On Teaching Seminary

As regulars here know, I teach early morning Seminary. I love the students in the class, which includes my 15-year-old daughter. My Seminary teaching style is relaxed. Today, for example, we covered the first couple of chapters in Job, intermittantly reading and talking. (“Could Satan really talk to God like that?” “Was Job a real person?”) Tangents — mostly generated by the random firing of dendrites inside the brains of the most outspoken young men — are a regular feature of the class. We laugh a lot. Once or twice a week, we eat breakfast. We learn something new on most days. And occasionally, we have a genuine spiritual experience.

Last week, at a ward “linger longer,” someone asked if I would teach Seminary next year. “No, it’s too hard,” I replied. My wife stared at me with that are-you-serious-or-are-you-pulling-my-leg look. I was serious. Teaching early morning Seminary requires a consistency that is not natural to me. I am the type of person who crams for exams, stays up all night to finish projects by the deadline, and enjoys living according to the university calendar primarily because it provides for a frequent change of pace. Early morning Seminary happens every day, ready or not.

Despite the daily grind, this year has been wonderful for me, and I would like to think that I have been good for the students. When the young women see me at church on Sundays, they come over to say “hi” and to chat; the young men sit next to me in priesthood opening exercises. Even though they call me Brother Smith and I call them by their first names, we are friends. Several parents and other members of the ward have told me that the students have never had such a good experience in Seminary, which seems odd because my “value added” is pretty low. When I started the year, my goal was to provide an environment in which the students could feel the Spirit in every class. Now, after five months, the most I can say for my class is that it is fun, but in the eternal scheme of things, “fun” probably doesn’t rate very high.

I am sad about my decision to leave Seminary, though it still isn’t “final.” Teaching Seminary is not a “calling” per se — a point that was driven home when I accepted the job. Still, I feel an obligation to help these young women and men succeed spiritually, and I suspect that is the reason I am sad. Isn’t that the way we are supposed to feel about our callings?

8 comments for “On Teaching Seminary

  1. Chris Goble
    February 26, 2004 at 12:01 am

    Your experience makes me think back to the “best” teacher I had at church. He wasn’t the one who was the most prepared. He wasn’t the coolest guy around. He didn’t have lots of audio visuals, or even the best understanding of doctrine. Instead, what he had was an ability to discuss things as if we were peers. Now that isn’t to say that he acted as if he was 14, only that he took the comments we had seriously, instead of viewing them as a blanks that needed to get filled during the lesson.

    I haven’t really thought of that experience for some time, but since it looks like I am getting called into a position teaching sunday school the timing of the post seems good.

    So what makes a good teacher? I think at 14 I needed out of regurgitated answers. Unless novel ideas were being presented, the listen and respond method didn’t work for me. Since changes in thought patterns are occuring so rapidly in youth, I don’t know how easy it is to customize an expository lesson to make it interesting and or relevant for everyone. I think I appreciated the fact that my teacher presented lessons as a “way of looking at questions”. This allowed us a chance to comment on views more than on doctrine per se (which at that age I think most everyone assumes is a series of un-opiniated facts). Looking back it was obviously a way my teacher had found to make discussion peer based rather than teacher directed. The neat thing about this, is I suddenly became more comfortable sharing views, because he was more after my opinion that a restatement of “doctrine”. Now I am sure he used this chance to direct my thinking, as any good teacher does, However, it was done, as I saw it, from my frame of reference. In other words, for me the class was sucessful because it was building on the realities of my situation, not on abstract ideas that, realistically, are dissociated from many youth.

    So for youth, it is more effective to present an idea/lesson, and have the youth figure out how they should incorporate it, or is it better to find what they really think and build from there? Does the fact that 14 year olds start to think abstractly mean that they are naturally more receptive to a presentation of “plausibles” , or does it mean teachers should provide a consistent “grounded” base that is seen never to change.

  2. February 26, 2004 at 12:14 am

    Gordon, nice post. A couple comments:

    1) “‘fun’ probably doesn’t rate very high.” I may have to disagree with you here, although I’m not sure as to the real answer. But, to me, “fun” can rate very high. If your class had “fun” and learned something (which they must have, having you as a teacher), that’s quite an accomplishment. The fun/learn combo can be higher on my list than just “feel the Spirit” by itself. Does that make sense? I guess I’m just saying that you deserve more credit than you give yourself.

    2) “Teaching Seminary is not a “calling” per se” Why not? Because you get to choose when it ends? I guess I feel like any mention of a time-consuming church position that is specifically “not a calling” seems to cheapen what you (and others) have accomplished, Gordon.

    I, for one, can still remember my favorite Seminary teachers. Good times were had, gospel principles learned, etc. Thanks to people like you.

  3. Chris Goble
    February 26, 2004 at 12:45 am

    I agree with Bob, fun does mean a lot. People often view me as getting too caught up in accomplishing things. However, real change tends to happen in the small day to day things, never the big standout moments. It sounds like you made a real difference in your class by focussing on those small shifts. I think people naturally respect others that they see doing something meaningful. With the things you mentioned you students doing, it sounds like they have really come to respect you. To them the “fun” bit and everything that went with it must have been a huge breath of fresh air. I always think real change is always more subtle and eternally profound than we can imagine. You don’t want to teach s young sunday school class up here in Alberta do you?

  4. Julie in Austin
    February 26, 2004 at 12:47 am

    Having run the gamut of jobs that a non-pro can do in CES (teach seminary, supervise stake seminary, teach institute), I have to admit that I never looked at it being an assignment instead of a calling as cheapening. To me, it means two things:

    (1) you are not set apart.
    (2) you need not feel the guilt that (most) people would feel over turning down or quitting a calling. Conversely, when I moved here, I frankly expressed to the local CES people that I would like to teach if they wanted me. But even I don’t have the audacity, when meeting a new bishop, to mention how much I would love to teach Sunday School.

    Also, you can have a calling in your ward while having a CES assignment (I teach Institute, GD, and am the Teacher Improvement Coord right now.)

    One thing that just occured to me: perhaps these are assignments, not callings, because of the awkwardness that ensues if I am ‘called’ to teach seminary but Brother Jones in Utah is PAID to teach seminary. But don’t get me started on money and CES (grin).


  5. Adam Greenwood
    February 26, 2004 at 11:58 am

    my experience was very different from yours. My best teachers were those who gave regurgitated answers and meant them, heart and soul.

  6. Chris Goble
    February 26, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    I actually am a bit surpised by that. I think “standard” answers can certainly mean a lot more if there is depth of thought and understanding behind them. I don’t think we can underestimate the subtleties in the way information is communicated. However, isn’t what matters for a teacher, the type of thought that is engendered in the learner? If that is the case there must be something more behind the “standard” answers to make them appreciated. As a youth, I always found excessive repition boring. It is the background that leads to the conviction that has always been intersting to me. I have long felt that emotional responses are too subject to personal world views for frequent communication.

    I guess I differ from you in that emotional appeals always seem hollow to me in one way or another. Now this doesn’t mean that emotion isn’t important, only that I take it with a grain of salt. It explains an end point someone has reached, but doesn’t necessarily help me figure out how to get there. Of course, part of that may just be because I often refuse to immerse myself in the mood others try to create and share.

  7. William Knecht
    March 5, 2004 at 9:30 pm

    Just found this site. Now in Sandy, after decades of practicing law in California, it looks interesting. As a 75 year old, raised in New England, I don’t know anything about the usual hierarchy of “teachers.” I never heard of MIA until I ended up at BYU. For many years I had to – or rather got to sit in the Gospel Doctrine Class because there weren’t any other classes. The teacher? George Albert Smith, Jr., then Ass’t Dean, Harvard Business School. The classes were small. Mothers tried to keep little ones quiet while sitting on folding wooden chairs set on a bare wooden floor.
    And the cream of Utah and Idaho’s students came east to some rather exciting schools. More than one asked, privately of course, why the teacher didn’t follow the lesson manual. Albert had early on invented his own three-year Gospel Doctrine course focused on the Sermon on the Mount. With a rotating group of students, most got to sit through the whole course: new students came in to replace those returning to “Zion.”
    “Why doesn’t he use the manual? The regulars, those few families of ex pats who held the branch together over many years would say, “Why don’t you complain to the President of the Church?”
    Yeah. In some ways, it seems to me that his resolution of the problem of keeping the brightest of the bright students — the top of the student crop — is the same which faces many teachers today, at many levels. All students don’t fit the same mold.
    Now, as I team teaching a bunch of old High Priests in Sandy I face the challenge of keeping them awake while following the manual. I know the instructions in the forward, but that manual
    was written for the newest relief society member as well as the oldest high priest. I accepted the assignment with the condition that the group leader could fire me any time he wanted, but that I would take the subject prescribed, invite attention to one or two points of text and go from there. “You can read the lesson before or after, but read it.” In the meantime, stay with me. So far, none has fallen asleep. And I’ll keep it that way, as long as the group leader wants.
    As I read Revelations there are several groups of saints assembled in heaven. There are a few invited to walk, or sit and sup with Him (3:20). There are multitudes of choir members surrounding the throne. George MacDonald said that God spent eons trying to prepare companions with whom He could enjoy a conversation. If all He wanted were parrots, he’d have given us feathers and made our feet to fit a limb. He didn’t.
    There is room for all of us, each in his own place, but I’m spent a large part of my life, preparing a list of questions I’d like to discuss with Him. Come join us.

  8. Anonymous
    November 27, 2004 at 8:07 am

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