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Cover Story: To 'revitalize' teaching in the Church

A 1995 directive from the First Presidency to revitalize teaching in the Church is coming to full fruition with the introduction of the teacher improvement plan in local units.

In his recent general conference address on gospel teaching, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve outlined and explained this new emphasis.

"After years of preparation, engaging the efforts of superb gospel teachers, scholars, writers and others, the First Presidency has just sent a letter launching a Churchwide effort 'to revitalize and improve teaching in the Church,' " Elder Oaks said.

Elder Oaks quoted this line from the First Presidency letter: "This renewed emphasis is intended to improve gospel teaching in homes and in Church meetings and help nourish members with the good word of God."

Guidance for the new emphasis comes from these materials:

  • The "Gospel Teaching and Leadership Section" of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2. The new handbook was introduced last year, and Book 2 was distributed to priesthood and auxiliary leaders involved in teaching.
  • A new, 10-page booklet titled Improving Gospel Teaching: A Leader's Guide. Copies are being distributed to all unit leaders and to every quorum and auxiliary officer in the Church.
  • A new edition of Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching. In his conference talk, Elder Oaks described the new edition as "abbreviated and improved."
  • The Teaching Guidebook for use in the home and for smaller and developing units that cannot staff the entire Church program. The guidebook has been published in the past and is being reissued as part of the new emphasis.

In exploring these new materials one soon learns that the new teacher improvement plan includes some vital elements. One is an emphasis on leaders' responsibility to work to improve gospel teaching in their organizations.

Another is quarterly teacher improvement meetings for teachers of three different age groups: children, youth and adults. The meetings are to focus on principles, methods and skills that will improve gospel teaching and learning.

Yet another element is a 12-lesson course on "Teaching the Gospel," which is to be taught at least once a year within individual wards and branches, generally during Sunday School. The course is printed in the new Teaching, No Greater Call edition. Topics it covers are the importance of teaching in God's Plan, loving those you teach, teaching by the Spirit, teaching the doctrine, creating a learning atmosphere (parts 1 and 2), using effective methods (parts 1 and 2), preparing every needful thing, improving upon your talents and going forth to teach.

In a Church News interview, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Presidency of the Seventy welcomed the coming of the new plan as necessary and inspired. Elder Jensen is the executive director of the Curriculum Department, which functions under the supervision of the Priesthood Executive Council of the Church.

"It was a response to the First Presidency's feeling that, as President Gordon B. Hinckley expresses it, teaching is the very essence of leadership in the Church," Elder Jensen said. "It is the very essence of most of what we do in the home, in the classroom, at the pulpit, and it needs to be better.

"We need to do better at what is our commission from our Heavenly Father. That is to go into all the world and teach. In Section 50 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says, 'Unto what were ye ordained? To preach my gospel.' (verses 13-14.)

"It is inescapable in our Church that as parents and as leaders and as called teachers, we're going to be learning and teaching all of our lives. It's one thing to be faithful; it's another thing to be faithful and competent too. And we all need to be better in our teaching."

Among challenges in the Church that the new plan endeavors to meet is "for leaders to recognize that they are responsible for the quality of teaching in their organizations of the Church and, in the case of bishops or stake presidents, in their units."

Leaders should understand that one of their main responsibilities is to teach, Elder Jensen noted. "Paul, for instance, says that a bishop is to be apt to teach; that is, having a tendency to teach, maybe even an aptitude for teaching. (See 1 Tim. 3:2.) And the new plan meets that challenge by placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of stake presidencies, bishoprics, auxiliary presidencies and priesthood leaders not only to become better teachers themselves but to take a personal interest in the teaching they oversee: to orient new teachers, to counsel with them periodically and help them adopt a program of self-improvement, to visit their classrooms on occasion, to see that the approved curriculum of the Church is being followed, to see that things are doctrinally correct, and just generally to tend this area of the Church better than we've done."

Elder Jensen acknowledged that, in the past, some have felt uncomfortable with teacher supervision because of the propensity for intimidation. "And it does create a bit of anxiety, I think, when someone comes in to observe you teach."

That can be alleviated by establishing good relationships initially through teacher orientation and then fostering them through the teacher improvement meetings and through out-of-class contacts, he suggested.

"And in a classroom visit, it helps to do a bit of pre-arrangement and to offer to play a role in the class."

He read from page 6 of Improving Gospel Teaching: "In arranging for these visits, leaders should offer to do whatever the teachers will find helpful. For example, they may present part of the lesson, reach out to a particular class member, assist with activities, or simply observe the class.

"Soon after visiting a class, leaders should express appreciation and give encouragement. At that time or soon thereafter, they may want to meet with the teachers individually, following the guidelines . . . under 'Counseling with Teachers.' "

Another strength in the new plan, Elder Jensen said, is in the in-service training of teachers. "The teacher improvement meeting, with the help of the revised Teaching, No Greater Call, will have a lot more substance," he said. It will have a lot more on teaching methods, and there will be a greater effort made to role play and practice and share ideas among teachers of the different age groups. It can be a much more profitable meeting, though it's pretty clear that it shouldn't go longer than an hour, which I hope everyone will adhere to."

And the new plan freshens the basic training that teachers should receive through what is now called the Teacher Improvement Course, Elder Jensen said. "The old teacher development course was very good, but it has been brought current, and with the help of Teaching, No Greater Call, is going to do a lot for teachers who have never had any basic training. It could help, for instance, a young man or woman preparing for missionary service. It is something everybody in the Church — leader, teacher or average member — needs to undergo. Hopefully, that will systematically occur in the units of the Church."

Elder Jensen noted that the 12 basic lessons could even be administered as a self-taught course and suggested that a husband and wife might want to go through them together to improve the teaching they do in their own home.

"We should give our best to our families," he said. "Frequently, we put a lot more energy and time into a Relief Society lesson or a priesthood lesson than we do a home evening lesson, which may be something we kind of craft together after dinner on a Monday night. It's sort of the idea of always putting out your best silverware and your best tablecloth when company comes. But I think a good mom and dad give their best to their children. They realize that is the most lasting part of their lives."

And the course could also have application to those who are seeking to become better home teachers or visiting teachers, Elder Jensen said.

"So, if we are all desirous of becoming better teachers, and if we're all submissive enough to let someone help us, this is a beautiful program. In the Church, that atmosphere has to always be there anyway for growth to occur. The great thing about the Church is that sometimes we'll be teachers and sometimes we'll be leaders. Because of that we should have an appreciation for the need to have this happen and be respectful regardless of which situation we're in."