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Teaching Remotely in a Pandemic: What Ward and Branch Teachers Can Learn from the Missionaries

Teaching Remotely in a Pandemic: What Ward and Branch Teachers Can Learn from the Missionaries

This article originally appeared on Meridian Magazine and is shared here with permission.

The kids were on the couch, but the parents were busy cleaning up the kitchen when the missionaries connected through Facetime video for the scheduled second discussion. While waiting, one of the missionaries began talking to the kids. Not just small talk, but heart-felt questions about school, friends, and homework.

When the parents arrived, he didn’t just dive right into the lesson. The father grumbled about not seeing his boss in person for several weeks since he started working remotely and wondered aloud what that meant while the mother said she worried about the time the kids were spending in front of the television or playing video games during the pandemic.

Even though his companion shifted nervously in his chair, he didn’t rush the conversation but instead asked even more questions and leaned into the camera to listen as intently as possible. When they had discussed something personal with each family member,  they started the remote missionary discussion with a prayer.

This Elder is not the enthusiastic, high energy dynamo that in-person might hold an audience spellbound, but he is a master at teaching remotely. He wouldn’t call what he does before starting a lesson “building rapport,” he’d just do what he always does: ask a few pertinent family background related questions and connect first, then plunge into the lesson afterwards.

Teaching remotely –even more than in person–exemplifies the old adage: “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He cares. It’s obvious.

Many missionaries along with local ward and branch leaders and teachers have difficulty adjusting to online or remote teaching. They say they can’t feel the Spirit while teaching “through a box.” They want to read body language and get unspoken feedback while observing things at close hand. They want to look around and notice what else is going on and minimize distractions. They want to pull others along with them by looking easily into their eyes. They want face-to-face time not FaceTime.

But research and experience suggest other factors matter far more in teaching and learning than proximity. After all, we all find General Conference interesting and inspirational yet few of us actually attend it in-person. Instead, we learn and feel the Spirit through the television or Internet. For the past three Conferences, no one has attended a live session so we are all getting inspired and taught through an electronic device!  

Missionaries and other gospel teachers can sometimes see technology as a hindrance rather than an aid in reaching friends or other learners. In reality, electronic devices are useful tools that can be used to connect, support, and instruct. Even telephones (and perhaps even mobile phones) were once seen as barriers to communication rather than facilitators for it, but almost no one thinks that way today. The medium is not the message.

How we choose to use current electronic devices, apps, and available technology not only increases our ability to connect better with each other–including teachers and learners, missionaries and contacts–but also allows us to stay up with the times. We drive cars and trucks to work or to the store, rather than horses and buggies. 

Still, some missionaries are uncomfortable not being able to be present in the same room with the people they are teaching. They feel like they are talking to a computer screen or phone rather than the people they are actually teaching. They worry their contacts may feel the same way. In a major study comparing in-person to online learning, “instructor presence” did in fact matter; but in a way that startled the researchers. Being able to see and hear the instructors in person actually mattered much less than two other distinct factors:

  • a sense that the instructors were genuinely interested in the students
  • the clarity of instructors explanations and expectations

Instructor interest was shown most often, students said, by what they did outside the classroom or home setting, not when they were all physically together. It was personal follow up and contact beyond the “teaching experience” that conveyed personal interest far more than any other factor. 

But there was another factor that depended a lot on what the instructor did while teaching. Concise explanations and clear expectations matter far more when teaching online than in-person. Like contact outside the classroom,  the instructors’ personal organization as well as getting to the point and checking for understanding was a critical aspect of online teaching the researchers found. No other factors mattered nearly as much as these two aspects of online teaching. 

Deal With Your Own Discomfort

While many missionaries have acquired “electronic dexterity” prior to their missions, it is rarely from talking into a camera. In a world of Twitter and texting, they are more used to short digital phrases than thorough gospel explanations. But like learning any other skills, with practice and by watching others this valuable skill can also be learned. It starts with overcoming any aversions and uncertainties. 

Learning a new skill may require unlearning an old one. That can be hard. Remote teaching is not the same as in-person classroom teaching. It takes a new skill set and starts with dealing what for many people is their own discomfort.

One missionary, frustrated with the confinement and isolation required by local regulations and mission requirements called his mother telling her that he did not sign up to use Facebook Video, Google Hangouts, and WhatsApp. He wanted to “go about serving people instead.” He was so uncomfortable with the virtual tools that he was ready to go home. Instead, his mother urged him to see learning how to use these tools in the same way that he might learn a new language. 

Learning a new language can be enormously frustrating. At first, it seems like everyone else knows how to speak it and that you’ll never get it. That frustration can either accelerate learning or destroy it. Dealing with your own discomfort isn’t easy. It starts with acknowledging it. Once labeled, it can then be better addressed. Failing to label it,  keeps it undefined and unresolved.

Almost everything that is easy for us now was once hard. The biggest factor in getting something to go from hard to easy is to turn it into a formula and make it routine. Then the more you do it, the easier it becomes. There’s less uncertainty because you better know what you are doing. But it all starts with acknowledging your own discomfort, owning up to it, and then deciding to do something about it. 

The Church has created some simple, straightforward suggestions on “Ideas for Virtual Learning and Teaching” that are both relevant and timely. Taking advantage of all that is available has always been the hallmark of the Church. These basic suggestions can be reviewed by CLICKING HERE.

Make It Very Personal

Too often missionaries and other teachers want to “get on with the lesson” before re- connecting when first getting together online or in person. They see “small talk” as extraneous and unnecessary. Indeed, it is. Research shows most people eschew small talk. But people do want to reconnect before moving into a lesson or discussion. They want something more than small talk. They want pertinent discussion starters. They need an “onboarding transition.”

How do you do that? Instead of sticking to the type of small talk questions that produce only one line answers, ask for background stories instead.  For instance, notice the difference between: 

“How was your week?” and “What did you do this week that was fun? Something you really liked doing?”

The first approach gets a predictable short reply and does nothing to revive your online relationship. The second question lets the other person tell a story, is intimate without being invasive, and loops you and others listening in as confidantes. It is very personal and enables you to build or deepen your relationships with each other. Both are open-ended questions but the second question sets a very different tone with just a simple twist.

Related to the type of questions you ask when getting started is the amount of personal information you disclose. While giving out too much information (TMI) can be overdone, sharing some of who you are builds trust. Let others get glimpses of you by talking about your own week, especially if there are common experiences like wearing masks during the pandemic that others can relate to easily.

The goal is not just to talk about yourself, but to soften the stiffness that can occur in virtual settings and turn what could otherwise be just another  two dimensional discussion into a richer, fellowshipping experience. 

Because we are so used to teaching face-to-face and in-person, some people may feel that is the only way to teach and to learn. In the past, there were no real alternatives to in-person class teaching. But as technology has improved, so has our ability to use it to connect.

It takes time to develop a real relationship with others whether in-person or virtually. While such recent uses of technology as online dating and teletherapy may not work for everyone, their success shows that real emotional connections and lasting relationships can be developed virtually as well as in face to face encounters. 

Have Concise Explanations and Clear Expectations

Because everything is so new to non-members, missionaries need to give concise explanations and clear expectations. This is even more important in the virtual world than teaching in-person. For some reason, people are much more averse to asking clarifying questions online than they are face-to-face.

Missionaries who get used to picking up on these cues and “unpacking” new concepts are more easily understood. Other gospel classroom instructors benefit in the same way. Concise explanations and clear instructions are useful for any online teacher. 

Sometimes missionaries avoid talking about difficult subjects and can gloss over key gospel principles. At the 2013 Mission Presidents Seminar, more than one speaker expressed a concern about missionaries who avoid talking about the apostasy because they were uncomfortable saying that other churches are wrong.

Of course, what the Savior to the young Joseph in the Sacred Grove is “their creeds are an abomination” in His sight, which is not the same as saying that everything about other churches is wrong. Getting the message right makes teaching it much easier. 

Explanations for concepts like the apostasy benefit greatly from examples. For instance, it is very easy to explain the apostasy by describing the nature of the Godhead. We differ from most of Christianity in our belief that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three distinct personages.

While this view was common knowledge during New Testament times and into the First century of the early Christian church, over time a different belief emerged about a Triune Godhead. This deviation or apostasy form original teachings by the Savior can be used to describe the apostasy in a very clear and concise way. 

In a survey of gospel instructors, many advised giving assignments in advance to minimize “the same 5 people ” taking over much of the discussion. Asking class members or nonmember teaching contacts to look up scriptures in advance not only promotes discussions, but also allows for deeper reflection.  New or more controversial subjects are easier discussed this way since they stem from self-directed learning assignments which  allow the learner to be more in control of the ensuing dialogue.

Asking if a concept or principle is clear is different than discerning if it is understood by others and then following up by asking others to share what seemed most relevant to them from a scriptural discussion. Notice the difference between:

“Do you get what I’m saying?” and “Can you tell me what’s the most interesting part to you of…” (the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the Word of Wisdom, etc). 

Checking for understanding in this way not only lets you see what’s been understood, but let’s others relay their own thoughts about a principle or concept. It let’s them teach you and others what they’ve learned. You don’t get much better than that!

Give Them Something To Do

A major concern in online teaching is people feeling isolated. We go to Church for fellowship as much as for instruction. A natural question in online classes or learning experiences is “Does anyone feel the same way that I do about ____?”  When  Church meetings are held on Zoom, others can seem as remote as the instruction itself.  

Extending invitations and asking for replies prior to a next scheduled meeting can cut through this sense of isolation and make individual follow up more natural and normal and less like homework.Posting replies for others to see (without using names) can further build a sense of camaraderie and a feeling that we are “united together.” Doing something together does more to promote unity than simply talking about unity.  

Beyond interaction, people want to learn new things and have effective ways of dealing with challenges in their day-to-day lives during gospel discussions whether online or in-person. Remote teaching can enable such personal development and reduce isolation by linking people to online resources produced by the Church. 

Using “I Am A Mormon” and other online  resources, people can see others just like themselves dealing with similar problems or challenges which they may have and how others are making progress dealing with them through gospel principles and teachings. Using these online media resources, missionaries can go beyond making assignments and discuss them together, offer counsel and extend invitations to apply new gospel learnings in their lives.

Let The Spirit Teach

For years the Church has broadcast General Conference, Face-to-Face devotionals, and other meetings through the airways and the Internet which have instructed and inspired us all. But like any visual aid, interactive method, or missionary approach, the real teacher is the Holy Ghost. Elder David A. Bednar often counsels missionaries and teachers to bring people to the point where they will be receptive to the Holy Ghost and then “get out of the way.”

Elder Kim B. Clark, speaking to BYU-Pathways students who study and learn online,  offered suggestions on getting to the point where the Holy Ghost can influence and sustain us. Here’s a summary of his suggestions:

  1. Ask the people you teach to pray about how to learn virtually. Ask Heavenly Father to teach you what you need to know and enable the Spirit to bear witness at key points about gospel principles.
  2. Ask your contacts to act on those impressions and to give insights and assignments form the Lord.
  3. Write down the experiences and impressions they receive so they can refer to them often.

The effectiveness of online teaching and the power of the Spirit even when using technology can be seen through virtual at-home MTCs in March, 2020 when the pandemic required the temporary closure of the 10 Church-supported MTCs. 

Many wondered how effective home-based MTCs would be. But those who have attended a home-based, virtual MTC and their instructors both affirm the Holy Ghost is present in online classes just as it was during in-person training at the Church-supported MTCs. 

Sister Hannah Hargrave, one of the first at-home MTC-trained missionaries reported that “ The lessons and devotionals I’ve had this last week have been some of the most spiritual things I’ve ever experienced,” she wrote. “There truly is power in doing the Lord’s work. I was worried at first that I would miss out on feeling the Spirit as strong as I would if I were at the actual MTC, but I truly believe it is the same.”

Some MTC instructors initially anticipated concerns when moving to online training, but the transition has gone well and they also note the power of the Holy Ghost to be present during online teaching and practice sessions: Kimber Young, an MTC instructor said “The discussions we have are filled with the Spirit, and it seems like the missionaries feel even more comfortable expressing themselves over the medium of technology” compared to the standard  in-person MTC training.

Summary

There are differences between in-person and online teaching. There are distinct advantages and some disadvantages to each method. Missionaries and members who spend time assessing what works best will be able to take advantage of the benefits and minimize the obstacles for each type of teaching and learning method. 

Missionaries may need to help investigators overcome their hesitancy to learn online. It may take practice and feedback to learn while doing. But with engaged teaching methods, increased personal contact, texts and notes in between lessons, and prayerful supplication to the Lord to consecrate their efforts, missionaries will be able to invite the Spirit to teach investigators who are truly seeking answers to their own prayers. As missionaries teach and testify the Holy Ghost will confirm their witness online just as he will in person. 

About the Author

Norman Hill is a former mission president and author of a ground-breaking new book called What They Don’t Teach You At the MTC which should be included in every Mission Prep class and on the bookshelf of every family with potential missionaries. You can read more about his unique insights and can get his book by CLICKING HERE.

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