Here's the general principles I follow as I'm preparing my lesson plan:
1. A good Relief Society lesson is one that is centered around having a thoughtful discussion. There needs to be a good balance between the material from the lesson manual, the teacher's unique insights, and comments from the sisters. But of those three elements, the comments from the sisters are the most important. For that reason, I believe my role as a Relief Society teacher is to be the facilitator of a good discussion. My job is to come up with open-ended, thought-provoking questions that will encourage the sisters to share their perspectives and personal experiences. I let the sisters teach the lesson for me. I intentionally plan to let the sisters their own insights for 1/3 or even 1/2 of the lesson. (FYI, I usually pull 3 quotes from the manual to use in my lesson.)
2. Every sister needs to feel validated. When I give out quotes for sisters to read, I write down who I gave it to and call on them by name when it's time to read. Not only does it help to avoid the confusion that occurs when someone forgets that they were assigned a quote, but it lets them know that you know their name. Also, when sisters are sharing a comment, I make sure I listen to them with full eye-contact the entire time. When their comment is done, I respond to what they have said by building on what they have said, talking about why I think their comment is good or responding to it in some way.
3. Good teachers are good readers/thinkers. You need to identify the "thesis" of the lesson (either from the manual itself or from your own studies into the topic) or some other organizing principle or objective for your lesson. Once you can see what the thesis is, it's then helpful to identify the supporting ideas in the lesson's "argument." Another way to rephrase that would be that you need to identify the most important ideas from the lesson. Then center your lesson around those key concepts, brainstorming the best possible ways to communicate those concepts and/or have a discussion about them. Usually, I make a concerted effort to make one of the concepts connect to Christ or the Atonement in some way (and I usually save that concept for the end of the lesson). It's an interesting intellectual challenge to connect the lessons to the Atonement and I find that any concepts that can connect to Christ usually turn into the biggest "wins" for the lesson---meaning that I can see that this section has had a noticeable impact on the sisters.
4. Incorporate quotes or stories from women. I used to strongly value sticking to the doctrine in the manual, meaning that I would discipline myself to stick to the manual for the bulk of the lesson. If I went outside of the confines of the lesson manual, I would restrict myself only to quotes by General Authorities or the standard works. I have very recently decided to soften that self-imposed restriction because I've realized that it reinforces patriarchal power structures. Because the majority of the General Authorities are male and because the scriptures are written from a male-centric point of view, it marginalizes female voices and perspectives. I'm planning on rectifying that in the future by including at least one quote or story from a woman in every lesson.
5. End the lesson on time. When you end a lesson late, you are forcing a woman's entire family to wait for her in the hall. I have a goal to always end 5 minutes before the hour. In order to make that happen, I build flexibility into my lesson. I plan for things I will cover if I have extra time and I plan for things I will cut out if I don't have the time.
6. A few cautions:
- Never begin the lesson with a self-deprecating remark (like talking about how you dreaded teaching today or how you're a bad teacher). It makes your audience lose respect for you.
- Never incorporate group work into the lesson. Although group work is really effective in other educational settings (I use it constantly in secular teaching environments), it's usually the opposite in church. I have some vague theories about why it's ineffective (e.g. I imagine it may have something to do with the hierarchical structure of the church government and church meetings), but at the end of the day I just know it doesn't work.
- Avoid controversy. It's a sad commentary on gender training, but if I were teaching Elder's Quorum, I wouldn't shy away from controversial questions or ideas as much as I do when I teach Relief Society. I just get the sense that women would rather have feel-good lessons that get those warm, fuzzy spiritual feelings going. They'd rather have a lesson that confirms and validates their preconceived beliefs about the gospel rather than lessons that challenge them or cause them to see things in a different light. I just get the feeling they find controversy far more threatening than men do. So I just don't go there. (Even though it would be cool.)
- I don't ever end my lessons with a testimony any more because it just feels disingenuous. So, I try to make one last point or read a quote by a General Authority or something as a kind of conclusion.