Training People to Teach

If Harvard cannot assume their professors can communicate, how much less can churches.
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From the book Mastering Teaching.

A young woman, an award-winning interior designer, saw that her church needed a Sunday school teacher for one of the children's classes. She volunteered. They put curriculum in her hands and said, "If you can read it, you can teach it."

She couldn't. She tried, she read, she stumbled through some classes—and she quit. Though it has been years since, she was traumatized by the experience, and if anyone asks her to teach, she responds with a decisive, "No!"

She is not the only gun-shy ex-teacher sitting in the pews of our churches. And who can blame her? At the same time, who can blame pastors, Sunday school superintendents, and education committees? Just as my daughter-in-law had curriculum shoved in her hands, many pastors have teacher training dropped in their laps, having little more expertise in teacher training than she had in teaching. And training teachers can be as tough as teaching a primary class.

But it's not impossible. In fact, multitudes of churches across America—both large and small—are doing an outstanding job of equipping volunteers to teach with excellence. As I have participated in and observed such programs, I see a few common threads that run through their teacher training.

Causing to Learn

First and foremost, effective teachers understand, consciously or intuitively, what teaching is and isn't. Unfortunately, many teachers still think of teaching as dumping content. They assume that when they have unloaded the weekly information from the curriculum, they have taught. As long as they didn't forget what to say or stumble around in the lesson, as long as the students didn't break into bedlam or look too bored, they have succeeded.

But open eyes and a smooth presentation do not measure effective teaching. The ultimate question is not what the teacher does but what the student does as a result of what the teacher does.

Years ago I discovered that the Greek and Hebrew verbs translated in the Bible as "teach" could frequently be translated as "to cause to learn." For example, in classic Greek literature there is a passage where a man picked up a stone and threw it at a tree; then he explained to his son, "This is how you hold the stone. This is how you extend your arm. Keep your eye on the tree and follow through." The father then said, "Now I will see if I have caused you to learn."

This way of looking at teaching revolutionized my approach. Instead of getting worked up about how I was going to tell students what I knew, I began focusing on how I could get them to learn. That made me a much better teacher. So at the beginning of teacher training, I want teachers to see their task in this light.

Building a Database

No one can teach off a blank disk. Teachers need a database from which to draw: Bible facts, doctrines, and teaching principles.

So when we gather, I teach principles of effective teaching, especially how students learn. A bodybuilding coach who understands the physics behind muscle development will train better athletes. He understands, for example, that daily weight training on the same muscle groups will tear down muscle fibers without giving them a chance to rest and rebuild.

Likewise, teachers will often fail at causing students to learn unless they know that people learn better when they participate in their learning, when they use what they learn, when they are motivated to learn. The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton is one book among many that can give teachers guidance in how people learn.

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