Reaching for a Higher Level
October 2002

“Reaching for a Higher Level,” Ensign, Oct. 2002, 65–67

Reaching for a Higher Level

By any statistical measures evident to President Lloyd Baird, the Cambridge Massachusetts Stake was a high-performance stake. Yet he sensed a need to raise members to a higher spiritual level.

But how to do it?

Well-planned talks in stake conference would help, but their effect could be temporary and the talks would not focus on individuals. As President Baird thought about it, there seemed to be two more effective ways for members of the stake presidency to touch individual lives. One would be through temple recommend interviews, but those interviews are only once-a-year opportunities. The other way would be to improve teaching in the stake—and that could have a year-round, long-term effect.

So the stake presidency began a top-down effort to emphasize the importance of teaching. A high councilor was assigned as stake teacher improvement coordinator, with that as his only assignment. In all their stake leadership meetings, the presidency began to emphasize that to be a leader is to be a teacher and that teachers can help lift others to a higher level.

There are measures—nonstatistical ones—that indicate this emphasis is having an effect.

Members feel it. Michael and Melanie Marcheschi of the Belmont Second Ward say there has been a definite increase in members’ focus on spiritual things over the past two years or so. The dedication of the Boston Massachusetts Temple has contributed to that progress. But so, too, has the stake presidency’s emphasis on gospel teaching and learning. In family home evening, for example, the Marcheschis’ three oldest daughters—9, 7, and 5—knowledgeably discuss the story of Abraham and how the sacrifice of his son Isaac would have been like the Savior’s. It is evident that the girls have had careful teaching, both in the home and in Primary.

Stake Primary president Sofía Flynn feels keenly the responsibility for the teaching the children receive in their meetings on Sunday. The membership of the stake is very diverse—from blue-collar families to homes headed by business leaders or teachers from some of the most prestigious universities in the United States. But it is Sister Flynn’s goal to see that children from each of these homes receive high-quality teaching on Sunday to supplement and reinforce what they learn about the gospel at home, and stake leaders respond to every invitation to help at the ward or branch level. A member of the Somerville First (Spanish) Branch, Sister Flynn is fluent in her native Spanish and in Portuguese and English. Her counselors assist in the stake’s 11 English-speaking units, while Sister Flynn responds to the stake’s one Portuguese and three Spanish-speaking units.

“It is important for everyone to know that teaching is the most important calling in the Church,” she says. “It is important to teach these children. They are the future of the Church.”

Sometimes sisters from other units are assigned to help in units where teaching needs to be strengthened. But the Primary presidency invests considerable time and effort in building teachers in each unit. “What I want them to know,” Sister Flynn says, “is how to get the Spirit to teach.”

It is important as well to help many of them learn teaching techniques. So how does she accomplish both objectives?

“I use my wonderful tool.” She holds up her well-used copy of Teaching: No Greater Call. “I love this book.”

So do some of the members of the stake’s Arlington Ward who have been studying from the book as they take the Teaching the Gospel course. What they are getting from Teaching: No Greater Call and from the course has changed their way of thinking about teaching.

“I’ve realized there’s more than one way to teach,” says Paula Christiansen, an instructor in the Relief Society. She has become more conscious of her responsibility to draw in all the sisters—married and single, those with priesthood in the home and those without. She has become more aware of teaching methods taught in the manual and in other Church materials—an article in the Ensign, for example, on effective use of questions in teaching (see “Asking Questions First,” Ensign, Jan. 2002, 23). She has found it beneficial to use techniques like discussion groups “that help everybody feel like they have a stake in the lesson.”

Amy Kroff, a counselor in her ward’s Young Women presidency, says the course and the manual have helped her understand her responsibility to prepare better as a teacher. This, she explains, invites the Holy Ghost to testify of what she is teaching. She has benefited from considering more carefully the needs of the age group she teaches and from learning new methods. “It’s good to have a broader tool kit to choose from.”

Her husband, Paul, a counselor in the elders quorum presidency, is trying to apply in two ways what he has learned in the Teaching the Gospel course. First, he is trying to pass some of it on to home teachers as he works with them. Second, he is trying to share some of what he has learned with the presidency and to influence teaching in quorum meetings. Discussions in the quorum have definitely improved, he says, as efforts have been made to draw in all the elders.

The students in the Cambridge University Second Ward’s Teaching the Gospel course seem eager to embrace teacher improvement. Enrolled at nearby institutions such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, or the Berklee College of Music, they have been subjected continually, for a major portion of their lives, to instruction of almost every kind and quality. Some plan to be teachers themselves. They have a keen interest in improving teaching.

They listen attentively as Tom DeLong, a counselor in the bishopric and a faculty member in Harvard’s school of business, talks about teaching the individual and about creating a safe environment in the classroom where everyone can feel welcome to participate. He points out that the effect of good teaching in the Church can be multiplied as we all learn our responsibility and become more effective at sharing gospel truths with each other.

The Cambridge stake seems to have a wealth of educated, accomplished leaders and members who are high achievers. It might be logical to assume that teacher improvement comes easily here because of members like these—but that assumption would be wrong. Good teachers in this stake, as in any other, demonstrate that improvement in gospel teaching depends on the love and care they put into their preparation, not on any titles after their names.

Leon de la Cruz, a native of the Dominican Republic, joined the Church in New York City in 1978 and later moved to Boston. He spends his days working in construction, but his evenings during the week are devoted in part to preparing for his Gospel Doctrine lesson in the Revere First Ward on Sunday.

Early in the week, he reads through the Sunday School lesson. He may call particular class members if he knows there are points in the lesson with which they could help or if he wants to learn how better to draw them into Sunday’s class discussion. On Friday night, he reviews the scriptures in the lesson and fixes its theme in his mind. Then on Sunday morning he gets up at 4:00 A.M. to study the lesson once more, making final preparations and bringing everything together.

While everyday communication in English is no particular stumbling block for Brother de la Cruz, in Spanish he becomes almost lyrical as he leads class members through the scriptures and the lesson. He draws out their own conclusions about its point: just as Noah saved his family by following the Lord’s direction, we find spiritual safety for ourselves and our families through obedience.

For anyone who undertook it without laying the spiritual groundwork, preparing and teaching this Sunday lesson might be no less a labor than the construction work that occupies Brother de la Cruz’s weekdays. But for him it never seems like work. It feeds his soul. “It is like a medicine I need—I take it for myself.”

Inset photography by Don Searle and Rebecca Taylor

Top left: Steve Tolman, American Falls (Idaho) Third Ward, instructs the teachers quorum. Above: Students in Brother Tolman’s class turn to the scriptures often. Far left: Home evening with the Michael and Melanie Marcheschi family, Belmont, Massachusetts.

Above: Leon de la Cruz teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in the Revere First Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake. Below: Teacher Emily Hawkins, foreground, and Teaching the Gospel class members, Cambridge (Massachusetts) University Second Ward, hear instruction from stake leaders.

The Teaching the Gospel class helped both Paul and Amy Kroff, Arlington Ward, Cambridge Massachusetts Stake, in their respective priesthood and Young Women callings.

Above: Sofía Flynn, Cambridge (Massachusetts) stake Primary president, with some of the children she loves. Far right: Michael Crockett, Teaching the Gospel instructor, American Falls (Idaho) Third Ward.