Tag Archive: simple teaching
Teaching is a very simple thing to do, when it appears in the hands of an accomplished teacher
Teaching is more complex along the path to becoming an accomplished teacher. Part of the complexity is who are the students in the class and what baggage have they brought with them.
I’ve been teaching a seminary class 1-2 days a week in our ward here in Brockton. There are 7-8 students. For convenience and proximity we meet in the basement of the home of a member of the ward. The class meets from 5:45-6:30am, and then the students catch a bus one block away to get to the high school. These are good and bright kids whose faithfulness is witnessed by their willingness to be in this class at such an early hour.
However, my first 4-5 times teaching I could not engage them. They were distant and nothing I did could bring them closer. We are studying the Old Testament, the second half, and it is a real challenge. I would go home each morning thinking I had failed them because I hadn’t reached them. They had just endured the class. I was reminded of a scene from the 1995 movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus” where the coach is begging Mr. Holland, the music teacher, to find a way to teach Lou Russ, his star wrestler, to play the drums so he could pass his band class and stay eligible to wrestle. Mr. Holland is explaining that Lou simply can’t find the beat. The coach then says, “You’re a teacher and you have a willing student and you can’t find a way to teach him? Then you’re a lousy teacher.” (If you want to see that scene, go on Youtube and search Mr. Holland’s Opus and find the scene Lou Finds the Beat.)
Those words kept ringing in my ears – “You’re a lousy teacher” – so I spent one morning just thinking of ways to teach them. It came after some time pondering. The challenge was the physical Bible. It is big and I think to them impenetrable. I don’t blame them because among many adults in the church the last half of the Old Testament is difficult to grasp. Add to that challenge is this fact: English is a second language for all of these kids. They grew up speaking Portuguese Creole as their first language. They are fluent in spoken English but the written word is tough.
So I did a few things different the next class. I removed all of the copies of the scriptures from the tables. In their place I had prepared a one page sheet with 6 verses we were going to focus on. I modified the words slightly so as to make them more easily understood. I rearranged the tables in a new configuration to signal to them as they walked in that something was different about this class. And then instead of standing to teach I just sat at the tables with them. When the class began I told them that our goal was to simply understand what was written here and learn one gospel principle from this page. It took some gentle leaning on them but at the end of class they got it. I was elated.
The next class I did essentially the same thing and the results were even better. It was a real class with talking and exchanges and challenges and laughter. It was a great seminary class even though it lacked a class presidency, a devotional, scripture mastery, and 50 minutes of instruction. It was just a class stripped down to its essence – students, scriptures, teacher, and especially the Spirit. Two of the chronically tardy students even came on time.
This whole experience reinforced the idea that some students and classes are easier to reach and others take more time and effort, but all can be reached, and all are worth reaching.
I sat in on a missionary discussion the other night. It was with a woman and her son who both had recently joined the church. They were being taught a follow up lesson on the Plan of Salvation. I was with two really good missionaries. They teach well and they teach well together, almost seamless in their transitions from one teaching to the other. After the lesson we three talked about it and they both agreed that it wasn’t their strongest teaching effort. I offered, as I always do, to give them some feedback and they readily accepted, as they always do.
The feedback was this: they taught the Plan of Salvation in an unnecessarily complicated way. They taught it in the standard way that we all seem to use, with circles and lines representing different spheres of existence and transitions to and from those spheres. But it took over 30 minutes to get all of that on paper. And the reason it took so long is that there were dozens of digressions.
The Plan is vast and it touches at the very heart of what we believe. It helps us understand where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. As we begin to talk about it and teach its truths, we are easily distracted by another example, another appendage to it, another story we’ve heard about one of the facets of the plan, by any number of things that keep us from communicating simply and clearly what that Plan of Salvation really is. We, the teachers, are not bothered by the digressions because we understand the basics, but those trying to learn them get confused by what is really important and what is less so. And when the lesson is over they are not really sure which points are critical. If we can’t teach the Plan in a straightforward way, we lose people who can’t hack their way through the dense forest of facts we have built for them in order to see the truth at the center.
The lesson of the feedback was this: the best teaching is clear and simple. It is always clear and simple. The circle and line drawing can be put on paper in 10 minutes. It can be clearly explained in not much more time than that. If we teach it in that manner and the Spirit is present, the student/learner will have questions. She will begin to ask questions about the parts and pieces she is interested in and that she doesn’t understand. We can then address those. It will be a much more useful learning experience.
I’m not short-changing the beauty of the plan in suggesting that we can teach it very well in a much shorter time. What I am saying is that this particular subject is so filled with details that we could talk about it for hours, explaining more and filling in more with scriptural backing. That is not only unnecessary but confusing to a beginning learning of these things.
If we lay it out simply and clearly it will be easier understood and will create in the learner an increased desire to understand more.
One of the marks of an effective teacher is this: can he teach simply and clearly.