Teaching in Church
© 12 Sep 2013 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Tip 3: Loosen the reins. Loosen them much less in a lecture hall.



If you are the master of your classroom—if everything is going according to plan and you are exactly where you thought you’d be at this part of the lesson—then there is something wrong. There are 20 times as many brains in the audience as in your head. That probably means they are having at least two or three times as many thoughts as you are having. What are the odds that you could plan well enough that nothing any of them is thinking diverges from your plans? If you didn’t plan that well and they aren’t thinking what you thought they’d think, then how are you in control unless your class just a facade?

I overstate my point. I know human nature, and I know how people react to some questions. Just yesterday I asked two classes of 120 students each an open-ended question about how to design test cases for a system that turns textual representations of numbers into actual numbers and in 20 minutes of various responses from each group, I was not surprised even once. If you know your subject and plan your questions well you can get everyone thinking, really thinking, and still maintain control. It doesn’t need to be a facade.

But how often do I really want to walk people down a controlled path in church? That might be the right thing in a sermon or talk, but lessons are usually for more open conversation. They are times to explore with your brothers and sisters how the revealed truth and your daily life intersect. If you hold the reins, who’s daily life are you intersecting with revealed truth? How useful is that for people with a radically different daily life?

So far all I’ve said is what not to do; I’ve noted one symptom of doing something incorrectly. Let suggest something more practical. My first step in loosening the reins without totally losing control was to start to vocalize all the meta-lesson thoughts I have. “‍That went longer than I expected; let me see what to skip.‍” “‍I’d love to keep going down this path but I really want to get to a different idea as well and time is short.‍” And perhaps the most frightening of all: “‍That’s much more interesting than what I prepared. Let’s see where it goes.‍”

In giving these vocalizations, it is best to keep signs of fear out of what you say. “‍Our time is short‍” and “‍We have plenty of time‍” are far better than “‍Wow! Is it really that late?‍” and “‍I’m running out of lesson here.‍” My previous tip might be well extended here: pause to think about what you are about to say. A little silence while you look at your notes doesn’t hurt anyone, particularly if you use it to increase your actual and evident confidence.

In my experience, this vocalization is a step along a path. It helps students realize that in this class, the students are allowed to go where they will within the supervision of the teacher; you’ve loosened the reins, but you haven’t dropped them. I say it is a step along a path because once you and your students get used to this extra freedom the importance this kind of verbalization drops significantly. The reins default to being loose without your conscious effort.


I confess I have some uncertainty about what exactly I mean by this tip. I have the general idea in my mind, but its a fuzzy idea that might spill over into a have dozen other ideas. That makes my confidence in my analysis rather poor.

In the ideal loosened reins scenario, the students are all driving but all recognize your authority as the arbitrator. When a comment goes afield, such as I mentioned three posts ago, you can say “‍that’s an interesting idea but not one we’ll have time to look at today‍” and they just accept that. That said, it is far from clear if either (a) you can catch these kinds of comments before they get out of hand or (b) you can stop them once they catch emotional root.

I have found that looser reins also means stronger reins. The less you use your power the more power you have. As I first wrote more than a decade ago,

A cowboy had a thousand shots
  Inside his silver pistol.
And since the number seemed like lots
  He fired some in Bristol.
He had a fight in Kansas, too,
  And fired several volleys;
In Oregon he loosed a few
  When arguing in trolleys.
In time he fired left and right
  With nary much discretion
With bullets shot he won in fights
  And punished each transgression.
One fateful day upon a whim
  He pulled the well-worn trigger,
But not a shot was left to him
  To slay his foe much bigger.

Now listen here, my sprightly lad,
  This tale has a moral,
And if you heed it you’ll be glad
  And never have to quarrel.
Suppose your son decides his hair
  Should be a nasty mullet.
To make him cut it may be fair,
  But uses up a bullet.
And then one day, who knows how soon,
  You’ll find your words are hollow
And when he wants to be a goon
  His foolish dreams he’ll follow
So give him rein to stupid be
  When it’s a little matter
That later you may keep him free
  With words which aren’t mere patter

Outside of the church setting I almost never want the conversation to go someplace I hadn’t planned. Brief detours here and there are fine and looser reins than many teachers hold are still a good idea, but I give nowhere near the freedom I do in church. When I come to teach about decision statements then I need to teach about decision statements; there are assignments and grades and other courses that depend on it, and I really need to get through the material. I might take a different path through the material, I might stop briefly to talk about this or that along the way, but I will stay on topic. I’d love to have loose reins, and if I were teaching a graduate class or an elective I probably would, but since most of what I teach is part of a long series of interlocking courses I would not advise most of my fellow teachers to loosen the reins.

Conclusion: a good tip in church, less elsewhere when you need to convey a particular set of ideas. It might provide the tools to allow a teacher to separating enlightening from dissenting conversations, but might miss out on the foresight to use those tools effectively. It can also go astray if you lack confidence.

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