf: The common view I see in this thread is that in the Church there is currently a too-relaxed approach to Sunday School, that we all agree that a different approach to teaching/teacher improvement could be beneficial, and that the only thing the class really needs to “stay tied to” is the canon of scripture (i.e., not a lesson manual). What I like about all of the ideas that have been shared is that I see no reason why any one of them could not be proposed this Sunday in ward council in any ward of the Church and, if accepted by the leaders in following the Spirit, implemented right away without any “friction” from SLC.

    By the way, I can see how “just a volunteer” can be a bad thing, but I’d like to offer a small defense of that “excuse.” I can be a demanding and judgmental person; reminding myself that I worship with volunteers has really helped me to be more charitable, especially with others, but also, at times, with myself. As a very relevant example, I do not demand or expect that my students study each lesson beforehand. They are good people doing good, and they may have some other good to do than preparing for my class, or even studying their scriptures this week. I try to deliver lessons that reward those who prepared and also reach out to those who did not. Could we not also design a teaching schedule that deals with teachers the same way?

  27. MattM said

    BrianJ: I agree with your assessment. A different approach could be helpful and must “stay tied to” the canon of scripture. I would add that given some of the instruction (I’d have to look it up, but I believe Elder Oaks taught in General Conference) to teach “from the manuals,” we have an added responsibility to use them as launching pads for our lessons. And I’ve tried to limit the scope of my suggestions to those that could be proposed immediately without violating any of the counsel and instruction we have been given. I think there was already a thread about radically altering the curriculum (if we were in charge), so the more useful line of thought here seems to me one which takes creative initiative to teach effectively within the framework under which we currently operate.

    And I agree about the charitable side of the “volunteer” coin. I hope that we use it in that vein as a way of giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than as an excuse for our own failures to fully invest ourselves in the Lord’s work.

    A question for us all remains, then: how do we teach ourselves (and others) how to have revelatory experiences with scripture?

    In my experience, the most significant experiences come when I try to approach scripture for its message rather than trying to find “my message” in scripture. A good talk or lesson at church can go a long way to opening those avenues of interpretation and inspiring me (or others) to study with more fidelity to the canon.

    -Matt

  28. joespencer said

    Interesting way to sum things up, Matt. In my lessons on Isaiah 53 (we’re three lessons into the Suffering Servant Song, but we’ll spend at least Monday at it as well), things have actually turned in a similar direction: we’re reading the song as raising the question of how one can receive/recognize revelation. Is it always only after we’ve done violence and had God reveal that to us?

  29. NathanG said

    This has been an interesting discussion. I think it would be a fun experiment to try. A couple of considerations should be made before jumping into it.

    First, could this generate a sense of elitism? Would it begin by including many people, but devlolve into only a few of the “best” teachers taking turns? Would the teacher rotation end up like the class participation of only a few that we already see (I hate being the only person who answers questions)?

    Second, is it the best thing for your Sunday School (and it may very well be)? I think this topic has been touched on briefly, but should be discussed more. A woman I home teach was just called to be our Gospel Doctrine teacher. I am excited for her because I know of her trials and struggles and see this calling as a part of the answer to her prayers.

    It seems as we make a calling or assignment there are a couple approaches to be taken. Someone can see that a job is vacant and try to decide who is best to fill that position. Alternatively, someone can consider the individuals within the group/organization/ward and figure out what assignment would best help that person. I think both approaches can be done “by revelation” but I think completely different callings could be given with the different approaches. I guess a third approach in this case would be to consider what would most benefit the gospel doctrine class, but who thinks of groups over the individual today anyway. In the end we need to decide which endpoint is most important to us.

  30. MattM said

    Joe, you pose a provocative question. I’m still giving it thought, but my initial inclination is to say yes, that some violence needs to be done (more likely to us by the Spirit than by us against the Spirit, although the combination may be just as likely, with our violence commencing the process). Even when we perceive the Spirit as still, small voice, that still voice penetrates–that is, does violence. I think that when we attempt to turn to scripture and prayer exclusively for comfort, we thwart the workings of the Spirit to “turn” us adequately in the conversion/repentence process and only obtain a partial blessing. Largely inspired by this line of thinking, I recently posted on this at my fledgling blog, to which I’m afraid I know not yet how to link aside from giving the address:
    http://meditatingonmormonism.blogspot.com/2008/04/teaching-bread-of-life-sermon.html . But again, these are initial thoughts and I’ll probably have more to say later. I would definitely be interested in your thoughts on the topic.

    NathanG, the sense of elitism could very well arise under such a model. Unfortunately our prideful tendencies can get in the way of well-intentioned efforts to break the “mold” of custom that may limit us in other ways. I think that sincere efforts and careful oversight by the SS Pres. could avoid most of the elitism; however, as JimF noted, the more likely problem would be sustaining the initial enthusiasm for an entire year (or more abbreviated course of instruction as the Bishop/Ward Council see fit).

    Robf–please to keep us up-to-date with your efforts. I’m curious to see how it goes over and to know more about how you decide to implement such a program.

    -Matt

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