Orson Scott Card has written two columns over at Mormon Times, the first decrying the generally wretched quality of lessons in Elders Quorum and its possible impact on the (in)activity of newly-minted 18-year-old elders, and the second making some active suggestions on how to improve said teaching. A third column (on resources for teaching) is forthcoming.

(Interesting factlet: I had Card as an Elders Quorum instructor one summer while we were both undergrads at BYU. He was an excellent teacher even then, so I give what he says a lot of weight.)

Card’s observations and recommendations dead-on and worth reading. My solution, however, is more direct: the Church needs to bring back (in some form) its original Teacher Development course from the 1970s.

I joined the Church at age 14 in 1967. The first “real” calling I had was at age 16, when I was called to teach the 10-year-olds in Junior Sunday School (this was in the pre-block days, when you had Sunday School on Sunday mornings and Primary during the week). It was, well, something of a disaster. I knew nothing about teaching. I would stand there, manual in hand, trying to teach, while the class members — almost all girls — would mostly just sit there and giggle, particularly when I would ask them questions. Mercifully, I was released after several months.

However, during the second semester of my senior year of high school (1971), I was called to attend the Teacher Development class, to be taught by our former bishop, Philip Peterson. Back then, the Teacher Development class was twelve (12) weeks long, with a one-inch binder stuffed full of professional prepared and printed materials for each class member. I believe that Bishop Peterson was a school administrator in real life; in any case, he was an outstanding teacher himself, and he took the course very seriously. And while he was a loving husband and father, and had a good sense of humor when he let it out, he also had a spiritual gravitas about him that brooked no argument; think of a local version of Boyd K. Packer. When he let all of us called to attend the class know that he would accept no absences during the 12 weeks, we took him at his word and were all there, every week. One weekend, my high school choir went from San Diego up to Arrowbear Music Camp in the San Bernardino Mountains for a weekend retreat. We weren’t scheduled to leave until Sunday afternoon, but I got up at 6 am on Sunday morning and drove the 3 hours back home in order to attend the class.

It was a rigorous course. As I said, this was pre-block, so Sunday School classes lasted a full hour after opening exercises. The course materials covered a variety of topics during the first eight or nine weeks, then two or three weeks were devoted to actual teaching. Each of us would go into other Sunday School classes and teach a 10- to 15-minute “mini-lesson”, observed by Bishop Peterson and other class members. The final class was a wrap-up of all that we had (hopefully) learned, and we were then certified has having completed the Teacher Development course. (I could be wrong, but I believe we got honest-to-goodness printed and signed certificates.)

That fall, I went off to BYU. As the semester started, I was asked to teach one of the Gospel Doctrine classes in my BYU ward on a stop-gap basis, while the bishopric was sorting out callings. It was the first time I had taught a class since the 10-year-olds, and I was amazed at the difference. Yes, the students and material  were both more mature, but that wasn’t it; it was that I now knew (better, at least) how to teach. I knew how to put together a lesson outline, research the subject, ask the right kinds of questions, use A/V materials, guide class discussion and participation, and so on.  I had an absolutely wonderful time, and the class members appeared to enjoy it as well.

However, that only lasted for a few weeks, because I was then called to teach the Teacher Development class in my ward (I suspect it was because I was one of the few incoming freshmen in my ward who had completed the course). I believe I taught two complete 12-week courses, one each semester. That was where I really learned how to teach; as anyone can tell you, you learn vastly more about a subject as a teacher than you do as a student. To this day, teaching remains my favorite calling in the Church, and especially teaching Gospel Doctrine (though Gospel Essentials, which I teach now as the ward mission leader, comes in a close second.)

Somewhere over the years, however, the 12-week Teacher Development course went away, likely an incidental victim of Priesthood Correlation, the consolidated block schedule, and/or the growing internationalization of the Church. Teacher Development has reappeared in other abbreviated forms from time to time over the years; currently, I believe it’s done as a quarterly stake meeting, which is about as ineffective a venue as you could ask for.

The real challenge with reviving Teacher Development as it existed in the 1970s is that Sunday School classes in most LDS wards are, for all intents and purposes, only about 35 minutes long, even less than the scheduled 40 minutes. The prior meeting, be it Sacrament or Relief Society/Priesethood, tends to get out late, and the ward members who didn’t get a chance to talk before church started now take 5-10 minutes to catch up with friends and others. So right off the bat, you would have only half of the actual time, even assuming that you were teaching a 12-week course. That is itself is another roadblock — I think it would be very hard nowadays to get 8-10 Church members to commit to attend every single lesson for 12 weeks, as Bishop Peterson successfully did some 40 years ago. (As I recall, his threat was that if we missed any of the classes, we simply wouldn’t get the certificate at the end.)

But even so, I think a 4- to 6- week course in Teacher Development during Sunday School, with one or two weeks of observed substitute teaching at the end, would still do wonders for improving the overall quality of teaching within the Church. As Card notes, it is very much needed. At various times over the years, it has been an act of faith, hope, and/or charity for me to attend certain Sunday School and Priesthood lessons because of the teachers. I can think of wards where I didn’t attend Sunday School for months (focusing instead of bishopric or clerical duties) because it was just too painful to sit through the lessons.

Thoughts?  ..bruce..