Teaching is not talking, it is 'observing, listening and discerning'
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In a recent seminar for seminary and institute teachers, Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve said: "Teaching is not talking and telling. Rather, teaching is observing, listening and discerning so we then know what to say." This simple sentence is packed with meaning for each of us as gospel learners, teachers and parents. If gospel teachers see their role as covering content, they will spend most of their time "talking and telling" and little time "observing, listening and discerning." Our goal as gospel teachers is to help learners uncover the lesson inside of them rather than trying to cover everything inside of the manual.
The purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to help us gain immortality and eternal life. So every time we teach — whether we are teaching in the home or in the Church — our goal is to help learners relate doctrinal truths to their own life, to their own challenges, to their own hopes, to their own desires. This means that we must observe those we teach and listen to them so that we can draw upon the Spirit to know what we should say as teachers. In this way we are learning right along with the ones we've been called to teach. We are learning together by the Spirit.
A Sunday School teacher recently recounted to me how she tried to observe, listen and then discern so that she would know what to say. She was teaching Lesson #41 in the current gospel doctrine manual to her class of 16-year-olds. As she was preparing to teach the following week, one of the verses that caught her attention was 1 Timothy 4:12 — "Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity."
On Tuesday morning of that week, President Thomas S. Monson spoke at the BYU Devotional in the Marriott Center. What scripture did he draw upon as his central message? He focused on 1 Timothy 4:12. She read a summary of his talk in the newspaper and decided that she would also focus on that same verse of scripture for her lesson.
After the opening prayer, she asked if anyone had attended President Monson's devotional the previous Tuesday. Two of her class members responded that they had attended. She then asked each of these young people to explain to the class their experience at the devotional. They said that they had never experienced anything quite like it. One explained:
"It was all like noisy in the Marriott Center before the devotional. Lots of talking going on. Then, when President Monson entered the building, it was like this hush came over everyone. I had never seen that before. We all just got really quiet, and I could just feel that he is really a prophet of God."
The teacher then invited class members to share their own feelings about President Monson. Then she invited them to think about the message he gave by having them turn to 1 Timothy 4:12. During the remainder of the class period, the teacher focused on each word in the scripture one at a time by asking, "How are you trying to be an example in word? What do you think that means? How about in conversation? In charity?" And so forth.
She also explained how the verses in Ephesians 6 they had previously discussed related to the verse in 1 Timothy. She asked them to share their interpretation of having one's "feet shod with righteousness." She then asked them to name the "fiery darts" that can keep them from being an "example of the believers." As the class progressed, the teacher kept observing (so she might know whom to call on), listening (so she might learn more about the needs of those she was teaching), and discerning so she would know by the Spirit what she should say next.
One of her class members was a non-LDS exchange student from another country. She asked this young woman, "So now that you've become acquainted with LDS young people, are they any different from young people you've known in the past?" This young woman then shared with her classmates the positive differences she had noticed — that their language was better, their desire to live moral lives was better, etc. Each of the characteristics she mentioned fit with the attributes of "believers" they had been discussing.
This teacher did little talking and telling. She felt no need to cover every verse of scripture in the lesson. Just one verse from Timothy, a review of two verses from Ephesians, and the words of a living prophet — that's all she needed to help her youth Sunday School class open up and share with each other how they were trying to live the doctrines of the Kingdom.
Did this teacher focus on doctrine? Did she invite? Did they talk about the promised blessings that come from living the doctrine? Yes. But rather than telling them these things, she invited her class members to discover them by helping them discover what was already inside them — a growing witness of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To teach in this way is not difficult. It's much more natural than giving a presentation. It's conversation that leads to discovery. It's sharing with one another our own insights and feelings about the truths inside us. It is the way the Savior taught as He encountered each one along the way. He observed, He listened, so that He could discern and then know what to say. We can all teach the way He taught. And when we teach as He taught, He will be with us, and everyone — including the teacher — will learn and grow and change.