Jeff Borders joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 19, and since then, has had many opportunities to serve in various capacities. His wife, Crystyne, was integral to his conversion while they were dating, and he believes her to be one of the best missionaries he has ever met. When not serving at Church, Jeff works as the Manager of Respiratory Therapy and Clinical Informatics at a rural hospital in Eastern Washington, and the Station Captain for his local volunteer fire station. He has a passion for educating and co-instructs many of the training classes at his hospital for nursing and respiratory staff.
I have a confession to make. I’m not a teacher by profession, but I am married to one, so I guess that makes me tangentially an expert on teaching. Okay, so I’m not even tangentially an expert, but I have experience teaching in both a church and work capacity. I’ve spent some time digesting teaching tips and doing my best to hone the skill to deliver the best classroom and hands-on experience to those I teach or lead in my work capacity.
More Than a Bell Ringer
Beyond my work, I find myself nowadays on my second go-around as the Sunday School President. The first time was in the single’s ward many years ago. It felt very different because I was newly baptized and had no clue what I was doing. Coupled with no onboarding, I felt less than successful in my calling.
That isn’t to say I know what I am doing now. I don’t. Sometimes, it feels like I am making it up as I go along. But I have many more years in Church callings and a little perspective that has come with age. This time, I was determined to make the most of the calling, which can frankly feel like a not-very-demanding calling. You know you have thought the same thing, “What exactly does the Sunday School President do anyway, except press a bell (assuming your building has a bell) and collect attendance.” Don’t deny it; you’ve thought about it, and that’s okay.
However, after reading the first part of the handbook under Sunday School, the calling felt a little more daunting. It reads:
“The Sunday School helps accomplish God’s work of salvation and exaltation. It does this by helping God’s children learn and live the gospel of Jesus Christ,” and to “strengthen faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ by teaching the doctrine of the Kingdom, supporting home-centered and church-supported gospel learning and teaching, and helping members teach in the Saviors’s way.”
Whew! I thought. That is a task in and of itself. Not only is the Sunday School responsible for helping teachers in the church setting, but also the home setting. How am I supposed to accomplish that? I read further in the handbook because that seemed the best place to continue learning.
Section 22.214.171.124 states the following for responsibilities of the Sunday School President:
- Serve on the ward council. He serves as (1) a member of the council who helps address needs in the ward and find solutions and (2) a representative of the Sunday School (see 29.2.5).
- Oversee efforts to improve gospel learning and teaching at home and at church.
- Organize Sunday School classes, with the bishopric’s approval (see 13.3). Recommend to the bishopric adult members to serve as Sunday School teachers.
- Support, encourage, and instruct Sunday School teachers. Help them become more effective gospel teachers by following the principles in the scriptures and Teaching in the Savior’s Way. Encourage them to study Teaching in the Savior’s Way.
- Lead teacher council meetings as guided by the bishop (see Teaching in the Savior’s Way, 3).
- Encourage teachers to reach out to members who do not attend classes.
- Work with teachers to keep attendance records. Report attendance quarterly to the ward clerk or in LCR or Member Tools. A secretary, if called, can help with this responsibility.
A few things stuck out to me, things I’d pondered when I served as the Bishopric counselor over Sunday School.
- If our task is to improve gospel learning and teaching at home and church, how do we do that meaningfully so that it is easily consumable by members who often already feel overwhelmed with to-do’s?
- How do you support, encourage, and instruct Sunday School teachers and help them become effective? Are there tools that can help us become better teachers? The Church puts a lot of resources and time into Seminary and Institute instruction. Can we leverage that to make our Sunday classes more effective?
- How do we make teacher councils applicable? This is not a knock against past leaders who have led teacher councils, but I often left without feeling inspired or with any tips to become more effective in my calling. While we did council together, it never felt like we came away with tangible tools or answers.
Have other Sunday School Presidents had these same questions and feelings? I can’t be alone in wondering these things. I’ve scoured the internet, but resources for Sunday School Presidents beyond the handbook and Teaching in the Savior’s Way are scarce. While I could spend many hours discussing these points, I want to focus on teacher councils because I have found it is one way to accomplish the goals listed in the handbook.
I started preparing for this new calling by reading Teaching in the Savior’s Way and asking all Sunday School teachers to do the same, whether they had read it before or not. I also asked the other organizations participating in the teacher councils to do likewise. This would give us a solid foundation to start with. I also borrowed some tricks and tips from previous councils I had participated in. In addition, I also started reading Seekers Wanted by Anthony Sweat and found many of his insights as applicable tools to be used as teachers.
If you look up teacher councils on the Church website, you will see that three things should be accomplished in the 50-minute block for the council.
- Share and Council Together.
- Learn Together.
- Practice and Invite.
Now, I have to stop here and tell you that when I read this, I thought, “No way. That can’t be accurate.” My experience up to that point was that teacher councils only consisted of the share and council together. We literally would spend 50 minutes sharing ups and downs in our classes. 95% of the time, this would boil down to discussions about the youth. Don’t get me wrong, the youth are important. They are the future of the church. But it often felt as if the relief society and elders quorum leaders and teachers who attended were sort of put on the back burner. I often saw those leaders almost disengage from the conversations and council that were supposed to be occurring. Is this you? It was me at times and I was a youth leader during many of those councils.
Adding Tools During Teacher Councils
Knowing all of this, I became even more determined to make the councils both places of sharing and where we can practice the art of teaching and begin to add tools to our toolboxes. As we know, most people are not professional teachers, and most are eager to learn new skills to help in the classrooms. While we know the Spirit is the true teacher, those who are called and set apart to teach also need the skills to foster the environment where the Spirit can teach.
In an effort to follow the instructions on teacher councils, I decided that each teacher council needed to be anchored to a point in Teaching in the Saviors way. The following is an example of my first teacher council.
- Following my wife’s advice as a teacher that all learning needs an objective, I laid out the focus for the council. In this example, our focus was on (Teach the Doctrine) The Savior Helped People Seek, Recognize, and Understand Truth. This would be the foundation stone for our discussion.
- We spent the first 10-15 minutes of class in open discussion with some lead-in questions. What success are you seeing in your classrooms? What obstacles have you faced?
- The next 15-25 minutes would be our learning time and discussion on the focus topic for the council. In this instance, we focused on asking questions, specifically how the Savior asked questions. We then read together many of the questions the Savior posed during his ministry and discussed why he asked certain questions, or why he asked them the way he did. After discussing this I offered a resource from Cornell University on the art of asking effective questions.
- The last 5 minutes were an invitation to study the Savior’s way of teaching through questions and find ways to integrate effective questions into our teaching. We would then follow up at our next council to see how implementing the tool worked in practice.
The following councils followed the same format, with a focus topic, an open discussion, learning together about the focus topic, resources offered, and an invitation given. Some of the focuses we have covered in councils are recognizing/understanding doctrine and inviting diligent learning by learning to paraphrase and summarize what we are reading.
Gospel Instruction at Home
Okay, that’s all well and good for teachers, but what about the second part about helping gospel instruction in the home? I’ll admit, that is a big task. It’s extremely difficult to have a council with every member of the ward. What we opted to do was to make all the notes of our teacher councils and the resources given available for everyone to view through our electronic ward bulletin.
While I couldn’t physically get to everyone, everyone had access to what we had learned and could thus integrate what they felt inspired to apply inside their homes. (I know just recently it was suggested in conference to have teacher council for parents, but I haven’t fully figured out how to make that work in a practical way yet.)
Helping Develop Shepherds
These councils are a work in progress, with many more tweaks to come, but I have had positive feedback from those who have participated. I have said more than once that gospel instruction in the Church should be a high priority, and getting our teachers the best resources to fulfill their callings is a necessity. I firmly believe, if nothing else, that the Sunday School President can help facilitate getting the teaching tools to those who need them.
Maybe you’re already doing something similar, or maybe you are looking for a way to bring those teacher councils to life. I’ll admit it takes a little more effort to put together learning objectives rather than just sit and talk, but we shouldn’t be looking for the easy road. We should look for the road that leads us and others to become better disciples of Jesus Christ.
As I said above, I am not an expert, nor am I tangentially an expert in teaching, but if some of this helps another Sunday School President who finds himself wondering how to do these things, then I’ll consider it a win.