Teacher Improvement Lesson 1: What Makes a Great Teacher?

January 12, 2014    By: Matt W. @ 10:24 am   Category: Life

So I have been asked to teach a church teacher improvement course over the next six weeks at church. Since I was surprised to not find one laid out online at Feast Upon the Word or T&S, I thought I would post my lessons plans here and invite your input and help over the next 6 weeks. Think of every question as an invitation to discuss.

I start simply, with the following statement I nabbed from greatschools.com

“Study after study shows the single most important factor determining the quality of the education a child receives is the quality of his teacher.”

I’ll begin by saying that sometimes at church we seem to make the statement that if the student isn’t getting anything out of the lesson, it is the students fault. Why is this a problematic statement?

Setting that aside, now that we can focus on teacher quality, what makes a great teacher.

Again, hundreds at greatschools.com have provided us 3 key (yet simple) elements:

  • Great Teachers want to be great teachers
  • Great teachers are really passionate about the material they are teaching
  • Great teachers really care about their students


Ergo, my objects today are:

  • To increase our desire to be the best teacher we can be
  • To help us to be passionate about what we are teaching
  • And, lastly, to help us to love those we teach

(This follows along, more or less, with the first few lessons in the back of “Teaching, no greater calling”, but it had 12 lessons, and I am limited to 6, so I am squishing a few together)

increase our desire to be the best teacher we can be

Elder Holland once said:

“To teach effectively and to feel you are succeeding is demanding work indeed. But it is worth it. We can receive ‘no greater call.’ . . . “For each of us to ‘come unto Christ’ [D&C 20:59], to keep His commandments and follow His example back to the Father is surely the highest and holiest purpose of human existence. To help others do that as well—to teach, persuade, and prayerfully lead them to walk that path of redemption also—surely that must be the second most significant task in our lives. Perhaps that is why President David O. McKay once said, ‘No greater responsibility can rest upon any man [or woman], than to be a teacher of God’s children’ [in Conference Report, Oct. 1916, 57]”

Let’s do a little self-assessment:

Do you treat your calling as a teacher as your greatest responsibility? Do you feel like you are an effective teacher? Why or Why not? How would you do that/feel that?

My answer is no, I could be more effective, and as to why not: No desire, not fully converted, don’t know how, not enough time, no spiritual connection, the students don’t care.

But these boil down I think to issues with me, except for the last one, and both ends of this ultimately have to do with desire. The students desire to learn and my desire to teach.

This brings us to the great dilemma. You can’t teach desire. I can neither teach you to have greater desire to teach well nor can I teach your students to have greater desire to learn. So if you can’t teach desire, what are we to do?

President Hinckley said. “We should be concerned with the spiritual dimension of our people and the enlargement of this dimension. There is a tendency in all of us to ask for better statistical performance. There is a tendency to impose quotas behind which usually lies imposition of pressure to achieve improved statistics. In the work of the Lord there is a more appropriate motivation than pressure. There is the motivation that comes of true conversion. When there throbs in the heart of an individual Latter-day Saint a great and vital testimony of the truth of this work, they will be found doing their duty in the Church. …They will have within them a great desire to share the Gospel with others. They will be found strengthening and lifting their brethren and sisters. [In other words, they will be committed.] It is conversion that makes the difference” (Regional Representatives’ seminar, 6 Apr. 1984; emphasis added).

So your desire is at least linkable to your own personal conversion. (insert debate here)

How do we strengthen our own personal conversion?

One scripture I really like on this is Hel. 15:7-8, maybe because I am a list maker and this scripture is one of those nice and clean “list scriptures”. You know, do this this and this, get this this and this… That sort of thing. Anyway, the context on this is what Samuel the Lamanite said while he was up on that wall getting arrows shot at him. As an example of conversion, he notes the conversion of his own people as a positive example. He lists the following as the pattern of conversion:

  • To do:
  1. Come to a knowledge of the truth
  2. Know your traditions are wrong
  3. Believe the Scriptures and Prophets
  • To get:
  1. Faith
  2. Repentance
  3. Mighty Change of Heart

In modern Mormon parlance, the to do list could be:

  1. Pray Moroni 10 style
  2. Read and soak in the scriptures and words of the prophets
  1. Know your traditions are wrong

So we are pretty comfortable with 1 and 3. As teachers and students of Sunday school what false traditions do we have that are holding us back?

Question: Have you ever had a teacher who was passionate about being a great teacher? Have you ever had a teacher who was just mailing it in? What was the difference?

Be passionate about what we are teaching

For at least the last 10 years, this has been my go to quote when it comes to teaching the Gospel, whether as a missionary, or a Sunday school teacher or in any other capacity.

“We must strengthen ourselves and our people to get our teachers to speak out of their hearts rather than out of their books, to communicate their love for the Lord and this precious work, and somehow it will catch fire in the hearts of those they teach” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley[1997], 619–20).

What does it mean to speak from our hearts, not our books? What level of effort does that imply?

To me it implies a high level of effort in preparation and also in “likening the scriptures” to myself. We will spend time in later lessons talking about practical tools for this.

Love those you teach

D&C 12:8 says:

No one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love.

When we talk about loving those we teach what do we mean?

C.S. Lewis has four concepts of love:

  • Affection (Storge, ??????)- fondness through familiarity
  • Friendship (Philia ,?????)- the bond between people with common interests or activity
  • Charity (Agap?, ?????)- unconditional love, caring regardless of circumstance
  • Romance (Eros, ????)- the sense of being in love

Obviously, we probably don’t want romance in our class rooms in the teacher/student relationship (ew!), but are any of the other 3 not necessary?

If there are three functions of a teacher, preparation, teaching, and behavior outside the classroom setting, how do we apply these three loves to our students.

(My emphasis here is going to be on accepting all comers and focused on making sure our lessons to do not make people feel unloved or left out due to personal situation ie- teaching a lesson on marriage and family to single or childless people calls for sensitivity, etc.)

I will end the class by asking the students what they are interesting in focusing on over the following weeks with the following tentative outline.

  • Week 1– What Makes a Great Teacher?  (Check)
  • Week 2– Christ-Centered Teaching (Making Christ, the Plan of Salvation, and the Atonement part of every lesson)
  • Week 3– Preparing for great lessons (Prep skills and good resources like T&S, Feast Upon the Word, and Exponent)
  • Week 4– Using Effective Methods to help your lessons stick out (to Powerpoint or not (I do, but not always), open ended questions that invite discussion, classroom prep)
  • Week 5– Tailoring your lesson to your students: Children, Youth and Adults (Basic ages and stages, teaching kids vs adults, what is the same, what is different)
  • Week 6– Challenging topics and Challenging students (focus on polygamy, racism, sexism, anti-Mormon lit, and political intrusion (or in other words, assuming everyone is a republican) for “challenging topics” and talking about disruptive students or people who’s comments are insane)

So what do you think? What does the lesson lack? What does the lesson plan lack?




  1. Outstanding. I’m looking forward to the rest. Thank you so much!

    Comment by Bryan H. — January 12, 2014 @ 7:59 pm

  2. Best of luck with the class. I suppose something of a congratulations are in order. I am a bit surprised that you were not asked to use the ‘Teaching – No Greater Call’ manual. Might be a reference if you have not memorized it yet.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — January 12, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

  3. Eric: the above outline does basically follow the first two lessons of teaching no greater call. That book was new when I joined the church, and my first visiting high councilman was on it’s committee. He was awesome. He said things like “give that guy a cigar!” which I found quite endearing from a Mormon authority figure.

    Bryan H, thanks.

    Comment by Matt W. — January 13, 2014 @ 8:24 am

  4. Disclosure: I read the first half of this post and think it’s great–really great. The second half I only had time to skim so my suggestion might be a mute point if you mentioned this already.

    But to me a great teacher is great not because they’re the only “sage on stage” expert imparting information by lecture, but because they’re great facilitator’s of engagement.

    I’ve felt this way both as a gospel teacher and as a student in classes, but the greatest engagement occurs when students are encouraged to share their own thoughts on the topic (hence the importance of asking great questions and being able to facilitate a productive discussion based on the comments given). And even if I don’t comment, the teacher’s questions have got me engaged by simply thinking about it myself.

    I tune out when it’s just a “sage on stage” teacher. But I love those that ask good questions and solicit authentic input and make me feel like I had value in contributing. Those are the kind of lessons I find most valuable and “real”.

    Comment by Clean Cut — January 13, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

  5. I’m really glad that I found this article. I’ve been teaching Primary for the last few months and I can honestly say that I’ve been doing the between average and minimum work preparing week after week. I was pondering why it feels like the lessons are a chore and the class is less then enthusiastic during class time.

    Reading about having a desire to be a better teacher was a thunderclap moment. Thank you so much for the timely posting.

    Comment by ldsprimaryguy — January 13, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

  6. CC, I will cover that in later lessons. I agree, facilitating vs lecturing is important, especially when working with adults.

    thanks,ldsprimaryguy.What age do you teach?

    Comment by Matt W. — January 13, 2014 @ 7:33 pm

  7. There’s a difference between being a great teacher and being an effective teacher. If you had the qualities above, you might a great role model, but that has little to do with teaching – which is fundamentally about accurately communicating a concept to another person.

    Comment by Eso — January 20, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

  8. The issue is more complicated for silent students who are in their second or subsequent years at the school. They may in fact desire the opportunity to participate orally, but do not yet have the language processing skills to quickly understand the question and formulate their answer in English. They are disadvantaged therefore in classes with rapid teacher-student interchanges, particularly where the students are not called on but allowed to respond at will.

    Comment by Jame Q. Hodges — February 6, 2014 @ 2:36 am