Teaching the Teachers

By Rebecca M. Taylor

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Good teaching, as the Master Teacher demonstrated, is central in bringing people to Him. A ward in Idaho and a stake in Massachusetts are seeing lives affected as they make efforts to improve teaching.

In the Classroom, in the Home

How do you invite the Spirit of the Lord into your classroom? What can you do to keep your students’ attention? How should you respond when a class member answers a question incorrectly? What if you’re nervous about teaching in front of a class?

Members of the American Falls Third Ward, American Falls Idaho Stake, are discovering answers to these and other questions as they participate in the Church’s Teaching the Gospel course. The 12-week course, first introduced in September 1999, is designed for all Church members, whether or not they currently have a teaching calling. “Every person in the Church is going to have the opportunity at some point to teach someone else,” says Michael Crockett, ward teacher improvement coordinator. “If you’re not teaching right now, someday you will. And when you have high-quality teaching, you’re going to see the effects in so many ways.”

Both ward leaders and members say they have indeed seen the positive effects of the program. Fewer teachers are simply reading out of the manual. They are engaging class members in discussions. They are employing easy techniques to keep class members’ attention. And, most important, they are focusing on loving their students and bringing the Spirit of the Lord into the classroom.

Brother Crockett cites the elders quorum as one example. “The elders quorum usually does things a little differently than the Relief Society,” he notes with a smile. “We tend to say, ‘Here’s the lesson; I read over it last night; we’ll just discuss it.’ But over the last two months, two people who had been through the course taught in elders quorum, and both implemented things we had discussed in class. They came to me after class and said, ‘How did I do?’ They had made an effort to do something different than they had normally done.”

As more ward members have completed the course and started practicing what they have learned, interest in the program has grown. Evan Call, first counselor in the bishopric, says that after the first session of the course was completed, “I had people coming to me and volunteering, ‘Can I take that class?’”

For Everyone

The course is designed so that the principles and techniques taught can be applied in all kinds of teaching situations—not only in a Church classroom but also in family home evenings, missionary work, and home and visiting teaching.

Kelley Call was serving as a den mother when she was asked to participate in the course. “My first thought was, ‘I don’t need to be here; I’m not teaching on Sunday,’” she recalls. “But as I went through it, I realized I do teach, every week. I need to teach these boys correctly, and I need to show them love, which is one of the things we’re learning in the class.”

Steve Tolman says he’s used the methods he has learned not only in his calling as a teachers quorum adviser but also during family home evening. For example, he uses object lessons more often now, and he changes his approach more frequently during each lesson to retain the interest of the class. He’s found that the young men he teaches are more involved in his lessons, and at home, his children are enjoying the increased creativity he brings to family home evening. “I’ve done lots of new things I never did before,” he says. “It makes it more fun.”

Even the most experienced teachers can benefit from the course. “Some teachers, especially those who’ve been teaching for a long time, find their comfort zone and don’t move beyond that,” says Primary teacher Kryst Krein, who is also a member of the stake Sunday School presidency. “The class teaches you to take a step back and look at how you’re teaching. You can always improve.”

Andra Driscoll agrees. “I have a degree in special education and elementary education, so I know how to teach in a regular classroom,” she says. “But when you apply secular ways of teaching without using the Spirit, it doesn’t work. You really need to learn how to teach the gospel.”

The class is also helpful for members who may be hesitant to teach. “A lot of times there are people you’d consider for a teaching calling, but they express fear about teaching,” says Brother Crockett. “These are some of the people you want to put in the class. It really gives them encouragement.”

Leadership Support

Brother Crockett has found that the support of the ward bishopric is a key factor in the success of the program. “This program won’t work if it doesn’t start with the priesthood,” he says. “In our ward the bishopric has been the driving force from the beginning.”

Evan Call has been an enthusiastic proponent of the program since the ward first implemented it in January 2001. His short-term goal was that every Primary and Sunday School teacher participate in the course, in addition to a member of each of those presidencies. He hopes that eventually every adult member in the ward will have attended.

The bishopric makes it easy for current teachers to participate by formally calling and setting apart substitute teachers to fill in for them while they take the course. After the 12-week course has been completed, the substitutes fill in for other teachers who are asked to participate in the next session. And when the substitute teachers are sustained in sacrament meeting, the purpose of their call is announced—further increasing ward members’ awareness of the course.

Ward leaders have found that, as recommended in the course guidelines, holding the class during Sunday School and keeping the numbers small contribute to the effectiveness of the course. Limiting the class to 10 members helps facilitate class participation, they say. And the time slot seems to fit everyone’s schedule. “I would say that holding the class at any other time would not be as successful,” says Brother Call. “You’ve got to prepare for it and have substitutes who know they’ll be there for the duration. But with enough planning and preparing, it works.”

The Course Instructor

As Brother Crockett teaches the course, his enthusiasm for the material is evident. On one particular Sunday, he introduces the topic of the lesson with a simple visual aid and asks questions of the class members, immediately involving them in a discussion. And he acknowledges in an affirming way each class member’s comments. “He models what he teaches,” says Sister Driscoll.

Although Brother Crockett is an experienced gospel teacher himself, he and other ward leaders emphasize that an effective teacher for the course doesn’t necessarily need to be a polished teacher.

“It’s the material,” says Brother Call. “When you go with the attitude ‘I want to participate; I want to learn,’ you’ll learn. It’s all in the manual.”

When teachers use the manual, they learn right along with the students, says Brother Crockett. “As we start discussing, the students are able to share a wealth of information. Everybody’s able to share what they know and feel.”

A Vital Interest

When describing the teacher improvement program to the membership of the Church during the October 1999 general conference, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “Each of us has a vital interest in the content and effectiveness of gospel teaching. We want everyone to have great gospel teachers, and we want those teachers to help all of us find our way back … to our Heavenly Father” (“Gospel Teaching,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78).

Members of the American Falls Third Ward are finding more and more “great gospel teachers” in their midst as they participate in the course and practice what they have learned.

Steve Tolman summarizes the importance of the course: “A good lesson taught by the Spirit increases the testimony of those who hear it,” he says. “As the world continues to go its direction, we need to have stronger testimonies. As teachers become trained to teach with the Spirit, they can help increase the testimonies of those who hear.” And countless Church members are benefited as a result.

Reaching for a Higher Level

By any statistical measures evident to President Lloyd Baird, the Cambridge Massachusetts Stake was a high-performance stake. Yet he sensed a need to raise members to a higher spiritual level.

But how to do it?

Well-planned talks in stake conference would help, but their effect could be temporary and the talks would not focus on individuals. As President Baird thought about it, there seemed to be two more effective ways for members of the stake presidency to touch individual lives. One would be through temple recommend interviews, but those interviews are only once-a-year opportunities. The other way would be to improve teaching in the stake—and that could have a year-round, long-term effect.

So the stake presidency began a top-down effort to emphasize the importance of teaching. A high councilor was assigned as stake teacher improvement coordinator, with that as his only assignment. In all their stake leadership meetings, the presidency began to emphasize that to be a leader is to be a teacher and that teachers can help lift others to a higher level.

There are measures—nonstatistical ones—that indicate this emphasis is having an effect.

Members feel it. Michael and Melanie Marcheschi of the Belmont Second Ward say there has been a definite increase in members’ focus on spiritual things over the past two years or so. The dedication of the Boston Massachusetts Temple has contributed to that progress. But so, too, has the stake presidency’s emphasis on gospel teaching and learning. In family home evening, for example, the Marcheschis’ three oldest daughters—9, 7, and 5—knowledgeably discuss the story of Abraham and how the sacrifice of his son Isaac would have been like the Savior’s. It is evident that the girls have had careful teaching, both in the home and in Primary.

Stake Primary president Sofía Flynn feels keenly the responsibility for the teaching the children receive in their meetings on Sunday. The membership of the stake is very diverse—from blue-collar families to homes headed by business leaders or teachers from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. But it is Sister Flynn’s goal to see that children from each of these homes receive high-quality teaching on Sunday to supplement and reinforce what they learn about the gospel at home, and stake leaders respond to every invitation to help at the ward or branch level. A member of the Somerville First (Spanish) Branch, Sister Flynn is fluent in her native Spanish and in Portuguese and English. Her counselors assist in the stake’s 11 English-speaking units, while Sister Flynn responds to the stake’s one Portuguese and three Spanish-speaking units.

“It is important for everyone to know that teaching is the most important calling in the Church,” she says. “It is important to teach these children. They are the future of the Church.”

Sometimes sisters from other units are assigned to help in units where teaching needs to be strengthened. But the Primary presidency invests considerable time and effort in building teachers in each unit. “What I want them to know,” Sister Flynn says, “is how to get the Spirit to teach.”

It is important as well to help many of them learn teaching techniques. So how does she accomplish both objectives?

“I use my wonderful tool.” She holds up her well-used copy of Teaching: No Greater Call. “I love this book.”

So do some of the members of the stake’s Arlington Ward who have been studying from the book as they take the Teaching the Gospel course. What they are getting from Teaching: No Greater Call and from the course has changed their way of thinking about teaching.

“I’ve realized there’s more than one way to teach,” says Paula Christiansen, an instructor in the Relief Society. She has become more conscious of her responsibility to draw in all the sisters—married and single, those with priesthood in the home and those without. She has become more aware of teaching methods taught in the manual and in other Church materials—an article in the Ensign, for example, on effective use of questions in teaching (see “Asking Questions First,” Ensign, Jan. 2002, 23). She has found it beneficial to use techniques like discussion groups “that help everybody feel like they have a stake in the lesson.”

Amy Kroff, a counselor in her ward’s Young Women presidency, says the course and the manual have helped her understand her responsibility to prepare better as a teacher. This, she explains, invites the Holy Ghost to testify of what she is teaching. She has benefited from considering more carefully the needs of the age group she teaches and from learning new methods. “It’s good to have a broader tool kit to choose from.”

Her husband, Paul, a counselor in the elders quorum presidency, is trying to apply in two ways what he has learned in the Teaching the Gospel course. First, he is trying to pass some of it on to home teachers as he works with them. Second, he is trying to share some of what he has learned with the presidency and to influence teaching in quorum meetings. Discussions in the quorum have definitely improved, he says, as efforts have been made to draw in all the elders.

The students in the Cambridge University Second Ward’s Teaching the Gospel course seem eager to embrace teacher improvement. Enrolled at nearby institutions such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, or the Berklee College of Music, they have been subjected continually, for a major portion of their lives, to instruction of almost every kind and quality. Some plan to be teachers themselves. They have a keen interest in improving teaching.

They listen attentively as Tom DeLong, a counselor in the bishopric and a faculty member in Harvard’s school of business, talks about teaching the individual and about creating a safe environment in the classroom where everyone can feel welcome to participate. He points out that the effect of good teaching in the Church can be multiplied as we all learn our responsibility and become more effective at sharing gospel truths with each other.

The Cambridge stake seems to have a wealth of educated, accomplished leaders and members who are high achievers. It might be logical to assume that teacher improvement comes easily here because of members like these—but that assumption would be wrong. Good teachers in this stake, as in any other, demonstrate that improvement in gospel teaching depends on the love and care they put into their preparation, not on any titles after their names.

Leon de la Cruz, a native of the Dominican Republic, joined the Church in New York City in 1978 and later moved to Boston. He spends his days working in construction, but his evenings during the week are devoted in part to preparing for his Gospel Doctrine lesson in the Revere First Ward on Sunday.

Early in the week, he reads through the Sunday School lesson. He may call particular class members if he knows there are points in the lesson with which they could help or if he wants to learn how better to draw them into Sunday’s class discussion. On Friday night, he reviews the scriptures in the lesson and fixes its theme in his mind. Then on Sunday morning he gets up at 4:00 A.M. to study the lesson once more, making final preparations and bringing everything together.

While everyday communication in English is no particular stumbling block for Brother de la Cruz, in Spanish he becomes almost lyrical as he leads class members through the scriptures and the lesson. He draws out their own conclusions about its point: just as Noah saved his family by following the Lord’s direction, we find spiritual safety for ourselves and our families through obedience.

For anyone who undertook it without laying the spiritual groundwork, preparing and teaching this Sunday lesson might be no less a labor than the construction work that occupies Brother de la Cruz’s weekdays. But for him it never seems like work. It feeds his soul. “It is like a medicine I need—I take it for myself.”

[photos] Inset photography by Don Searle and Rebecca Taylor

[photos] Top left: Steve Tolman, American Falls (Idaho) Third Ward, instructs the teachers quorum. Above: Students in Brother Tolman’s class turn to the scriptures often. Far left: Home evening with the Michael and Melanie Marcheschi family, Belmont, Massachusetts.

[photos] Above: Leon de la Cruz teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in the Revere First Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake. Below: Teacher Emily Hawkins, foreground, and Teaching the Gospel class members, Cambridge (Massachusetts) University Second Ward, hear instruction from stake leaders.

[photo] The Teaching the Gospel class helped both Paul and Amy Kroff, Arlington Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake, in their respective priesthood and Young Women callings.

[photos] Above: Sofía Flynn, Cambridge (Massachusetts) stake Primary president, with some of the children she loves. Far right: Michael Crockett, Teaching the Gospel instructor, American Falls (Idaho) Third Ward.