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Good Gospel Teachers
By Aaron Johnston July 26, 2004

You're in Sunday School. The teacher just asked someone to read a scripture. Let's say Hebrews 11:1.

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Once the scripture is read, the teacher leans forward and asks, "So, according to this scripture, what is faith?"

The response? Total silence. Nobody raises a hand. No one makes a peep. Why? Because the answer is obvious. And no one likes to answer the obvious question.

Eventually some kind chap will answer, but only because he wants the awkward silence to end and the lesson to move on. "Uh, faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," he says.

"That's right," the teacher says. "Goodness, you all are quiet today." Then the teacher moves on.

OK, I'm sorry but these "answer obvious" questions drive me bonkers. And I hear them all the time. In fact, I've been in Sunday School and priesthood lessons in which these are the only type of questions asked.

The next time this happens I'm going to act like John Travolta's character from Welcome Back, Kotter. Remember that show?

Travolta was this inner-city high-school student who practically jumped out of his desk whenever his teacher (Mr. Kotter) asked a question Travolta knew the answer to. He'd throw up his hands and shout, "Ooh ooh ooh," just begging Mr. Kotter to call on him.

I want to do that. But instead of giving the answer the teacher is expecting, the only correct answer, I want to give the WRONG answer.

"So, according to this scripture," the teacher asks, "what is faith?"

I throw up my hand. "Ooh ooh ooh."

"Yes, Brother Johnston."

OK, imagine I have a thick Brooklyn accent. "The scripture says that faith is a substance, right? And we all know that the prefix sub means "below or under" and that the root of the word, stance, means "a standing position." Like, say, a karate stance. So a "substance" is below or under a standing position or, in other words, a squatting position."

The teacher blinks. "Interesting."

"I'm not finished," I say. "The scripture also says that faith is the evidence of things not seen. Like ghosts, for example. Nobody sees ghosts, right? But one day you wake up and your shoes aren't where you left them. Suddenly there on the kitchen table. And you're thinking, 'How in the heck did my shoes get on the table?' And then you remember you've got ghosts and the movement of the shoes is the hard evidence you needed. So faith is either a squatting position or the unexplainable movement of shoes."

I know. I'm a cruel person.

At least the "answer obvious" questions are better than the "read my mind" questions.

These type of questions are a little trickier. The teacher will ask a question that, in truth, can be answered several different ways. But in the teacher's mind there is only one right answer. All other answers are less right.

For example, say the teacher begins the lesson by asking, "What should you tell your nonmember friends when they ask you about the Book of Mormon?"

A guy raises his hand. "I tell them that it's another testament of Jesus Christ."

The teacher nods, but you can tell by the look on her face that this isn't the "right" answer. "Anyone else?" she asks.

"You can say that it's a book of scripture," says another.

"Anyone else?" the teacher asks.

"It's the word of God," says another.

Finally the teacher gives in. "Or you can say, that you know two missionaries who can come to their house and give them a copy." Then the teacher goes on to say that today's lesson is on missionary work.


Want another example? Take the question "What phrase in this scripture sticks out the most in your mind?"

Let's be blunt here. That's not the real question. What the teacher is really asking is "What phrase in this scripture sticks out the most in MY mind?"

Now, you nice folks out there are thinking, "Well at least the teacher asked something. At least she tried." And you're right. You've got to give her credit for at least trying to initiate discussion.

A lot of teachers don't even do that. A lot of teachers don't ask anything. They lecture. They get out their notes and scriptures and then talk and talk and talk and talk. Members of the class only make comments if they're brave enough to raise their hand and interrupt.

Now, I'm not saying that good teachers are simply those who ask good questions. I won't even begin to define what a good teacher is. I'm not one. For that I'll refer you to Teaching, No Greater Call, A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching. It's a wonderful and, I'll wager, much underused text.

My real point is this: Good gospel teachers are rare. In my experience, there are only a few in every ward and proportionately fewer in every branch.

And why is that? Why are stellar teachers so hard to come by? Well, I think there are several reasons.

Firstly, the really great teachers, the ones who invoke the spirit and initiate discussion and fill you with a desire to be righteous and to give Satan the old one-two, are often snatched away by the stake or put into ward leadership positions as soon as their teaching skills are recognized. Rarely will you find them in front of a class, holding a short piece of chalk.

Secondly, teaching is hard. Standing up in front of a group of people and inspiring them to live better lives is no easy task.

The Brethren know this fact well. That's why the church spends so much time and effort on improving gospel teaching. Our leaders know that the gift of teaching is not easily attained.

Think about it. Every ward has, or is supposed to have, a teacher improvement coordinator, someone who schedules and possibly teaches classes on how to improve gospel teaching.

If you have a good teacher improvement coordinator in your ward, someone who takes the initiative and actually sees to it that these classes happen, consider yourself lucky.

But in addition to the teacher improvement coordinator, the church also provides manuals, teaching guides, the church website, Ensign articles, and other resource material to guide teachers in everything from how to prepare the lesson to how to teach with the spirit.

You may recall a General Conference talk given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks a few years back. In it he said, "Some may wonder why we are making such an extensive effort to improve gospel teaching . Those who wonder must be blessed with superior teachers, and we have many of those in the Church. Others will understand why such an effort is needed and will pray for its success."

What's Elder Oaks saying in a very kind general-authority kind of way? He's admitting that not all gospel teachers are great.

But he's also explaining that even bad teachers can become good ones. And I agree. Anyone can learn to be a great teacher. It may take humility. It may take time. It may take serious study. And it certainly will take the help of the Lord. But anyone can do it.

That's why, jokes aside, if you've got a teacher who struggles, pray for them. Encourage them. Make comments during the lesson. Let them see that discussion brings the spirit and involves the class.

And if you're blessed to have a superior gospel teacher, tell them so. Thank them for their lesson and their preparation. Thank them for edifying and inspiring you.

And remember, there was only one perfect teacher. All of us pale in comparison to Him.

So if a teacher were to ask us, "Who needs to improve their teaching skills?" there's really only one correct answer.

"Ooh ooh ooh."

"Yes, Brother Johnston."

"All of us, teacher. All of us."

Correction: It's been pointed out to me that it was NOT John Travolta's character who said "Ooh ooh ooh" but rather Ron Palillo's character, Arnold Horshack. Sorry for the mistake. But come on, I was four years old when this show was cancelled. That I remembered John Travolta was even on the show should count for something, right?

Copyright © 2004 by Aaron Johnston

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