Seven Laws Every Teacher Should Obey
By Jeff Cockrell
John Milton Gregory is an important American educator you should know. He was born at Sand Lake, New York, July 6, 1822. He became a schoolteacher at age 17, and in 1852, he became head of a classical school in Detroit, Michigan. Almost immediately, he was recognized as a leader. In 1858, he was elected to the Michigan state superintendency of public instruction. Then, in 1864, he became president of Kalamazoo College. When the University of Illinois was established in 1868, he was asked to organize the educational structure and served as its president for the next 62 years.
Yet, one of Gregory’s most important contributions to education is the little book The Seven Laws of Teaching, first published in 1884.* The short book lists the important factors governing the art of teaching. For many years it was used as a handbook for Sunday School teachers. Dr. Gregory said teaching has natural laws just like other laws in the universe. As these laws are observed, positive results are achieved. These are important laws for every teacher to obey, from church classroom to school classroom.
Law 1: The Law of the Teacher. A fundamental truth often ignored is that the teacher must know the lesson to effectively communicate to others. You cannot teach what you do not know. Often, one of the best ways to gauge your understanding of the subject, or to organize your thoughts, is to write out the lesson. This will help clarify your thoughts and identify any areas of deficiency. Another method? Talk the lesson over with a friend. Clearly understanding and communicating the material helps the teacher have enthusiasm for the lesson. Thus, he can more easily inspire students.
Law 2: The Law of the Learner. The teacher must never begin the lesson until the student is listening. This law is about the importance of gaining the attention of the student. Observe the faces of the class to be sure all are mentally present, not just bodily. A teacher should evaluate the “nature” of the class. In other words, recognize the ages of the students and any teaching goals. Then, adapt the length and content of the class to the ages of the students.
Remember to teach using multiple senses. The power of attention increases with mental development. Dr. Gregory says, “Each sense-organ is a gateway to the mind.” The preacher uses a gesturing hand, a smiling or passionate look, and a many-toned voice. A teacher has the power to vary the use of body language—face, voice, and hand. A picture, some other illustrative material, or the sudden raising or lowering of the voice arouses fresh attention. Genuine interest may be developed by relating the lesson to the life of the learner. Eliminate distractions. Distraction is the division of the attention
Law 3: The Law of the Language. The teacher must communicate clearly if the student is to grasp the material. Thus, the language used to teach must be common to teacher and learner. The teacher should try to understand the degree of the student’s understanding and take care to use words that will communicate the information most effectively. This means using words the student understands. Dr. Gregory notes: “No teaching was ever more clear and instructive than the parables of Jesus, drawn from nature around him.”
Just as Jesus understood the world and lifestyle of those in the crowds who followed Him, a teacher should think about the world of the student. Pause and allow the student to respond. This gives students the opportunity to express their thoughts and allows the teacher to gauge the student’s comprehension of the material and make necessary corrections.
Law 4: The Law of the Lesson. Connect the old with the new and break the lesson into easily understood steps. Teachers will make little progress if they fail to observe this law. First, use what the student knows (the old) to explain what they do not know (the new). Illustrative speech—similes, metaphors, and allegories—can be used to relate new truths to the old. Help students find illustrations from their own lives. Use real-life problems and scenarios to demonstrate how the new information relates to life. Connect the old with the new by using common illustrations relating to the student.
Take care that the student has mastered each step or fact before moving on to the next. Here, you want to link facts together. This means bringing new elements of knowledge into relation with the truths the student already knows. Sometimes this might come as baby steps.
Law 5: The Law of the Teaching Process. Teaching is more than just giving out information. It is about teaching students how to learn. Dr. Gregory advises, “True teaching, then, is not that which gives knowledge, but that which stimulates pupils to gain it. One might say that he teaches best who teaches least; or that he teaches best whose pupils learn most without being taught directly.”
By making learning an exciting adventure, the student becomes a searcher with you. Find ways to excite the student’s interest in the lesson, perhaps by some question or statement that will cause curiosity about the subject. For example, young children can be intrigued by bright colors, live animals, or things in motion. Older children relate to stories. Teens are concerned with questions with thoughtful answers. Adults are often interested in facts and statistics.
Law 6: The Law of the Learning Process. True learning involves application. We often make the mistake of thinking that once a student has memorized the facts, learning has been accomplished. Usually, this results in frustration. We’ve all heard a parent or teacher say something like, “I already told you ten times!”
Strive to move the student beyond memorization to interpretation. Think about teaching the Bible. While it’s important to know the Word of God and be able to recite its verses, it is much better to live out its principles in daily life. Teachers can observe this law by allowing students to explain what they have learned.
Law 7: The Law of Review and Application. After the lesson has been taught and students have ingested and absorbed the material, the teacher might wonder, what more is needed? The work seems complete. But difficult work yet remains.
It takes repetition to absorb something fully. After all, practice makes perfect, as the old adage goes. While a person may gain knowledge and begin to put that knowledge to use, one must return to the information again and again. This is certainly true with the Bible. As a person studies the Bible, it becomes richer and more rewarding as they grow more fully into the likeness of Christ. But, as with any subject, review and application are required.
Have the student summarize the lessons learned. Sometimes, it is helpful to allow some time to pass between the learning of the information and the review. A sort of “mental incubation” is required. All students know a lesson studied only once will be soon forgotten.
Dr. Gregory ended his book by saying, “The study of these laws may not make of every reader a perfect teacher; but the laws themselves, when fully observed in use, will produce their effects with the same certainty that chemical laws generate the compounds of chemical elements, or that the laws of life produce the growth of the body.”
We are all teachers in some form or fashion. Whether you stand before a Sunday School classroom, work in an office, gather at the dinner table, or put pen to paper, you are teaching. With this in mind, I encourage you to be the best teacher you can be. In 2 Timothy, Paul encouraged his young protegé to do his best in teaching the Word of God, standing in sharp contrast to the false teachers. It’s a good reminder! Timothy, or anyone who seeks to be a teacher approved by God, must correctly share the Word of God
About the Writer: Dr. Jeff Cockrell holds degrees from Liberty University (B.S., M.A.), Gordon-Conwell Seminary (M.A.), and the University of Wales (Ph.D.). After three decades in pastoral ministry, Jeff joined the Welch College faculty in 2016, and recently accepted an administrative position at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Dr. Cockrell is a member of the Free Will Baptist Historical Commission.