Mark was not the most well-behaved little boy in my class of seven-year-olds, but he was bright and courageous, and I loved him. He taught me some very important things. One day when I was using the story of the widow’s mite to illustrate the principle of giving, Mark—in his usual undiplomatic way—said, “Sister Bates, that’s wrong. It was two mites.” With all the dignity of a fairly new, and somewhat discomfited, teacher, I thanked him and condescendingly said that I was sure he was right but that we would check the story in the Bible. Sure enough he was right (see Mark 12:42–44), and so we spent a few minutes covering my embarrassment by discussing the importance of really knowing the scriptures. But I learned two very valuable lessons: first, that teachers should always check sources (instead of relying on dim memories of stories heard long ago), and, second, that class members have a responsibility, too.
As our ward’s teacher development instructor and Sunday School inservice leader, I have been concerned with teaching methods and techniques, with ways of motivating students, and with the various responsibilities of instructors. But, more and more, I am being made aware of the fact that teaching is a two-way street, that in the ideal class situation a great deal should be expected of the student, as well as the teacher.
I often think that for some class members “going to class” is simply an act of compliance, consisting of sitting in a classroom with eyes open and minds shut. For a few others it seems to represent the chance to be entertained by a scriptural fencing match between the instructor and a well-prepared student. Then there are still fewer who seem to hope for less civilized jousts, where insecure—if reasonably bright—students try to prove themselves at the expense of the teacher, or where an equally insecure teacher feels the need to keep his flock suitably controlled.
But I believe that the reason most people attend church is something quite different. My feeling is supported by informal surveys I’ve conducted, both as a teacher of Sunday School teachers and as a teacher of students. I’ve asked how the classroom experience might be made more rewarding. Invariably the answers have included “more student participation,” “more involvement,” and “more honest discussion.” Yet, despite those expressed needs, I have observed few substantive Church class discussions. One cannot help but wonder why. All too often teachers, or even the manuals, are blamed for not providing stimulating lessons, or for not allowing for “real involvement” on the part of class members. But surely this is just a one-sided evaluation. Teachers cannot take any one of us on a voyage of discovery if we do not choose to go along. Manuals are guides, providing the bases for discussion, but they cannot furnish the discussion itself. Neither is it possible for teachers, or manuals, no matter how good they might be, to present every side of a question. That’s where interested, involved, inquiring students come in.
I can recall several instances when I have been grateful for class members who have uncovered a wholly different aspect of a subject that I had overlooked in my lesson preparation. For example, during one Sunday School inservice lesson we were discussing ways of involving class members. We had all been very impressed with a wonderfully effective faculty demonstration that could be used in a lesson on chastity. In the midst of our enthusiasm a member of the group quietly asked, “Shouldn’t we be careful to stress repentance and forgiveness too? Unless we do that, someone in the class might go home in deep despair.” I was so thankful for that caution. In our one-dimensional view we had failed to think deeply enough. It only took one person to help us refocus our thoughts.
On another occasion we were discussing the relative importance of knowledge to testimony. I had referred to the statement that “no man can be saved in ignorance,” and the discussion was proceeding well when a class member said, humbly, “I don’t have much knowledge of the scriptures, but the Church still brings me much peace and comfort.” That remark touched me deeply—it continues to do so—but at the time it led us to the recognition that there are many needs, and many kinds of knowledge. It caused us to remember the Saints of old, many of whom could neither read nor write, whose testimony took them through untrod lands and allowed them to face unknown terrors.
As a teacher I continue to be grateful for those two class members, and others like them, who, because of their honesty and thoughtfulness, helped to bring the discussion more in tune with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But our inservice group was small, and sometimes that kind of expression does not come easily in a larger class, not necessarily because the teacher would be unsympathetic, but because class members might be.
For example, several years ago, a lady in my class suggested a different interpretation from the one that I had offered. When the meeting was over, a young woman approached me and apologized for the sister who had not “supported” me. I was quite taken aback because I had appreciated the other sister’s honest comment—she had added immeasurably to the lesson—and I have since been more careful to ensure that my appreciation of class members is expressed adequately during the lesson itself.
There have also been times when I was the class member who ventured comments, only to have heads turn in reproach or amazement. How comforting it is in those moments to have the support of a fellow class member.
Once, when I was fairly new in a ward, the Sunday School teacher had expressed the opinion that selfishness was the root of most of our unhappiness. After a short discussion I put up my hand and suggested what I thought was an obvious truth: that some of our deepest pain is experienced when we become aware of the suffering and despair of others. I wanted to know how we might deal with that. The teacher simply responded with, “Well, I don’t think we have progressed to that stage yet. When we have, there might be some point in discussing your question.” I felt duly chastened, and my tongue was effectively bridled. But a man across the room said quietly, but firmly, “No, I think she has a valid point there.” It is hard when you are made to feel like a “heretic,” and that brother will never know just what comfort his support gave to me at that time.
It is so easy to get locked into responding to lessons in a way that suggests they are simply expositions of objective truth, instead of opportunities for measuring our own experiences and values. Original thought, based upon individual experience and stimulated by a particular lesson, can only add to the general interest and to the understanding of the principles taught. Just as reading is a creative exercise requiring that we bring in our own background and experience, so real learning necessitates creative involvement. The fact that this is not always appreciated is reflected in the answers that were given to my survey questionnaires. Students repeatedly said, “We have heard it all before,” and of course this is true if they have attended church all their lives. But the nature of gospel truths is such that they cannot be fully understood objectively when they are only ideas outside of us that teachers impose upon us as so many dates in history. Spiritual growth can occur only when truths are experienced subjectively, within the constantly changing context of our lives. Each time we hear of some policy or principle or doctrine, it has to be confronted prayerfully and “discovered” on an individual basis, in the light of our own special experience, so that it becomes our own. Knowledge and understanding gained this way is both liberating and comforting, and the inner struggle and debate is infinitely exciting, as well as strangely refreshing. All my life I shall be grateful to those teachers who have helped me recognize what I believe.
One of the greatest teachers I have known spends the most time preparing for his lessons, and the least time talking during their presentation. He carefully selects and assigns readings in advance, along with extremely thoughtful questions for the students to ponder. He almost guarantees student response because the members of his class know that he cares what they think, and because they know that he will not hesitate to challenge the basis of such thinking. But why should the impetus always have to be provided by the teacher? Why could not class members study and discover their own questions? It is true that thoughtful questions are much harder to come by than simplistic answers, but could not the search be the best and most productive part of our class experience? Teaching is a two-way street, and students can inspire teachers—why should we expect it to be always the other way around?
About eighteen years ago I had a class of teenagers, all converts, who were always one question ahead of me, and who forced me to study, to think, and to use their creativity. More important in terms of their interests, they ensured that the lesson would not be boring! All too often we fail to recognize the difficulties that teachers face as they try to cater to differing levels of maturity and background knowledge. They are not superhuman; they cannot know all of the answers; nor can they be expected to be proficient in every teaching technique. We are a Church of lay preachers and lay teachers, and it is amazing what a wonderful job some people do. But, even with the help of the Holy Spirit, teachers still need the support of questing students in order to be able to reach the heights that our classes could reach. As class members, what is required of us is thought, and courage, and a hunger for truth—and there is something inspiring about a student who cares about truth.