How to make teaching relevant and ‘astonishing’ addressed in Seminaries and Institutes broadcast

Questions about teaching youth and young adults presented to panelists participating in the 2020 Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Annual Training Broadcast drew out the principles and practices applicable in most learning opportunities.

“The example of a great teacher will speak volumes — that will say more than this panel discussion or talks for eternity about teaching” said moderator Jason A. Willard, an associate administrator for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. “All it takes is just to think of a teacher that blessed your life, to think of an individual who reached out to you and ministered to you in such a way to bless your life.”

Participants in the June 9 online broadcast included Sister Reyna Isabel Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency; Sister Michelle Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency; Sister Jill Johnson, wife of Church Educational System commissioner Elder Paul V. Johnson; and Bert L. Whimpey and Chad R. Wilkinson, associate administrators for Seminaries and Institutes.

Question: We seem to have more teachers, students and families who struggle with stress, anxiety, depression and other emotional challenges. What can we do to help them?

Sister Aburto said it is important to help student understand that if they are struggling with their emotions, they are not broken nor effective, with emotions being part of one’s divine nature. Asking questions that allow others to express their feelings can be helpful.

Desiree Tetuanui and Hauhere Nauta read scriptures during Latter-day Saint seminary in Bora Bora on May 28, 2019.
Desiree Tetuanui and Hauhere Nauta read scriptures during Latter-day Saint seminary in Bora Bora on May 28, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“If they are struggling with something, [help them understand] that they don’t have to deal with that alone, that they can reach out to our Heavenly Father, to our Savior and to each other — and that no matter what is happening in their life. Each of us is a child of God.”

As with students, Whimpey said it is important for teachers to know it’s OK to express things and get the help they need.

How can we help youth and young adults see why the Church is relevant to their lives — why they need the Church, and why the Church needs them?

Sister Craig said youth today respond to principles like loving others and reaching out to those that are on society’s margin, and they are wanting a cause and looking to make a difference in the world.

“I hope they can come to understand that as they are faithful, within the structure of the organization of the Church, that they will have more of an opportunity to make a difference for good in the world than through any other organization.”

Elder Soares’ 5 principles in ‘becoming’ and helping others to become

Wilkinson underscored helping students to focus helping others than merely on themselves. “Within the gospel and within our classrooms, we can make invitations that allow them to think about that or explore some ways to do those things and reach outside themselves.”

Sister Johnson reminded about the power in covenants. “We can feel in this world that we are alone and powerless to overcome the things that befall us — our trials, our temptations,” she said. “But the covenants that you can find only in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in places sacred, have so much greater power than any of those forces have.”

When his students say they can feel close to Heavenly Father without going to church, Whimpey said he responds “I agree. But my goal is not to just be close to Heavenly Father; I want to become like Heavenly Father. My goal is to be exalted.”

What are some small and simple things we can do to increase our power to bless our students, to teach with greater power, and to have truly astonishing teaching? 

“As we appoint the Holy Ghost as our teacher, and we invite Him into our classrooms,” Wilkinson said, “then that power, that astonishing teaching will take place.”

Whimpey cited three steps — to focus on the Savior, to think first about what experience the students need and then to allow the Holy Ghost to perform His role and function in the classroom.

Students at the Institute for the University of Texas at Austin take notes during remarks from Elder Ulisses Soares on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.
Students at the Institute for the University of Texas at Austin take notes during remarks from Elder Ulisses Soares on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Sister Craig said that when she finds the Spirit not present as she is teaching, “if I bear sincere testimony of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father, the Holy Ghost comes. The mission of the Holy Ghost is to testify of the divinity of Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father.”

As we seek to be more learner-focused, what can teachers do so that their preparation is more relevant and specific to the students? 

Sister Johnson emphasized the importance of asking in order to understand needs — first asking students and other teachers of their observations.

But most importantly,” she added, “ask our Father in Heaven and rely upon the Spirit and the promises that we have that if we’re doing everything that we can, we will be blessed with the inspiration we need to know those students and know what it is that we need to be teaching them.

Sister Aburto reemphasized counseling, observing and listening. “Make sure to connect the principles and the doctrines we are learning to what is happening in their life right now,” she said, adding “also to look back in their own lives and see the times in which the Lord has blessed their lives, so they can remember who they are and that He is always ready to bless them.”

Wilkinson said he asks students on the first day of class to write a letter, telling him about each one. “What do I need to know about you that will best help me serve you as your teacher,” he said, adding, “as I read that letter. I get to know that student, and I keep those things in mind as I do my preparation.”

What could you say to a teacher who is trying to make sure students feel they have a voice in class, that they can speak, that they can share thoughts and feelings that may differ from what’s going on in the class, and still teach the doctrine? 

Students need to know that when they come to class, they are going to hear the truth, Whimpey said, said that Doctrine and Covenants section 50 reminds that the word of truth needs to be both preached and received.

Sister Amparito Oliva, a seminary teacher in Quito, Ecuador, teaches her son, Jeffrey Oliva and video conferences with Jared Villacrés, another student. She continues to teach face-to-face with her son and using technology, including the program’s Facebook page to send assignments that are uploaded daily.
Sister Amparito Oliva, a seminary teacher in Quito, Ecuador, teaches her son, Jeffrey Oliva and video conferences with Jared Villacrés, another student. She continues to teach face-to-face with her son and using technology, including the program’s Facebook page to send assignments that are uploaded daily. Credit: Courtesy Seminaries and Institutes Student Services Division

“They need to be believing as they come to class,” he continued, expressing a hope that “our class could become like a laboratory, where our students come and feel this environment where truth is going be taught, but then they feel safe to share their questions, their experiences or their concerns.”

Wilkinson cited the New Testament story of the woman taken in adultery and the Savior’s example in His interaction. “He didn’t shy away from teaching the truth,” he said. “He taught her the doctrine, it was not OK. But He did in it a way that protected her, made it a safe place to help her have an experience.”

Sister Johnson added her hope for students feeling the Savior’s love and the power of His Atonement more fully and frequently for “when we have made mistakes — and everyone will, and everyone does — and there are things we just need the Atonement for.”   

How can we help the youth feel like they’re really being seen, that their questions really matter?

Sister Craig stressed the power of asking students questions that one to gauge how they’re feeling and where they are and then encouraging them to ask their real questions. “Not just the questions they feel like we want them to ask,” she continued. “These are questions that are sometimes uncomfortable and don’t have easy answers.”

Sister Aburto said teachers who show they are real and also vulnerable helps students to see everyone is struggling with something, that all have weaknesses. “We don’t have to show a perfect picture of ourselves, either — we can even tell stories in which we don’t look good,” she said. “So they realize that we are all imperfect people in our road to perfection, through the grace of Jesus Christ.”