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We’re shifting in our role from being purveyors of information to being a facilitator of the discussion.
We all feel the burden of making that discussion a quality discussion that makes people feel that it has enriched their lives, that it has guided them closer to the Savior, and that it has led them to make positive changes in their lives. That’s a tall order!
Most of us who teach gospel classes are not professionally trained teachers, so I’m here to share some ideas.
I’ve got eleven tips for teaching the 2nd and 3rd Sunday Come, Follow Me curriculum in Priesthood and Relief Society. Most of the ideas are good for any class, actually, so let’s get going!
- Get comfortable with silence. The first idea is that like a teacher in a traditional school, we’re going to have to be comfortable with silence. It’s called “wait time,” and it’s that awkward silence that happens when you ask a question and no one responds. We’re going to have to be ready to just wait and let the time go by. It’s okay to ask a question and just let it hang in the air for a moment.
- Plan wait time.You may wish to be proactive about wait time, telling people how long you’re going to give them to think before you start seeking responses. This allows the people who may need a few more seconds to gather their thoughts to participate fully. Say something like, “I’m going to give you five or six seconds to think about this, and then we’ll discuss it.” Resist the temptation to jump in and answer your own questions or simply move on. If you do that, you’ll undermine yourself, as you will train the class to simply be quiet because the teacher will move on or answer the question.
- Create a culture of preparedness. The second tip is that you want to create a culture of preparedness. I’ve written a whole article about this, so be sure to read more on details. With this new curriculum, having the class come prepared is mission critical. If you are the only one prepared, it will be brutal. If you are having difficulty with getting people prepared (even if you follow all the tips!), one of the things that you can do is contact a few people whom you know and trust and know support you, and ask them specifically to read the lesson so that at least a few people are ready. It’s like having a plant in a studio audience, right? You want to be very, very careful not to be the only one prepared to discuss the talk.
- Prep your questions. You really need to prep the questions ahead of time, and you need to share those questions with the class ahead of time, too. (We have great ideas for this, too.) This is part of the preparation now. It gives people time before they’re sitting in the actual meaning to think about some of the questions that you’re going to ask. I’m not saying to send a list of the thirty-two questions you have ready to go. Select two or three (you may wish to use some of the ones provided by the Church). Use our question stems handout to help you develop quality questions. Choose questions likely to elicit deep answers. No one wants to answer shallow, obvious questions. Shallow or overly broad questions make the lessons samey, as the same answers apply to every topic. Consider the difference between these two questions:
- How can we develop spirituality?
- What is something you did that grew your spirituality unexpectedly? You didn’t know it would, but it did.
You’ll get overly basic answers to the first question. You can probably easily reel off three or four answers immediately. The second question invites thought and unique responses. No one will get new ideas from the first question.
- Know how to handle problems. You’re going to have people who overcontribute (see our article on how to handle overcontributors), or whose comments go on forever, or who make tangential comments. How are we going to handle this? What are some issues you’ve had in the past? Come up with strategies. Be prepared to cut them off with a signal, in the interest of making sure everyone has a chance to participate. You may even need a physical timer.
- Teach the skills. Participants may not know what a twenty second comment sounds like. Some people have never participated in this kind of discussion. Some people don’t know how to end their comments. We may need to teach the skills of participating in a discussion. We may need to involve leaders. Don’t confront an individual yourself because it makes it about the dynamic between you and the person, rather than what it really is about, which is the entire class. Also, if the person is problem for your class, he/she is probably a challenge in other venues as well.
- Set the stage. Explain the shift in the lesson structure, and invite them to gain a testimony of it. Spend time onboarding people to this new way. Game designers spend a lot of time figuring this out, making it easy and simple so people want to engage. We have to make it easy for people to adjust to the new program. Share your concerns. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable to the class about your worries.
- Identify what will happen in life of learner as result of lesson. It is the teacher’s responsibility to identify something that the learners will feel, do, change, share, or know as a result of the lesson. If you aren’t clear where the power of the lesson lies, then you’re not ready to teach. Keep preparing. Otherwise, we’re just chatting. Use the guidance of the Holy Ghost to help you. Even if the class members don’t take away what you expected them to, they will be far mor e likely to take away something.
- Make an invitation at the end. It may be better to say “invitation” rather than “challenge.” Most people don’t like other people to set goals for them (with exceptions like when President Hinckley asked us all to read the Book of Mormon in like a week and a half). Make invitations specific. Rather than “pray more often,” invite them to spend thirty seconds before they pray each day considering what they are going to say. Be sure to follow up at the beginning of the next meeting. This increases the odds that we will remember what we’ve learned. We make it more likely that the lesson will be more powerful when we follow up. If you issue invitations and never follow up, you send the message that you really don’t need it. It may work best to have the teacher of the second week’s lesson do follow up at beginning of third week’s lesson (and so on). In the past, Priesthood and Relief Society teachers could only show up on weeks when they were teaching. Now, that’s not okay. You’ve got to become active and participatory. If you don’t show up, you won’t know what was discussed, you may be redundant, and you appear not to be fully engaged. This is dangerous because engagement is the name of this game. Obviously there will be exceptions here due to personal circumstance, but in general, show up. Every week.
- Resist the urge to overprepare material. You don’t need five to six pages of notes. An index card should really be sufficient in many cases. You may want your annotated copy of the text, but don’t dominate the conversation, and if you have too much with you, you will dominate the conversation because we have the tendency to feel like we need to share all we have. We know how meaningful it was to us, and we want to share. Just remember, they’re not there to be lectured at; they’re there to have a lesson guided. Prepare your thoughts, not a lot of stuff to “cover.”
- Vary your methods. Discussion takes a variety of forms. Avoid seeing the new program as a dictate to use the same style every time. There are options for discussion! Here are just a few:
- Discuss in small groups. The discussion does not always have to involve everyone. Smaller groups of four or five can lead to more people being able to participate. If you do this, make sure you are clear about how people should divide themselves up. Flimsy instructions cause stress. Don’t just say, “Form yourselves into groups.” Orchestrate it yourself.
- Think/Pair/Share. This is a three-part activity. First, the teacher asks a specific question and invites participants to think about it. Each person is paired with a partner. The participants share their thinking with their partner, and then teachers expand the sharing out to the rest of the class. (Note: Both of these strategies are particularly effective for people who are uncomfortable speaking in front of big groups or who may worry about the value of their contributions).
- Gallery walk. The teacher sets up stations or posters around the room (on walls or even small tables). Small groups of the participants move from place to place responding to the questions at each station in a mini discussion amongst themselves.
- Question possibilities. Put the questions on paper. Put the students in groups. Have them draw out questions and discuss in their small group.
Don’t worry about trying to make everyone happy. Some people will not like certain methods. That’s okay. If someone says, “I hate it when we do xyz,” don’t let that sway you. There’s no way to make everyone happy.
So there are my eleven tips for Priesthood and Relief Society teachers! What are your ideas?