"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
January 8, 2015
Odd Comments from Young Women
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

I teach the Laurel class several times a month. I don’t think I’m a very good teacher, even though I’ve been doing it for several years. I spend lots of time preparing, but once I’m in front of the class, I get thrown by things like weird comments, whispering and blank stares.

My biggest problem is responding to one of the girls’ artsy-poetic interpretations of the scriptures. I’m not an artsy person, and when she makes these comments I have no idea what she’s talking about, or if it’s accurate or not. My mind goes blank and I don’t know what to say.

Suggestions?

Answer:

Responding to strange comments is one of the more difficult parts of teaching church lessons. As a teacher, you have a duty to support each class member in his participation. Especially in a youth class, you want to show respect and appreciation for each sincere comment.

But you also have a duty to make sure true doctrine is being taught. These duties sometimes conflict, as when a class member makes a comment that either contradicts or does not support established doctrine. Or, as in your case, when you are not even sure what your class member is saying, or whether it is true. Here are some suggestions.

One, start each class by teaching your students what you want them to know. Lesson manuals sometimes suggest that you read a scripture and then ask the class what it means, or how they feel about it. This approach may increase participation, but it will not necessarily convey accurate information to the students, and it may take you off track if your students are not able to explain what the passage means.

So instead of asking the students what they know or think about the lesson topic, I suggest you start by presenting the topic directly.

For example, if your topic is tithing, you may start by telling the class that your lesson today is on tithing. Then, ask them to open their scriptures to Malachi, where you will read together the commandment and purpose of tithing. Tell them what to look for as they read, and define in advance any obscure vocabulary.

After you have read the passage, go back and point out the important phrases and ideas in what you have just read. Explain what these phrases mean, and how they have been interpreted today.

The purpose is to teach your class the main points of whatever doctrine you want to discuss with them. Then, once you have established the correct doctrine, you can move on to the application phase of your lesson, where participation is more useful.

Two, prepare your questions carefully. Reading a scripture aloud and then asking, “Okay, so what does that mean,” is not a good question because it is too broad. “How did that make you feel,” is an even worse question, because it doesn’t mean anything.

And any question to which you have a specific answer in mind is risky, because you will have to think of something graceful to say if someone answers it incorrectly.

Instead, try to think of questions that deal with the application of whatever you are teaching. How does the topic apply to your class members’ lives? How is it relevant to them? How could they respond to a difficult situation at home or school? How could they apply the scripture you just read? Can they think of similar scripture stories?

When you think you have crafted a good question, try to imagine how you would answer it. If you can’t think of a good answer, or anything to say, it’s probably not a good question.

Three, embrace the silence. Silence during a lesson is not a bad thing. It does not necessarily indicate a problem. If you ask a probing question, your class members will need time to think about it. If a class member makes an unexpected comment, you will need time to think about what she said. If you have reached the end of a topic, you will need time to collect your thoughts and decide what to discuss next.

If you are afraid to stop and think because it will leave dead air, you are missing opportunities to really listen and respond to the young women in your class. You are also missing opportunities to consciously decide where your lesson should go next.

Should you pause and ask your artsy Laurel to explain her comment? Should you move on to another topic? Should you deviate from your lesson plan to address a new topic that seems more important that what you had planned? It’s much better to pause and think than to barrel forward and fill the void with verbal static.

Four, latch on to the one positive thing. When a person in your class makes a comment that you find odd, unintelligible or of dubious truth, the easiest way to respond is to find the one part of the comment that does apply to your lesson. Then, use that one positive thing to move the lesson forward.

(Actually, the easiest thing is to say, sincerely, “Thank you, Laurel,” which is often sufficient if the comment truly does not apply to the lesson.)

For example, if your artsy Laurel responds to a scripture on being pure in heart by quoting poetry, you might pause and think for a moment. Did anything in the comment relate at all to your lesson? There was probably something — latch on to that something and say, “Thank you, Christabel. I’m not familiar with that poem, but you brought up an important point about chastity, which is a form of personal purity.”

Then, you can ask a follow-up question about chastity, segue back to the idea of being pure in heart, clarify a doctrinal point, or ask about other forms of personal purity — whatever will take your lesson in the right direction.

Five, admit ignorance. If a comment refers to something you’ve never heard of, admit it. Look thoughtful and say, “Hmmm. I’ve never heard of that before.” If the comment seems to comport with established doctrine, you might add, “But I think it agrees with what Paul said in ....”

However, if the comment seems fishy to you, you might say, kindly, “I’m not sure about that. Let’s go back to how Paul explained this idea ....” If the comment refers to strange-sounding doctrine, you may need to take the additional step of tracking down the alleged doctrine so you can explain it to your class the next week.

Six, develop a relationship with the members of your class. Spend time talking with them so they know you are interested in them and that you like them. As you get to know them, you will be able to prepare lessons — including discussion questions — that will pique their interest and meet their needs.

Don’t forget that some classes are simply quieter than others. Blank stares can mean many things, from boredom to contrariness to an inability to speak in front of others. Having a good relationship with the individual girls in your class will help you know why they do or do not respond to your lessons, and to improve your teaching. It will also help you to appreciate your artsy-poetic Laurel, even if you have no idea what she is talking about.

Finally, you don’t have to be a game-show host to be an effective teacher. You can present thoughtful, well-prepared, doctrinally sound lessons even if your delivery is not as smooth as you’d like it to be.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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