Teaching from the Pew: When the Manual Authorizes Subverting the Teacher

A thought inspired by Aquinas’ review, which focuses on the teacher, instead of the manual. If I had any Photoshop skills, I’d have put the manual in the middle of that ring. Reference comes from Aquinas’ post.

I taught the Teacher Training course for a few months earlier this year, which meant I spent a lot of time with Teaching:No Greater Call. I discovered an important and surprisingly subversive story p. 214-15, presented below with minor editorializing in brackets and bolding.

“In our new ward my husband and I discovered that the Gospel Doctrine class [read: the teacher] wasn’t very effective. As the teacher talked, some class members read their scriptures; others just kept their heads down. I could tell that this bothered the teacher. Once he even asked, ‘Is anybody listening?’

Soon we learned that a number of people in the ward attended the Gospel Principles class instead of Gospel Doctrine [or just hung out in the hallway.] We heard that the teacher of that class was excellent. We attended the class and found it to be lively, insightful, and rewarding. But walking home from Church one day, we confided to each other that we both felt that what we were doing wasn’t quite right. We needed to support our bishop by supporting the teacher he had called to teach us. So we began talking about what we could do to enrich the Gospel Doctrine class. We realized that we had placed all the responsibility for a good class experience on the teacher, as if we were daring him to get our attention and hold our interest.

We prayed for guidance during the week and went to the Gospel Doctrine class on Sunday with a different spirit. A few minutes into the lesson, my husband asked a question, and the teacher invited other class members to offer answers. A good discussion ensued, to which several class members contributed. Later in the lesson, the teacher made a point that wasn’t clear to me, so I asked him to help me understand. He responded by pointing out a scripture that I had never noticed before. Then a sister told a story that reinforced his point, and another class member offered another scripture. We felt the influence of the Spirit in that classroom. The teacher became more relaxed. I could see him gain strength and confidence from our simple gestures of interest and participation. The lesson concluded with a prayer of gratitude and a resounding ‘Amen’ from the class. “Since that day most class members have been participating with great interest. Our teacher seems energized by their enthusiasm, and he often expresses gratitude for the support he feels. Sunday School keeps getting better and better.”

We’re not given a lot of info about the class or the teacher, but the problem apparently lay with an uncomfortable and uninspiring teacher. The moral of the story, put bluntly,  appears to be “if the teacher is doing a crummy job, hijack the lesson with a good question.” Obviously, this raises the issue of what constitutes “a crummy job” and “a good question” but regardless, I find it encouragingly subversive, in a constructive way, and it offers some advantages.

A teacher, regardless of background, carries a duty of reflecting the manual and representing official teachings. Someone in the audience, lacking that calling, is under no such compulsion. (And Correlation has not gone so far as to dictate student responses.) Don’t feel the teacher/manual approach/question is relevant? Ask a relevant question; Obviously, these need to be productive, non-gotcha questions, but there are plenty that can be asked.

In other words, if your Gospel Doctrine class is lame, take some personal responsibility, stop sitting on your hands, and make a good comment and ask a good question.

26 comments for “Teaching from the Pew: When the Manual Authorizes Subverting the Teacher

  1. December 17, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    I suppose this means that as a class member I should actually read the lesson materials in advance of showing up to Sunday School.

  2. Ben S.
    December 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Wait, doesn’t everybody?

  3. Ben Brooks
    December 17, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    When we see ourselves first as “students” in class rather than as worshipers, we mistakenly cast the teacher in the mold of a lecturer and we make ourselves passive. The most effective teaching in adult Sunday School classes usually does not involve lecturing a class with information. While it is true that information about the historical background or linguistic subtleties of scripture is often very helpful, the primary purpose of church classes is devotional, not academic. The best church teaching draws “students” out and encourages them to participate by sharing the insights they already have (while not straying from the topic!). The best “students” understand that their responsibility in class is to worship by “reason[ing] together.” “Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” (D&C 50:22). “Receiv[ing] the word of truth” is not a passive phenomenon.

  4. clark
    December 17, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    Nothing is more frustrating for a teacher than knowing that not only has no one done the reading but probably more than half the class hasn’t even read the passages in years or even decades.

  5. Ben S.
    December 17, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    That’s a good point on terminology, Ben Brooks. It probably comes from my teaching Institute as much or more than I have Gospel Doctrine. Due to Institute being opt-in and self-selecting, I suspect more read the relevant passages.

    When I had to teach spontaneously last week on 1-3 John, no one had read. And there were 43 in attendance by the end of class.

  6. December 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm

    There is *one* thing more frustrating, clark, and that’s sitting in a class where you’re pretty sure the TEACHER hasn’t read the passages in years, or ever.

    I’m interested in suggestions, if you can offer them, as to how a class member can come up with one of these lesson-salvaging questions on the spur of the moment. One of my home teachers insists I need to do that, and I’ve been thinking about why I don’t. There seem to be two chief difficulties for me: First, it takes me a lot of study and a week or more to feel able to start writing a lesson when I teach, and while it would be nice to do that for every lesson where I’m a class member, too, I can’t really do that — I need to put that time into the next lesson I’m teaching. So, even when I’ve read the scripture and even glanced over the teacher’s manual, I often don’t have any particularly profound ideas about it, and hence no questions to ask to “subvert” the teacher. And second, even when I *do* have ideas and am enthusiastic about something I’ve read, and watch for a need and an opportunity to ask that question, there is no opening for me: either the teacher goes off in a direction very different from the one I’ve been thinking along, focusing on another aspect of the passage, or else the teacher doesn’t allow for comments or questions beyond the very narrow “guess the answer I’m looking for” type. How do you ask a meaningful discussion question when the teacher won’t invite participation beyond “And what’s the Kingdom just below the Celestial Kingdom?” or “And what other gift did the father give to his returning prodigal son? Come on, people, there was a ring, and a robe, and what else? What else, people?” (If you can’t guess, that is a direct quotation from a lesson this year.)

  7. Kevin Barney
    December 17, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    I sometimes do this. Lowell Bennion gave a great illustration. He was visiting an EQ lesson on HTing, and it was abominable, with reading from the manual and no class participation. So he raised his hand and innocently asked “Why do we find it so hard to do our home teaching?” And that one open-ended question opened the floodgates, and the lesson became vibrant and engaging.

    I wouldn’t try to do it too often, but I’ve followed this tack on a number of occasions, usually with good results.

  8. Brad
    December 17, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    The way I see it, the classes are better understood as group discussions and the teacher as a discussion leader. The one remarkable feature about the church is that it doesn’t specially train anyone to teach the lessons let alone preside over the ward. Technically we are all supposed to be equally qualified based upon our worthiness and willingness (and sometimes gender) to guide discussions in Sunday school and to fulfill leadership callings. We are to fulfill our callings collectively more than individually.

    But alas, the problem is that some who are called to guide discussions are better than others. And when one is struggling employing effective methods, it becomes incumbent upon us as class-goers to ask questions and to stimulate discussion. After all, the point of Sunday School is to have edifying discussion around principles found in the scriptures. I don’t see anything necessarily subversive about it.

    Also I don’t think that you necessarily have to read the manual or lesson to play an active part in discussion. After all, the contents of church manuals aren’t extremely substantive and the questions that it generates are open ended. I see the manual as merely a guide that gives suggestions for how to go about covering a specific principle. We are to engage in discussion using our own interpretive frameworks and not merely mimic the correlated material. Sunday School should be a philosophical engagement of general spiritual principles, not a catechism.

  9. E
    December 17, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I wouldn’t call asking questions and participating in discussion “subversive”. I think every teacher appreciates that.

  10. December 17, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Brad, if you as a class member haven’t looked at the lesson in the member guide, then it’s highly unlikely that you have read the assigned scripture or thought at all about the topic. Contributions from such members tend to be off the cuff and uninspired at best. Preparation, by both teacher and class members, shouldn’t be discounted quite so glibly.

    While we all may be theoretically equally qualified, the teacher has an actual calling, and was set apart (an ordinance that gives very real power in my experience) and should have done some careful thinking and planning about which aspects of a topic to cover. Class members can’t use the “we’re equally qualified” card as a counterfeit of the “we’re equally prepared” feature.

    Sorry. Much response for a single phrase in your comment — but as a teacher I know it can be a challenge to keep the unprepared self-anointed “expert” from derailing a lesson with his off-the-cuff contributions.

  11. clark
    December 17, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Good point Ardis. Fortunately I’ve rarely experienced that. Even teachers whose lessons I didn’t care for at least read through the material first.

    It is just sad to me how few people actually read their scriptures let alone really studying them or their history.

  12. Brad
    December 17, 2011 at 7:28 pm


    I agree with what you wrote and I also don’t think that it disagrees with what I wrote in the above comment. Allow me to reiterate and expand a bit.

    Sunday school is and should be group discussion, not a lecture. Sometimes when the teacher is finding it difficult to stimulate good discussion or get participation, it is fitting (as in the manual example mentioned in the OP) for a class member to attempt to stimulate some ideas and discussion.

    In my comment, I didn’t imply lack of preparation. Au contraire, the teacher and the class should be prepared to discuss the principles covered in the manual content. While the manual and the scriptures should be seen as guides to help prepare one for discussion, it should be noted that simply reading the manual does not necessarily make someone prepared for discussion or to even teach the class for that matter. To be prepared you have to actually think about the principle through your own interpretive framework. The manual may help you do that, and it may not.

    For instance simply repeating what is said in the manual on a lesson about forgiveness won’t necessarily result in a stimulating and edifying discussion. The manual may help us formulate ideas and generate questions related to forgiveness, but the purpose of the manual and the discussion is not for us to memorize the manual; it is to stimulate our minds about the subject. One’s mind may already be stimulated about forgiveness so as to provide edifying comments and questions without reading the lesson. Likewise, one’s mind may remain unstimulated about the subject (and prone only to mimicry that is not integrated into an interpretive framework) after thorough reading of the lesson.

  13. Sideshow
    December 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Ardis has a good point in #6 — I’ve used this approach many times before to enrich the class experience, but a couple of teachers would shut it down when it happened. Their responses were either “That’s an interesting question but it’s not the direction I wanted to go” or “Thanks for your participation but I’d really like to stick to reading the manual”. I wish I was joking. Especially on that second response.

    So, for those of us who already try to do this, is there way to up our game to help teachers who are intent on strangling the lesson? Without making the teacher feel bad?

  14. Bob
    December 17, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    As a current Gospel Doctrine teacher, I don’t feel upset or offended at all because almost all of my class has not read the lesson. Teaching is a service calling – I serve the class, and having a chip on my shoulder about their preparation misses the point, and pointlessly frustrates me as well.

    Anyway, I prefer good questions or comments. I strongly facilitate discussion, as it’s the best way for the class to tell me what they need to learn. Is there a danger of a comment taking the class off course? Of course, but if you do that in my class, I’ll just acknowledge your comment and redirect back to what the lesson is about.

    Remember, the purpose of the lesson is to meet the class’s needs, not to teach everything in the lesson or try to sound like I’m some sort of religion professor.

  15. Ray
    December 18, 2011 at 8:09 am

    Anyone who has ever taught — and who has felt he or she was dying up there in front of the class — really appreciates thoughtful involvement of classmembers. Nothing’s worse than feeling your whole class would rather be somewhere else. Of course, I taught teenagers mostly.

  16. December 18, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Ben, thanks for this. I couldn’t agree more. I’ll add a thought of two:

    First, I think it’s worth saying that well-crafted answers to pointless questions can do much the same thing. When the teacher asks a question like “What can we do to grow closer to our Heavenly Father?” or the like, I find that a great deal of good can be done by (1) looking back at the actual text being studied that day, (2) seeing how that text might provide a somewhat unexpected answer to the question, and (3) raising my hand to point that out. It draws the class back to the scriptures and helps to curb the free-for-all that generally ensues (so-and-so taking the opportunity to talk about food storage, so-and-so insisting that being an example is more important than anything else, so-and-so saying as if it were a new idea that we should pray earnestly, etc.).

    Second, I just wanted to note that it is in doing precisely what you’re here calling subversive that one can gain the trust of a ward. Perhaps my wife and I have been through too many wards in our ten years or so of marriage, but I’ve found that the first month or so is very different if I start asking carefully productive questions or making carefully productive comments in dead-end lessons. Latter-day Saints have a strange love affair with anyone who thinks outside the stereotyped Mormon box without coming across as subversive, dangerous, or unfaithful. I find I have many more opportunities to teach and the like when I start doing this sort of thing.

  17. Ben S.
    December 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    “how [can] a class member come up with one of these lesson-salvaging questions on the spur of the moment” ?

    I get mine from my own preparation, but also the blogs and feastupontheword. As I’ve written elsewhere ( part 1 of 3), keeping notes helps me remember my questions and previous approaches, as well as frustrations.

    “How do you ask a meaningful discussion question when the teacher won’t invite participation beyond [a certain question].” It varies, but when it’s the tiniest bit open ended, I’ve said something like “well, [answer to question], but that makes me think about X, and I’ve often wondered Z. Why is it in the Church that we…” etc. Maybe if we have teacher training, we need to have participation training as well? Subversion practice? :)

    Brad- “I don’t think that you necessarily have to read the manual or lesson to play an active part in discussion.” This is unfortunately true. However, when we’re talking about scripture (GD) as opposed to principles or doctrines (GP, PH/RS), it matters very much if all involved have read the passages in question.

    All: Perhaps “subversive” is too strong a choice of words; however, when a good question causes the class to deviate from the (poorly handled? taught? guided) teacher’s plan, we are hijacking it, just for good. A good teacher will recognize the good that’s happening and encourage it instead of shutting it down. It’s possible to take the class of the teachers (poor?) course, and yet in a good, perhaps better direction.

    Sideshow: “is there way to up our game to help teachers who are intent on strangling the lesson? Without making the teacher feel bad?” Not directly in class; instead, as this is one of those things that Teaching: No Greater Call addresses directly, I’d bring it up with the Sunday School Pres, whose job it is to train and teach. Let the SS Pres bring it up in 1-on-1 feedback/training, or in the teacher training course. Or, if you know them well and are tactful, offer feedback directly yourself.

    Ray, Joe, everyone, thanks for the comments.

  18. Glenn Thigpen
    December 18, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    What I liked about the excerpt is that the person in question did go off complaining about how ineffective the teacher was and how boring the Gospel Doctrine class was, but looked for ways to help the teacher get the point across and liven up the class. That was not subversive, but constructive.


  19. Trudy Lundy
    December 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Perhaps the Church needs to make a change in how the teaches’ manual is done or the teaching instructions for the teacher……

  20. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    December 18, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Having taught seminary four years, and the Gospel Doctrine class for ten of the last fifteen years in five different wards, the interesting questions that occurred to me during class preparation are compiled in the margins of my scriptures, so bringing one up when I am just sitting in the class is not difficult. It seems to have been appreciated when we were visiting our son’s and our daughter’s wards. It is a habit that has led to callings as a teacher in Sunday School and priesthood quorums.

    As has been noted, many of the questions suggested in the teacher manuals are so generic they have very little to do with the specific chapters of scripture we have been asked to study. When I teach, I try to focus specifically on what the Lord was telling us through the specific scriptures. I ask the class to read many passages from the assigned scriptures; I try to make this process more efficient by putting each citation on a Post-It Note and passing them out at the start of class so I don’t have to call on someone or wait for a volunteer or wait for them to find the passage. I feel that actually reading the scriptures together has a basic value, that all receive even if they get nothing else from the lesson.

    In asking the class members to think about the scriptures we read, I try to get out of the mindset that “scripture A means B and only B.” I strive to stimulate comprehension of what the scripture passages actually say, and not just have a reflexive memorized response. And it is at this point that I offer additional context, which may be historical but also includes comparison with other scripture passages.

    I know the emphasis in the manuals themselves and the Church Handbook is on limiting supplementation to General Conference talks, but my additions focus back on the scriptures we are reading, not on some more general principal. They included passages from Hugh Nibley and various FARMS publications, BYU Studies and symposia held at BYU, as well as relevant comments from theologians of other denominations.

    In one ward we had many visits from a Seventy whose home was in our ward, and while he was a stickler for following correct Church protocol (he told us not to ask for volunteers to say the opening and closing prayers, but call on people), he never called me out for the materials I used in teaching.

  21. Brad
    December 19, 2011 at 11:22 am

    What Raymond said +1

  22. December 19, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    In our class yesterday, the teacher made an unchallenged comment about how if someone cannot feel God’s love, then there’s a good chance that it’s because they’re sinning, and need to repent of something.

    I took that opportunity to express that there are many individuals who legitimately have difficulty ‘feeling’ things for many non-sinful reasons, such as clinical depression. And that it can be counter-productive and at times downright dangerous to express that if they don’t feel love, then they must be doing something wrong.

    That led to a wonderful discussion of a complex issue, and many honest, and experiential anecdotes, not just pat easy answers. After another comment expressed also that at times it’s hard to feel worthy of love in some difficult situations, a well-meaning missionary glibly remarked that we should view our trials as a sign of God’s love, and we should thank him for them. I smacked that one down saying I refused to acknowledge my wife’s uterine Cancer as a personally selected and administered gift from God, and don’t thank him for it in any way. But that through this trial, God has expressed his love in many ways, especially through others. That we have been grateful for, and acknowledge God in. I expressed my observation that God generally doesn’t hand-pick or dole out the trials (that would be akin to child abuse!)But his love can be present in the strength we receive to work through them, and the support that comes from others.

    The teacher was wonderful in working through, and then harnessing those comments into a powerful, and highly edifying lesson.

  23. 0t
    December 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    I agree with comments from Ardis (and the follow ups) and Raymond. I’ll add that while I know a lot of good teachers in the church, I think that teaching over all in the church is not only bad, but dangerously bad–especially in adult priesthood quorums.
    I know of many people who are not active because they didn’t find inspiration in their wards, and when I attended them, I really understood why they felt that way.
    Conversely, when my testimony has felt beaten up a bit or when I’m spiritually troubled, there are several teachers whose lessons are so deeply entrenched in my soul that contemplating those lessons has often pulled me off the spiritual ledge. Many lessons have influenced me literally for decades.
    Yes the class needs to participate, and yes it makes a real difference, but my goodness, teachers, ALL teachers in the church need to realize that (a) there are souls in their class that need saving and for some they will literally be the only person that will make a difference and (b) after all the class changes and prayers and announcements and what-not, you are fortunate to get maybe 30 – 40 minutes for a lesson. For some people, that will be the only 30-40 minutes of sit-down, interactive, intelligent spiritual discussion they will get for the week (or longer), and man, you’ve got to make it count! I want more teachers to have more anxiety and wrestling with the Spirit over their lessons and I deeply praise those who do. *You* are the saver of souls, the firewall, the provider of the balm of Gilead far more than you might imagine.
    There are a handful — about nine or ten — teachers I have had in my life that have been game-changers for me: two YM teachers, one scoutmaster, two institute teachers, two seminary teachers, one youth Sunday School teacher, and a few Priesthood instructors. It occurred to me in writing this that I had thought of two of them, people I haven’t seen in 7 and 15 years respectively, in just the last week.

  24. Ben S
    December 19, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for these further comments.

    Ultimately, the responsibility for the quality of a lesson falls on three groups; whichever one you fall into, do the utmost that you can within the limits of your responsibility and power.

    The Church (or some small anonymous arm of it) bears responsibility for the manuals. If you’re reading, and you’re on the board, know that all is not well in Zion. If you’re writing crummy manuals, you’re affecting millions of people.

    The teacher is the black box into which the manual goes, and out comes a lesson. If you’re a teacher, do the best you can with what you have; prep, pray, study, adapt. If you’re not doing that, get with the program; you make Church boring and kill the Spirit for many.

    If you’re not a teacher, you still bear some responsibility for the quality of the class. Read, prepare, think of some good questions, and for heavens sake, speak up!

  25. December 20, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Love this topic, Ben. Especially this:

    In other words, if your Gospel Doctrine class is lame, take some personal responsibility, stop sitting on your hands, and make a good comment and ask a good question.

    The “subversive” stuff seems just to be trying to get a reaction. ??

    I have one suggestion for teachers, teach as if the class HAS read the material. I read the gospel doctrine lesson almost every week (we use if for our family scriptures study). It’s really irritating to READ the lesson, only to sit in GD every week and have the class rotate around reading it again. It certainly isn’t encouraging.

    Let’s DISCUSS the lesson and how it applies to us and what it teaches us. IMO a good question is worth a thousand lecture notes.

    I’ve been really fortunate in my current ward to have generally great GD lessons. Heck (that was a Utah oddity for you, Ben :) ), Robert Matthews was one of our GD teachers until he died. The bar is high. :)

  26. Edward Fairchild
    December 21, 2011 at 8:56 am

    This blog entry and comments have been great fun for me to read. For the 40+ years I have been a member of the Church, teaching has predominated as the calling I have done most. Over those years, I have collected some rules of thumb that mirror what has been said:

    1. The quality of my teaching, to me, is often best shown but the percent of class members that I get to comment.

    2. Questions are almost always more effective than lecturing.

    3. Bearing testimony of true principles is also almost always more effective than lecturing.

    4. Teaching the Gospel is not about covering material; it is about encouraging people to be touched by the Spirit. Every lesson outline has more than you ever can cover in the time allowed. If you don’t get to something in this lesson, guess what: We do it again sometime soon—four years from now in the worst case.

    5. Statistically speaking, half the class are probably better teachers than you are. It is always smart to use an available resource.

    6. The best way to teach effectively is to love your students and show it by praying about and for them.

    To those I might add: You are never being subversive when your true, heartfelt purpose is to help.

    Also, when I was a member of about half-a-dozen years, I went through the sunday-school-isn’t-interesting phase and I realized that it was just as much my responsibility to bring something to the class as it is the teacher’s. Unfortunately, I have often feared that it has led to my being the kind of class member that the teacher silently wishes would just shut up!

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