Guest Author - Terrie Lynn Bittner
While working on a craft, the girls I teach on Wednesday nights unexpectedly asked if there had been school bullies when I was in school. I found myself unexpectedly guiding a discussion on handling bullies. There was no lesson manual in front of me, no carefully thought out and prayed about plan, just a need that had to be filled without warning.
Over the years, Iíve often found myself teaching unexpected lessons. In most Sunday classes, weíre expected to teach the lesson at hand. During weekday meetings, we have more freedom to veer to an unplanned topic. However, even on Sunday, there will come a time when you know the unexpected is more important than the lesson at hand.
These moments are one reason we must always come to class with the Spirit in full force. We should be able to give a gospel-appropriate answer on any subject. While we certainly donít know every doctrine, and may have to ask the students to give us time to research fact-based answers, we should be able to answer most other types of questions without warning, at least showing the students how Heavenly Father wants them to handle the problem or how to obtain a personal answer for themselves.
The first step, to be made very quickly, is to figure out how much time to allot the issue. In general, you want to complete the lesson assigned if this is a Sunday class. If itís a serious concern, you may consider it worth taking a fair amount of time to handle, and then finishing the lesson quickly, hitting the remaining highlights. If the situation is less critical, summarize it briefly and offer to discuss it in more depth privately or in a future meeting.
Take note of whether the problem is too personal to discuss in class. If it is, ask the student to see you afterwards.
Next, try to quickly evaluate the spiritual aspects of the topic, as well as the personal ones. While teaching a class on the Word of Wisdom, a preschooler asked me if God hated his daddy for smoking. Since this involved a childís feelings about a parent, and since the child was young, I chose to talk about this immediately. It did, in some ways tie into the lesson. The personal aspect was his relationship with his father. The spiritual aspect was agency, spiritual progression, and our Heavenly Fatherís love for us. I explained that Heavenly Father loves all his children even when they arenít perfect, which is good since no one is perfect. We then talked about how everyone has gospel principles they are good at and some they are still working on and smoking was something his dad wasnít ready to fix yet. Then we talked about how we should be like God and love and respect others even though there are things that are hard for them. For a preschooler, this was enough to make him feel better and to treat his father appropriately. For an older class, I might have spent more time on the subject.
Try to always tie specific gospel principles into the discussion, and if possible, tie it to the assigned lesson, since often it was the lesson that inspired the distraction. This can give the lesson more power than it might have had without the personal connection.
Always show respect for the families of your students or others they love and are concerned about. Itís important to help the student maintain positive relationships with others. Nephi loved his brothers even though they were bullies of the worst kind.
Finally, follow up with the student privately later on, to ensure they understood the discussion and to find out if they need more assistance. If the problem is very serious, encourage the student to seek help from the bishop or another appropriate source.