10 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching Seminary

While researching Skyped seminary, I found this old post on Early Morning Seminary at Segullah.  I got really tickled.  It’s always a pleasure to hear other people’s experiences in Seminary.  It made me think, after a year and a half teaching Seminary now, what can I say I’ve learned?

  1. These kids know more than they’re letting on.  I am constantly surprised at the quality of response that my students give during class.  The level of understanding they have has dazzled me.  It’s a real shame that the Primary mantra of “BE REVERENT” has come to mean that kids sit still and shut up while we pour the gospel over their heads.  These kids have so much to say and so much to teach if we’ll just let them.
  2. Laughter is essential.  Not only has laughter been shown to help with attention, it can also help improve test scores and reduces anxiety. Students who aren’t paying attention can’t learn.  Students who are uncomfotable can’t learn.  If your students are having a rough time at home, a little laugh may help.  So laugh a little!  Cultivate the little inside jokes and point out humorous stories in the scriptures.  Use student jokes as a segue to bind up more lesson material.  A little appropriate humor will go a long way to making your class somewhere students want to be.  My students have observed aloud that they feel as if they are learning more because they laugh at Seminary, and I think they’re right. 
  3. “If you’re learning more than the students, you’re doing it wrong.”  This statement was made by a veteran teacher at an inservice training I attended, and it has changed the way I approach teaching.  Seminary isn’t about me learning more about the Gospel and then telling the students what I thought was cool; I feel that it’s about helping students learn to find what THEY think is awesome and to give them a chance share their excitement with someone else. When I study my lessons with the intent of helping students understand, my lesson planning goes much faster and there is far more student participation when we hold class.  Lessons where students do most of the talking naturally have a little bit more humor –> which decreases anxiety –> which improves our classroom culture –> which increases participation –> which results in better comments –> which makes Seminary a joy.  Most days. :)
  4. Scripture Mastery is a pain in the butt, but it’s terribly important.  Scripture mastery is very difficult for me.  I don’t like doing it every day, but a full day of it is too much, and even the stalwart kids would rather take the day off rather than do games for 50 minutes.  However, learning these scriptures is essential, and I do everything I can to help my students to learn all 25 by rote. Not all students care about scripture mastery, but I know that these scriptures will help them later.  I have wished many times I knew the scripture mastery scriptures when I have been talking to a friend about the gospel.
  5. Planning several lessons at a time goes faster than planning one lesson each day.  I have found that I can plan a week’s worth of lessons in about 4-5 hours if I sit down and work steadily.  If I plan lessons the day before it can take 2 hours or more per lesson.  I think that it’s because it takes me about 30-40 minutes to study and shift gears into lesson prep mode, but I’m not certain.  I just know that it really helps me to plan lessons in a single burst than daily. 
  6. Successful lessons begin from a common starting place.  The most difficult thing for me to do as a teacher is to quickly get everyone in class at the same starting point. The best lesson openers help us all meet together on some common ground — and it’s a struggle to come up with a good opener every day.  Having assigned reading has helped make up for my weaknesses in so many ways.  When I’m out of ideas I can say, “What did you like from last night’s reading?” or “Did yoyu have any questions from last night’s reading?” and it helps us all get on the same page despite the fact that I didn’t have a creative lesson opener.
  7. Teacher training in our church is horribly lacking. “Here’s a manual with a list of very dry, formulaic lessons and another with a list of ideas for ‘variety’. The future of the youth of the church is in YOUR hands. Ready, go!”  I need to hear other teachers explaining how and why they do things in their classrooms that help them be successful.  I don’t need lessons on why Acts is special or your ideas about Jesus’ DNA or tips on identifying the three types of questions (I’ve only been teaching Seminary a year and a half and I’ve had this same lesson 4 times.  Search, Apply, Analyze.  I’ve got it already.)  I need TOOLS.  I need TECHNIQUES.  I need generic ideas that I can adapt in my classroom to meet the needs of my students and the material as needed.  I’ve read several books on teaching now, and Teach Like A Champion by Doug Lemov has been the most helpful book, with Stop Struggling, Start Teaching- LDS Nonfiction- Learn How to Improve Your Own Classroom, Alleviate Stress, Stop Struggling, and Enjoy the Satisfaction That Comes Though Teaching- Lds Teachers Guide to Classroom ChallengesStop Struggling, Start Teaching by Katie Van Dyke the second. I’ve made a list of teaching techniques that I use or have collected here.  I hope that it can help teachers add variety to their lessons that serves a learning purpose.
  8. The manual is not a script.  I’ve found that my worst lessons are the ones where I follow the manual too closely.  I’m not sure if it’s because the manual lessons are so different from my natural style of teaching or if it’s because I prepare less because so much of the work has already been done.  Either way, when I treat the manuals (Teacher Manual, Student Study Guide, and Institute manual) like a buffet table, taking the best parts and skipping the junk food, better lessons are the result.
  9. Don’t sweat the tardies.  You can’t tell what happened at home to cause a child to be late to class, so let it go.  Just be glad they showed up.  This is true when students aren’t responsible for their own rides and also when they are.  A kid with a car can go anywhere, but he chose to come to your class. A kid whose mom drives him can’t control the time they leave the house.  Make sure tardy students are welcome at Seminary no matter what time they arrive.  If a student coming in late is terribly disruptive, it’s probably because the teacher is talking too much.
  10. Students GET to attend Seminary.  Help students understand they “get to” attend Seminary, not that they “have to” attend Seminary.  Seminary is an optional course that’s not required for anything.  You can get a testimony without Seminary.  You can get a temple recommend without Seminary.  You can get into BYU without Seminary.  You can become a prophet without Seminary.  Early morning/daily seminary is a blessing that not every church member has the opportunity to enjoy.  This opportunity is available to dedicated youth and families who desire to learn more and share their excitement about the gospel.  It can answer questions youth have about doctrines of the Gospel.  It can help them determine whether the Church is true and worth all this trouble. It can help youth grow closer to Jesus Christ.  When we approach Seminary as a blessing and opportunity rather than a requirement, much of the stress teachers put on themselves goes away.  Come, don’t come.  Read, don’t read.  It’s up to you.  But if you will, you’ll see incredible blessings.  Try it and see.