The Five Habits of Highly
Effective Bible Teachers
By William E. Niblette, Ph.D.
Habits begin with a desire…
Finding yourself as a teacher or thinking about the prospect of teaching is a worthy pursuit. Desiring to be an effective teacher is indeed an honorable endeavor (Prov. 15:2, Luke 6:40). Habits for teacher effectiveness begin with a desire; a desire to emulate good skills or relational techniques that you deem effective. Take a few moments and list two or three things you have seen effective teachers do that made an impact on you and that you might want to emulate. Cultivating these skills or techniques into habits for your own teacher effectiveness involves an intentional process, climaxing to the point of them becoming instinctively natural when you are in the classroom.
Building a habit…
By definition, a habit is a tendency to behave, or not, in a specific way. Habits are initially built by consciously (Step #1) raising the inclination that this may be a skill or technique you may wish to incorporate in your teaching. Step #2 involves the process of intentionally using the skill or technique in your teaching/learning experiences. This builds a tendency or predisposition to certain skills and techniques you are becoming used to and feel comfortable with. Step #3 flows naturally from continued use of skills and techniques for teaching with which you feel comfortable. You are building a repertoire of skills that are becoming dispositions for you. Habits are said to be solidified when they become (Step #4) natural ‘bents’ in the way you process teaching. We are not suggesting that you become overconfident in your teaching skills, but comfortable in habitually facilitating skills and techniques that help learners understand and practice biblical truth.
Five essential habits that help to
build other good teaching habits…
The scope of this brief discourse is not to delineate all of the good habits a teacher might acquire for becoming an effective teacher, but to describe five broad-based, attitudinal/action-oriented habits that are actually supportive of any skills and techniques teachers may want to incorporate into their teaching. At first, they may not seem so profound, but when fleshed out you will see how essential they are, and when practiced in the labor of teacher preparation and the art of classroom teaching, how much they make the difference between a typical lesson and a memorable learning experience that will most likely impact learners.
Habit #1: Illumination...
In your lesson preparation, seek the revealed truth and seek to reveal truth!
Illumination as an attitudinal/action-oriented habit has two dimensions that need to be taken into consideration when preparing to teach. The first dimension is that of understanding illumination as that ministry of the Holy Spirit in helping the teacher and the learner in understanding the truth of the Bible. Being cognizant of this predominant work of the Spirit, it stands to reason that effective teacher preparation would seek the revealed truth. In doing so, ask three vital questions regarding the passage of Scripture you are teaching:
1.What does this passage say?
2.What does this passage mean for my life and the lives of my learners?
3.In what ways can I illuminate this passage for my learner’s understanding?
Teachers who would ‘seek truth’ throughout their preparation to teach need good tools for the process:
1. A good study Bible: There are many study Bibles on the market in just about any English translation you would prefer. Preferences regarding grammatical and theological perspectives of certain passages of Scripture are also offered. For ease in Bible study and lesson preparation, make sure that your Bible has an extensive cross-referencing system in both text and notes, and that you have an abbreviated Bible dictionary.
2. A good Bible Concordance: This allows you to understand word meaning from the starting point of its etymology, along with its route of usage throughout Scripture.
3. A good single-volume Bible Commentary: This allows for a brief overview of the entire structure of the book being taught, along with verse/paragraph interpretation and understanding.
A second dimension of Illumination is the act of the teacher shedding light on that which is to be taught. The teacher is to seek to reveal truth. The process of making information clear to the learner begins by asking how you acquire information yourself. You probably have come to understand that you learn most effectively when you are processing at first-hand levels or experiences. If you agree with that assessment, the question becomes: What can I do to get my learners to respond on first-hand levels or personal experiences? To most effectively reveal truth to your learners, you will need to move from teacher input to learner participation. Structured small group/large group activities provide for a maximum expression of logic, reason and analysis to take place among your learners. Appropriately inserted art, writing and drama activities are just a few ideas that open up vistas of creative expression that can heighten understanding and retention regarding the truth to be learned. Good teachers will illuminate learning by exercising their options to allow learners to learn some things on their own.
Habit #2: Incubation...
In your lesson preparation, sit on the revealed truth!
D. N. Perkins of Harvard Graduate School identifies the process of mental incubation: “Mental leaps depend on extended unconscious thinking. During the experience we call a mental leap, the results of that thinking suddenly become conscious.” (The Mind’s Best Work, 1981).
The Case of the Mysterious Bath Tub:
A humorous incident in the life of Archimedes, the ancient Roman mathematician illustrates the reality of what has been called the ‘eureka’ experience:
His ruler gave him the task of determining whether a crown did in fact have more silver than gold in it. In this third century B. C. society, Archimedes had no idea how to solve the problem. The crown, after all did look like gold. One day, as he was taking his bath, he realized that his body displaced a certain amount of water. In a flash he knew how to solve the problem. “Eureka!” he yelled. He would weigh the crown against equal weights of gold and silver and compare the amount of displacement when each was placed in water, and the suspicious ruler would have his answer.
My wife continually reminds me that I subscribe to our daily paper solely for the sake of working on a daily crossword puzzle. Though I may quickly peruse the major headlines and read an editorial or two, she is mostly correct. I find though (even though I may not sense a slowing of the mind) that if I attempt to work on the puzzle during the evening, there are more words that I am unable to answer. If I put it down and wait until the early hours of the morning (along with a fresh cup of coffee), when my mind is fresh and alert, I also experience a sense of ‘eureka.’ Words I wrestled with the night before are suddenly clear and I can finish off the puzzle (half of the time)…in no time. My guess is that in some type of scenario you have noticed this phenomenon also.
Making it a habit to have a ‘window’ of time to just ‘sit’ on the truth you wish to present may cultivate enhanced ideas to inject creativity into your class. Here are some steps to promote the effective use of incubation in lesson preparation and presentation:
Under the ‘umbrella’ of reading your lesson a week away…
1.Know what the curriculum suggests
2.Have a basic outline of the lesson in your mind
3.Know what Scriptures you need to study
4.Personalize and experience all of the above in your mind
5.Sit on it for a day
6.Incorporate new ideas into you lesson
Habit #3: Verification...
In your lesson preparation, slice through the revealed truth!
Simply put, verification is the ‘proof of truth’; the test for the sake of accuracy and understanding. We are not talking about the cultivation of an apologetic for everything we teach our learners. We are saying that we want to present our material in such a way that it is logically and reasonably understood by the learner to be true and valid.
Amazingly, our mind is made to process information in this way. Three dimensions of mental processing help us to understand why we can reasonably negotiate information given and then validate its truth, practicality and application:
1.Cognitive mental processing: This is the domain of thinking through and appropriately retaining the information and data related to the content being taught.
2.Affective mental processing: This is the domain of thinking through the body of information being given in terms of our feelings and emotions regarding the various facets of the information.
3.Psychomotor mental processing: This is the process of thinking through how information is effectively used or applied in various circumstances.
Now imagine all three of these dimensions of mental processing operating concurrently and in an integrated fashion all at the same time. This is indeed an amazing operating system our brain automatically shifts into in order to make sense of the environment in which it finds itself. Add to that the rating of urgency, priority, and ordering of ideas that the brain also performs during the processing of what is being presented and you have a pretty good idea of all the systems that are put in place to reasonably decipher truth and reality.
Without becoming overly technical here, it bears mentioning that the teacher who is aware of the ways learners process information (i.e., the content of the lesson), can recognize that they can set goals and ask questions that tap into each of the dimensions of the thinking/learning process. Within any given passage of Scripture to be taught, the teacher should ask three significant questions:
As a result of teaching this passage of Scripture,
1.What do I want my learners to know?
2.What do I want my learners to feel?
3.What do I want my learners to do?
These three dimensions help teachers to also frame questions for discussion and activities for learner retention. This way, the teacher is more adequately assuring that Bible truth is being covered, learned and retained by the learner because all three of the mental processing dimensions are being tapped.
For the sake of some personal practice, take a few moments and individually, or in small groups, read Matthew 28:18-20. Decide what learning outcomes you would want your learners to know, feel, and do as a result of understanding this passage. What type of questions would you design that tapped into each of these dimensions of the processing of this concept of the Great Commission?
Remember one last principle related to the idea of verifying the truth and reality of a passage being taught; there are many things you could teach your learners, but only a few things you should teach them. It is your responsibility to appropriately choose what your learners, given their stage of development, experience and opportunity should learn in their walk with God at the point when the truth learned would be most verifiable.
Habit #4: Elaboration...
In your lesson preparation, decide how you will design your learning experience so that your learners salivate over revealed truth!
There is nothing profound in stating that learning goals and objectives are most effectively reached when the learning experience has been thoughtfully prepared to be enjoyable for your learners. Desiring your learners to ‘feast’ on the Bible truth being presented is a goal unto itself that will increase learner participation and retention. Your responsibility as a teacher is to get your learners to think about and enjoyably participate in activities that will enhance their understanding of the truth under consideration. Though thinking and doing are indeed integrative in nature, and should be approached that way in the classroom, if we first get our learners to think, they will more likely desire to participate in activities that reinforce the truth being communicated.
So, when we talk about the habit of ‘elaboration’ for the purpose of lesson design, we are talking about both mental constructs (mental elaboration) that get your learners to think about the topic at hand, and learning activities that help bring the learning experience to the forefront for understanding and retention.
As in all effective teaching/learning techniques, the presentation of biblical truth begins at the point where the learner left off. New truth/information is built most effectively upon already known truth/information. The ‘elaboration’ of new information leads to new understanding. Your responsibility as a teacher is to cultivate the mental elaboration regarding new information and understanding that can go on in the mind of a learner. This happens most effectively in the verbal dialogue that goes on between yourself and your learners, particularly when you allow your learners to answer questions or solve problems regarding the biblical truth being communicated. By way of your questions and problems posed, you want your learners to process new information and arrive at a new level of understanding in relation to your learning goal for the lesson. The following charts highlight the kind of mental exercises that learners use to process both new information and understanding…and to which you can design your dialogue to lead your learners through the process of ‘salivating’ (feasting on) the truth:
Questions and problems posed to your learners that stimulate new informational skills and new understanding skills are now incorporated through this second phase of the ‘habit’; the learning activities you use to design your lesson. Designing your lesson can be as easy as ‘A, B, C:’
1.“Approach” to your lesson: What questions and comments will you use to introduce your topic at hand (i.e., the Bible lesson)? What activity/s will you use to incorporate this dialogue? This is a segment normally no longer than 10 minutes in length. Its significance lies in catching the learner’s attention and bringing focus to the biblical truth to be learned that day.
2.“Bible Exploration and Application:” This of course is the heart of your lesson. As a teacher, you are concerned with clearly communicating both what the Bible says and what the Bible means for life. What questions and problems will you filter through learning activities that help your learners to acquisition new biblical material and come to some understanding as to how it applies to life? Given a typical hour long lesson, this is between 30-40 minutes of your allotted time.
3.“Conclusion and Decision:” What questions/activities can you ask to help your learners decide how they can put the understood biblical truth into practice in their lives? All too often, this segment of the lesson design is neglected. When no conscious opportunity for personal application is given, learners walk away from the class and soon forget what they have just encountered. When this happens, we teachers indirectly communicate that biblical truth is knowledge separated from life. Though this segment of the lesson is also slotted for about 10 minutes, it becomes the most significant segment offering opportunity for personal growth to occur.
Practice incorporating learning activities in a typical Bible lesson: Assume that you are teaching from Philippians 2:1-11. The learning goals for this particular passage would be the following:
1.Summarize how Jesus modeled humility.
2.Identify how an attitude of humility will maintain unity between members of the Body of Christ.
-Design an “Approach” activity/dialogue that would creatively introduce this lesson.
-Design one or two Bible exploration/application activities/dialogue that would help the learners to explore this passage in light of the above mentioned goals.
-Design an activity/dialogue segment that would challenge learners to put the truth/s of this passage into practice in their own lives sometime this week.
To facilitate your lesson design, remember the second dimension of Habit #1: Illumination. In “seeking to reveal truth,” remember the utilization of:
•Small group/large group activities
Your curriculum and your creativity ought to be vital resources in the ‘elaboration’ (lesson design) process.
Habit #5: Preparation...
The process of seeking, sitting, slicing, and salivating revealed truth in an orderly fashion over an appropriately allotted amount of time so that your teaching is effective in helping learners acquire the biblical knowledge and understanding necessary to live lives pleasing to God.
Several years ago a brief television ad sponsored by the ad counsel for public awareness would run a ten second commercial right at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights: “It’s 10 o’clock Saturday night. Do you know where your teenager is?” I have humorously chuckled at the kind of responses I have gotten as I have asked this question in training sessions: “It’s 10 o’clock Saturday night. Do you know where your Teacher’s Manual is?” Perhaps it’s not that late, but we are all aware of the time squeeze for good lesson planning due to the everyday busyness of ‘plowing’ through the week. Suddenly, it is late in the week…there were Saturday morning and afternoon chores that had to be done because of work Monday through Friday. Meals to prepare, homework to monitor, meetings to attend…pretty soon, we begin to resent the extra time it takes to put together a Bible lesson for Sunday. We firmly say to ourselves: “When the Sunday School Superintendent comes down the hall to recruit me for next year, I’m just going to hide in the corridor!” In this day and age in which we live, it is difficult to juggle all the hats we wear at home, work, and in the church.
As a former Pastor of Educational Ministries, I became concerned with the large amount of turn-over I saw each year. Even though I knew people needed a rest (and so they would take a year off), I knew of others who had initially sensed God’s calling for them to be involved in the Bible teaching ministry of the church who were quitting out of frustration in just not having the time to give to everything with which they were involved. Upon that experience, I developed the following weekly agenda for lesson preparation that would help already busy people become effective in their Bible teaching preparation and presentation. There is nothing overly profound about each stage of preparation, but I am willing to wager that if an individual commits themselves to following the process, the preparation of each lesson will be done in a more relaxed manner and actually become an enjoyable routine in the week.
In a sense, the other four habits that we have spoken about are indeed a part of the preparatory process. Committing to a habit of following an agenda for this process only provides opportunity for ‘seeking, sitting, slicing, and salivating’ in a more effective way. The process helps to maximize your effectiveness in classroom presentation. Listed are a couple of preliminaries to take into consideration before we look at the weekly agenda:
•Have a special, semi-private place to keep your teaching materials. I say ‘semi-private’ because it’s tough to find a place away from the chatter and din of everyday life so that you can concentrate on almost anything, let alone your Bible lesson preparation! But, if you have that special chair by the window in the corner of your bedroom, or den…that spot where the kids (and even your spouse) know that it is reserved especially for you, that’s the place to put a magazine rack, or basket, or tote bag that holds your Bible, teacher’s manual, and a few other supplies you regularly use to prepare your lesson. Keeping everything together saves a lot of time spent gathering all your materials for lesson preparation…seeking for materials is NOT the same as seeking revealed truth!
•Strive to have a regularly scheduled time period each day to do your preparation. I understand that with the erratic kind of schedules we live that this particular preliminary habit may be a little more difficult to carry out. Yet, with a little discipline for regularity in preparing each day of the week, we will begin to like the results of not feeling rushed in slapping a lesson together at the last minute.
A Weekly Agenda for Lesson Preparation:
•Monday: Incidentally, this is the Monday BEFORE you teach…not after! Open your Quarterly, or Teacher’s Manual (if you are using one) and read just the Information page for the lesson you will be teaching. This page, in relation to many companies that write Bible lesson material, is usually the page that contains the specifics about that week’s particular lesson…title, Bible passages or references to be used, aims (goals or objectives) for the lesson, an overview of the lesson plan, and many times a teacher devotional. Go no further than this page and concentrate particularly on the teacher devotional. Work it through in your own mind and heart. Let God speak to you through it. If the truth of this lesson convicts you, deal with it today so that you can go on and prepare and teach with integrity. If you are blessed by what you ponder, praise God for it! This kind of zeal will inevitably shine through your teaching. Fifteen or twenty minutes should frame out this exercise…and that’s it…you are through for Monday!
•Tuesday: Believe it or not, keep your Quarterly or Teacher’s Manual closed for today. But, open your Bible to the designated passage or references to be used for this lesson. Today is an opportunity for you to do a little personal Bible study. Too many times teachers neglect to study the passage they are to teach for themselves. They may feel that it is such a familiar passage that there really isn’t any need to do so (children’s Bible teachers may particularly feel this way). But, doing a brief inductive analysis of the passage (asking “who, what, where, when, and why” questions), or praying through the principles that make up this passage of Scripture open up new vistas that help you as a teacher not only to know what the passage says, but what it means for your life. What you want to happen in the lives of your learners begins with you. There may be (particularly if you are teaching youth and adult classes) times when you may need to do a little commentary or atlas reading to orient yourself to the customs or locations of events that took place, and would become contributory to the overall learning experience. But, remember to discipline yourself not to become too bogged down with details that you get so drastically off schedule that your lessons will appear to be slapped together with no real goal in mind. A wise Bible teacher once said: “A teacher hasn’t taught unless they have learned themselves.” Twenty minutes max for this segment of the agenda…end in prayer and you are finished for Tuesday!
•Wednesday: Today you open your Quarterly or Teacher’s Manual and read through the entire lesson; the commentary or story contents, every suggested learning activity, and every challenge that is offered for your learners. Go through your lesson a second time and select the best activity for how you will approach your lesson, what you will use to facilitate your Bible exploration, and what conclusion and decision best challenges your learners (remember Habit #4). By the time you come to the middle of the week, you have already personally studied the Scripture passage and have developed an outline for your entire lesson. Fifteen or twenty minutes for this segment means that you have spent an hour fully structuring your lesson. Now you still have plenty of time to do the things which make the lesson come alive!
•Thursday: Today provides for you an opportunity to put all of your ‘soft-ware’ materials together. If you teach children, this includes visuals or manipulatives you may be using for your story time or table activity. Making sure these things are available today sure beats running to the supply closet on Sunday, needing 15 paper plates, only to find 3 left in the package! If you teach youth or adult classes and you need copies of discovery sheets or lesson outlines made for your class, this is the day to get them over to the office (or run them off yourself). Taking fifteen or twenty minutes to make sure that you have all of your teaching aids together before Sunday morning is just another practical stress reducer…and confidence booster for you.
•Friday: If possible, today is a day you can go over and do any special room arrangement, or take over any materials that would be difficult to get through the crowd on Sunday. I am aware of the fact that making any changes in room arrangement before Sunday morning may be impossible because of the large amount of multiple usages given over to classrooms in churches. If that is the case, make sure you add a few extra minutes for preparation onto your Sunday arrival. But, if you have the luxury of designing and formatting your room beforehand, do so. The time saved on Sunday morning gives you more time to focus on the learners arriving at class.
•Saturday: ‘Walk’ through your lesson one or two times more until you feel comfortable in the presentation and the transitions from one activity to the next. This is also a great time to pray through your class roster. Besides parents, you probably know the kids you teach better than any other adult in the church for this year. Allow your presentation of the lesson to fit and meet the needs you know your learners may have. Without singling out specific people, format questions and discussions that you know interface the lives your learners are experiencing. Put all of your supplies and materials together and place them where all you need to do is pick them up to take with you tomorrow morning. This avoids searching for certain things during the Sunday morning rush. By the time we’ve arrived at Saturday, you have clocked in almost two hours of lesson preparation…well before any panic time! Everything is ready for Sunday…but, that may be the biggest challenge!
•Sunday: Are you ready? Here’s the biggest challenge…ARRIVE 15 MINUTES EARLY! Having followed in some respect the week’s agenda has helped you to avoid a Sunday morning rush and stress when you finally hit the classroom. An early arrival time will give you a few minutes to lay your supplies out, organize your thoughts, and do the most important thing now….focus on greeting your learners and making them feel welcomed to your class. The class
•really doesn’t start when a bell rings, it starts when the first learner walks in the room. The way they are received by you may make all the difference in the world regarding their attitude and participation. The warm welcome given to a young child relieves fear on their part; the greeting given to an older child or youth may communicate that they belong here…they are part of a team. The greeting and handshakes given to adults (along with a cup of coffee or tea) says they are welcomed and have something to contribute to this class. Taking the time before the lesson to provide this kind of fellowship communicates that this is a good place to be, a place to learn of God and the fellowship I can have with Him and his people. Fifteen minutes here may be the most important fifteen minutes of your lesson preparation!
The challenge of creating good habits…
I’ve always wondered why bad habits come so naturally and good habits demand the challenge of constant practice. Of course the answer may certainly have something to do with the sinful nature of man. When it comes to practicing these five ‘highly effective,’ attitudinal/action-oriented habits, expect to enter into a regimen of practice. It takes discipline to overcome distractions that can keep us focused on lesson study. It also takes discipline to keep to some sort of consistent appointed time to prepare our lessons. Some educators have suggested it may take up to sixty repetitive cycles of an activity for it to be declared a habit (that’s more times than there are Sundays in a year)! But, this wise adage is also true: “anything worth doing is worth doing well.” Your effort, along with God’s strength in exercising these habits week after week, will pay big dividends in the quality of your teaching. Their facilitation will also provide confidence for you to improve other teaching skills to add to your repertoire of highly effective habits.
The habits are innately important…because your role as a teacher in the Bible teaching ministry of your church is important! You play a part in cultivating the Spiritual change God wants to see happen in the lives of His people. Let the prayer of the Psalmist be your prayer also:
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.