Teaching scripture is a spiritual gift, but it is also a skill. This means that not everyone is called to be a teacher; it also means just because someone is gifted does not mean they do not need to improve their skills. Several things come into play that impacts the quality of teaching. The sound of your voice, your cadence, and even the way you dress. There are even more important aspects to teaching scripture than what I will cover below, such as having a clear understanding of the Bible, studying your topic diligently, and most importantly, being faithful to the text. If we do everything I will cover below but misrepresent the Bible passage we are teaching, we have only done a better job of leading people astray.
Assuming all the foundations of biblical understanding are in place, and the teacher has studied with diligence, here are seven things to keep in mind as you prepare to teach.
A good teacher is concerned about wasting their student’s time.
If you are teaching scripture, you tend to have a captive audience. If you work for an academic institution, your students must be there to pass the class. For the rest of us, we tend to teach in a church setting. What this means is the faithful will tend to show up whether we are good teachers or not. Never use this as an excuse to phone it in. Be sure to respect their time by delivering the truth to them. Do not buy into the temptation that if you fill your lesson with funny stories, you have used their time wisely because they had a good time. Learn to use illustrations to further the truth you are speaking, not to entertain.
A good teacher is more concerned with clarity than appearing highbrow.
The goal of teaching is for the student to have a better understanding of the topic. Know your student’s level of theological training and speak to them on their level. Avoid the temptation to impress them with your knowledge by using terms and concepts that will not resonate with them. Sometimes learning new words and ideas is part of the lesson. In that case, use the appropriate terms, but explain it to them using what they already understand. Remember, clarity is an apologetic. Students will retain and adhere to what makes sense; the muddled and confused will blow away like chaff.
A good teacher explains why what they are teaching is important.
Sometimes, it is not apparent why what we are teaching matters. If that is the case, make sure the topic’s significance is part of your lesson. For example, if you teach the census counts in the book of Numbers, do not simply tell them how many tribes there were and how many people were in each tribe. Be sure to let them know how this shows God’s faithfulness, how he fulfills his promises. How essential record-keeping and genealogy were in Hebrew culture, and how important that would be at the birth of Jesus.
A good teacher is more concerned with delivering content than face time.
Your relationship with your class is essential, but just because they spend time with you and find you friendly and trustworthy does not mean they were benefitted by spending time with you. The goal of good teaching is that the students see you are concerned about their best interest and trustworthy because you are a faithful teacher. Simply being up in front of the class and being liked does not mean you are a good instructor.
A good teacher has their objectives clearly defined before they begin to speak.
This should go without saying, but it seems to be one of the most significant shortcomings of many teachers. It appears that the goal many teachers set for themselves when preparing to teach is something like the following. “My goal is to talk about this passage of scripture.” That is never the goal. What are the learning outcomes you want your students to walk away knowing? Learning outcomes can vary by class, even if you are teaching the same text. Sometimes, the goal is for the students to have a clearer understanding of the passage’s meaning. In this case, syntax and sentence structure should be part of the lesson. Other times they already understand the meaning of the text, so the goal becomes to show them how the passage applies to their lives in ways they have never considered or how it relates to other scripture passages. Finally, a good teacher will ask how this lesson will impact the students emotionally or spiritually. Am I trying to drive them away from certain behaviors? Am I hoping they will cling more to the cross? Am I trying to steer them away from some false teaching? These kinds of questions help the teacher have clear objectives before they stand up and start talking.
A good teacher has learned the importance of subtraction.
Once a teacher knows the objective for their lesson or class, they will begin the process of subtraction. Every passage of scripture is inexhaustible. There are points of systematic theology, hermeneutics, relationships to countless other passages, and cultural and anthropological implications you could talk about in every text. The teacher should avoid the temptation to teach the class everything they studied. The teacher should look through their notes with a red pen in hand, and anything that does not help accomplish their goal, they should cut from the lesson.
A good teacher will find a weakness in their student’s thinking and ask them questions that will help them grow.
In smaller settings, a good teacher will interact with the students to gauge their thinking and help improve their understanding. Having an opportunity to ask the students questions or let them ask questions is vitally important. However, what do you do when you find that some of their thinking seems to be off. The temptation at that point will be to tell them the correct answer, but it is often more effective to ask them questions that will gently expose their error and bring them closer to the truth. For example, if a student says, “It does not seem wise to believe in anything I cannot experience with my senses.” One response would be to tell her some things she believes that she cannot sense. However, what we learn under healthy stress tends to stick with us longer. Questions create that stress. This is why we have exams in school. Instead of telling them the answer, ask them, “You believe you should not believe in anything without confirmation with your senses. When and how did you experience this belief with your senses?” Since that is a belief they cannot justify empirically, it will expose the flaw. Not only does it show them they believe in things they cannot prove empirically, it also cuts away the weed at the root and does not allow them to go back to it. From there, it will cause them to think of many other examples on their own.
No matter how much God has gifted them, good teachers will continue to improve in these areas. In fact, it is probably better to say it the other way around; the more God has gifted teachers, the more they will continue to improve in these areas.