7 Things Legendary Gospel Teachers Never Do

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to sit through some really bad classes and some really good classes during church. The bad classes left me sleepy, somber, and longing to have that hour of my life back. The good classes, on the other hand, inspired me to dig deeper, become better, and try harder in life.

Some might argue that there are just plain ol’ bad teachers with subsequently bad classes.  Bruce R. McConkie once said that;

“We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.

On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

teacher of the gospel

For the most part, people come to class looking to be edified. Unfortunately, teachers sometimes do things that make it hard for that to happen in their classes.

I don’t believe that there are bad teachers. There are only good teachers that slip into bad habits subsequently annoying their class members. Everyone has something to offer to a classroom as long as they get a few things straight.  When class members are annoyed, they stop paying attention or refuse to participate. I’ve noticed that the following 7 things seem to take place in our classes on a regular basis. If you want to be a great teacher, figure out a way to root these out of your system.

1. Start By Apologizing For A Lack of Preparation

This is the worst way to start your lesson off. Whether you just procrastinated til the last minute or your Sunday school president called you at 10pm on a Saturday night…it makes no difference to the class. All you do by telling them that you’re unprepared at the beginning of a lesson is give them a reason to check out early. I know you might be saying it because you want to garner some sympathy from those in the classroom so that they don’t think you’re an idiot, but announcing this doesn’t help your situation. It only impairs it. When you’re in a bind for last minute content, focus 100% of your time on crafting some deep and thoughtful questions. You can take 10 minutes, review the content, and jot down the most important thought provoking questions to ask the class. Then build off of their responses.

2. The Lecture Rant

Speaking of questions…I think it’s so funny how so many of us spend hours trying to conjure up a series of grandiose statements for our lessons while completely neglecting to spend time contemplating deep and considerate questions. It should be the other way around. Even when we do have ample time to prepare, we should still spend at least 90% of our time determining “the right questions” to ask for a lesson. The right questions will stir emotions and elicit thoughtful responses and personal experiences. These questions enable us to be “edified together” rather than listening to one person lecture or rant.

3. Botched Questions

Now that you know how important good questions are…it’s maybe just as important to actually ask those questions properly.

Rhetorical questions should be avoided at all costs. I can’t count how many times I’ve been sitting in class wondering if I should answer the teacher’s rhetorical question. Maybe worse than that is when I can’t figure out whether the question is rhetorical or not. “You guys think it’s important to keep the commandments…right?” Silence….ummmm….yes. Then there’s the times that we read paragraph after paragraph with the teacher eventually asking the repetitive; “so what do you think that means?” No one says it but everyone is thinking to themselves; “which of the premises did you want me to answer”? Then there’s the often used “guess what I’m thinking” questions. We go round and round until someone gets the right answer. Meanwhile, the 15 people that got the answer wrong just started checking their phones for Facebook messages and won’t be raising their hands the rest of the class, and maybe even for the rest of your tenure as a teacher.

4. The “I Don’t Care What You Have To Say” Tick

Have you ever generated the courage to answer a question or share a personal story only to have the teacher break eye contact with you, look at the clock, or start studying his or her notes? I have. And actually I’d say that this happens on a regular basis. Of everything on this list, it might be the thing that annoys me the most. You know what it tells me? It says to me…that what I have to say isn’t very important and that you’re concerned that my response is going to dig into your lecture time. You’re worried that you might not be able to drop that climactic statement on the class that you’d been preparing all night because now… the “time is running out”.

Most teachers use the time while people are commenting or responding as “down time” or as an opportunity to look ahead in their lesson and “find their place”. There’s a good chance that it’s not the teachers intention to offend the commenter. The problem is that this teacher is placing more importance on what he is going to say next instead of truly listening to the comment and building off of it. President Eyring said that;

“You may have had the experience I have had of noticing that not very many people during a conversation listen carefully to the other person. Generally they are focusing on what they said last or what they will say next.”

Again, it’s usually not intentional…but it is detrimental.


5. Because I Have to “Cover” Everything In The Lesson

Your job as a teacher is not to cover the lesson but to leave people better than you found them in the short time that you’re with them. The only way to do that is by building an atmosphere in which the Spirit can operate on people unrestrained. By “trying to cover everything” you’re actually suppressing things that the Spirit might have wanted to teach.

6. No Love For A Fearful Comment

Remember that time you thought you gave a really thoughtful comment, and when you were done…the teacher kind of just moved on without saying anything at all? It kind of made you feel lame didn’t it? The greatest teachers I know always take the time to acknowledge, appreciate, and build off of others comments. This behavior encourages more comments and instills confidence in the class members. No one wants to look dumb when they raise their hand. It’s the role of a good teacher to ensure that this doesn’t happen regardless of what comes out of a person’s mouth.

7. No Respecter of … Time

So your teaching Sunday school in the Relief society room. You think you’re on a role and you’re feeling good about yourself. You know your time has come to a close…but you really wanted to get to that big spiritual statement you thought of last night. You know…the one that’s going to shake the earth with spiritual power. You’ve just got to get it out before class is over but those pesky class members have been using up all your time. Then at 5 minutes after the hour…you drop it on them…and guess what? No one even heard you.

I’ve heard it said that the spirt leaves the room when the class is over. That’s not doctrine but it has always felt true to me. When I’ve run over my allotted time, I can tell the class is not the same. Plus, the relief society presidency is giving you the stink eye through the windows on the closed door. In 5 minutes, you just turned a potentially good lesson into one that is now irritating to people just because you had to get to that last statement. It’s not worth it. Save it for another time. Make sure that you keep an eye on the time or ask someone in the class to be your “time-keeper” so that you never break this rule.

We’ve just gone from start to finish in a classic Sunday school class. All of us are teachers in some way and at some time. All of us want to do a good job and facilitate spiritual experiences for others.

Eliminate these 7 habits and become a legendary gospel teacher.

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  • Holly

    I just was called to be a RS teacher…so it will be good to keep those things in mind, even though some of those points are some of my bugaboos already.

    I have OCD and a sensory overload disorder,so your point about going overtime hits home with me, as it will trigger me. Anytime a teacher goes over time(or a speaker in Sacrament meeting for that matter) I start feeling anxious and will tune them out and start watching the clock and get restless and ask myself “When are they going to end? Their time is done!” and such.So it is particularly hard for me.I have had to on occasion get up and walk out,as I can’t take the anxiety.

    Now I know my situation is extreme..but to a certain level,it probably brings up similar feelings in others. I so totally agree that whatever points you want to make after your allotted time is most likely wasted, as people will tune you out.You are not giving a great oration,and it’s not about you.

    There was a sister in my ward who taught RS in the past where she would not prepare her lesson,but instead read it verbatim word by word, and she was determined to read the whole thing even if it took us over class sometimes by 15 minutes! I got so I would have to leave,as my nerves couldn’t take it.

    I am giving a talk in Sacrament meeting tomorrow and you can bet I will have my eye on the clock and take only my allotted time, no matter how much of my talk may be left over.

    Thanks for the helps and reminders.I like to think the above oversights are not purposeful in most cases..but rather that people need to be reminded or schooled. This is very timely and needed…thanks!

  • susan

    I completely agree on all of these, and might add one of my own – the teacher who is trying to impress the class with their knowledge of trivia rather than focusing on doctrine and principles that allow us to grow spiritually. That being said, I worry about articles like this and have been hesitant to write some of my own, the reason being that so many people are so very nervous about accepting and serving in callings. Some know they aren’t great teachers, but they are doing the best they can. I just wish there was better inservice in teaching some good techniques – especially question asking so that teachers could continue to improve.

  • Thanks Alex!

  • Daniel

    Thanks for the observations and ideas! Though having an
    experienced teacher with polished skills certainly can help, some of the most
    moving lessons I’ve received have come from individuals who have neither of
    those. I think the core principles for what makes a “legendary” teacher are

    1. Their goals are to invite the Holy Ghost and teach
    something about how to access the blessings of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
    So many cringe worthy things teachers do are because they have other goals than

    2. They teach doctrine (why?), universal principles
    (how?), and applications (what?). By doing this they focus on those things that
    can actually impact people’s lives regardless of their unique circumstances.

    3. They ask questions that invite the Holy Ghost. These
    questions prompt the sharing of testimonies and blessings, as well as increase
    understanding of meaningful doctrines, principles, and applications. Questions
    that invite the Holy Ghost reflect christlike attributes such as faith,
    humility, diligence, construction, optimism, etc., while questions that do not
    invite the Holy Ghost reflect doubt, pride, negativity, etc.

    • Frances Bass

      Yes what you listed are what makes a spiritual lesson and I would add to that the purpose of the lesson should always be to glorify the Savior not ourselves and if you follow the promptings of the Spirit you will do this

  • Joseph

    The chalkboard and visuals have correct language. Such a turn-off to see lack of literacy. [“your” vs “you’re” is 1st grade English]

  • Moderately Grumpy

    Well, I’m glad you are such a perfect teacher that none of these things apply to you, and that you felt the need to give this…well, lecture, about things that annoy you in other teachers. Especially without considering the effect this might have on members who find teaching so terrifying that they cry every time they know they’ll be standing up in front of people that they feel are so much more knowledgeable in the gospel than they are. Those members who freeze in fear at the prospect of teaching. Those members who have that niggling thought in the back of their minds telling them that they’re inadequate and they’re doing it wrong. Members who have taken years to get to the point where they could even think of getting up to teach without having an anxiety attack. You’ve just confirmed that feeling of inadequacy for them.

    On behalf of those members – thanks a bunch.

    • Glen Danielsen

      Moderately, thanks so much for your crucial perspective. I’m surprised Greg let your comment stand; he has nixed mine for reasons unknown to me.

      • Glen Danielsen

        Greg, if possible, plz delete my above brief comment! (The part about being nixed is inadvertently inaccurate.)
        Sorry, and thanks!

  • Glen Danielsen

    Greg, thanks for this insightful, interesting article!
    Just a quick idea to add to your comment though: “Remember that time you thought you gave a really thoughtful comment, and when you were done…the teacher kind of just moved on without saying anything at all? It kind of made you feel lame didn’t it?”
    I would add that it can be irritating when a teacher always feels the need to piggyback on my shared comment–as if I always need to be clarified – expounded upon – improved. All he’s done is dilute my point, and worse, to only show how he has misunderstood it. As a teacher, I don’t want to comment on someone’s comment. Their comment deserves a life of its own without Me heaping my own words on it. I do however want to acknowledge them as you wisely mentioned. I do that with a thoughtful pause, interested eyes, a sincere nod of appreciation.

  • Peggy

    While I understand the points you were making and the need for a teacher to be prepared I was also bothered by some of the points. I have been the gospel doctrine teacher in our ward for 3 years and I am the only GD teacher in our ward so I don’t get many breaks in preparing lessons, which I spend time nearly every day doing (and it’s grueling at times when the lessons are hard). This has been the hardest and most humblest calling I’ve had. Another GD teacher recently called described the feeling as “a lamb going to the slaughter.” There will always those that stand ready to critique everything you say and do as a teacher. There will always be those who make comments to get attention or that draw away from the topic of the lesson.
    There were 2 thoughts that the Spirit gave me to comfort me in this overwhelming assignment and that was:
    1) The Holy Ghost is the true teacher
    2) I’m not called to teach everyone in that class. I am called for the few, even if it is only one person that only I can touch with my personal witness of the Savior. I could then stop worrying about those who would critique and think they could do a better job than me.
    I’m a little bothered by the use of becoming a “legendary” teacher. I don’t think that is the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that we become legendary, but rather that we are humble teachers and followers and testifiers of Jesus Christ. No one can ever be a “perfect” teacher because we are human, and if we are seeking for aggrandizement, which, in my view might lead to a definition of legendary (have you actually looked up the meaning of that word?), then we might be getting borderline priest-craft
    If I am bored in a class because a teacher is not prepared enough, or doesn’t teach exactly like it says in “Teaching No Greater Call” or doesn’t meet my expectations of what I want to learn, then I am going to be the one responsible for lacking the Holy Ghost because I have hardened my heart through criticism. It takes a truly humble heart to be an open heart to the reception of the Holy Ghost who will confirm what we need to know at the time that we need it. It may come because we did our own reading and preparing before we went to that class. It may come because we were willing to listen to what the Spirit was saying and not so much the teacher. Many of my classes I come away and can’t remember what I taught even though I studied all week, but I do remember the times when the power of the Holy Ghost was very real.
    Bottom line is: The Lord knows who He calls and why. Very few are every fully qualified and it takes great courage and trust in the Lord to accept a calling of teaching, because it is one of the highest responsibilities in this church. Only those who get on their knees and humbling seek the help of the Lord and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost can ever effectively teach, and they can change hearts forever through the power of the Holy Ghost with even the simplest and most inadequate expression of words. Just read Brigham Young’s conversion story and you will know what I mean.
    Please let us love and pray for those who teach no matter how imperfectly they may do it and know that this is the Lord’s will, that He has chosen them for His reasons, and that His ways are always higher than our ways–beyond what we may ever comprehend in this life.

  • Crew Sayder

    Those are all great points. I loved being the GD teacher for a couple of years and I think I did a good job avoiding those. All you need is 3-5 really good questions to get discussion going and you’ve got what you need for the lesson. Sometimes struggled with how to deal gracefully with answers full of false doctrine but that didn’t happen much.

  • Frances Bass

    With all due respect the best way to learn to teach is through studying, prayer and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide you and to use the new manual “Teaching in the Saviors Way” If the Spirit is present and the individual wants to learn there will be growth. It is not about being a legendary teacher as that is what is called glorifying yourself it is about glorifying the Savior in your lessons

  • Dan Shumway

    Actually, when you start off your article with “Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to sit through some really bad classes…” I lost interest. I’ve found that if I go into any lesson with the proper attitude, praying for the ability to accept the good that is there for me, I always get something out of the lesson and am grateful for it. If one wishes to be a better teacher, there’s nothing wrong with learning good techniques and things to avoid, but never spend your time during a lesson evaluating your brother or sister who have taken on the challenge. As a student in the class, yours is NOT to judge AT ALL.