In August my wife and I will conclude a two-year stint teaching children’s Sunday School classes at Christ Presbyterian Church, first with four and five-year-olds, and then with fifth and sixth-graders. We are stepping aside, at least for now, because the church has a usual policy of having folks teach children on Sunday mornings for no more than two years at a stretch, thus ensuring that people do not lose the opportunity to participate in the adult classes for both learning and fellowship.
Teaching the children has been a big change for me, as ever since I was first engaged as a substitute Sunday School teacher over ten years ago I have taught only adults and college students. However, the work is no less important—in fact, it might be more important—and is not without its unique challenges. Here are a few things I have learned in the past couple of years through this new avenue of service. The first couple of these were things that I had figured out before agreeing to serve in this way, and the rest I discovered during the process.
- Children’s Sunday School classes need good teachers.
I first considered teaching a children’s class after reading an article directed toward seminary students who complained that the churches they attended were not “using their gifts.” They lamented not being asked to teach adults, while the children’s department was hurting for teachers. In a similar way, I realized that our (then) new church was probably not going to ask me to teach adults any time soon (I was new and relatively unknown), but the children’s classes always needed teachers. Seeing a place where I could be useful, I chose to do so, and am glad that I did.
- Men can and should teach these classes along with their wives.
Sadly, the church is largely viewed in our society as being primarily “for women,” with men taking an ever smaller interest in her activities and worship. There are many reasons for this, but one small way to counter it is for boys to see men taking the Bible seriously and taking the work of teaching the faith to young people seriously. Teaching a class along with your wife also allows students to see a (hopefully) healthy married relationship firsthand for a few minutes each week, as well as providing some unfortunately necessary legal protection (our church does not allow men to work with children alone).
- Curriculum selection is important.
I have sometimes had to use Sunday School curricula with which I disagreed on significant points and which occasionally contained outright errors. This increased the amount of time needed to study, as errors, when found, had to be researched and corrected. Happily, the materials from Great Commission Publications that our church uses are sound and reliable, if occasionally corny (as such materials often are).
- Repetition is necessary. Very necessary.
About halfway through this school year we discovered that our fifth and sixth grade students had no idea what the sequence of the books of the Bible is, much less even a broad mental timeline of biblical history. Some of the students said that they had to memorize the books of the Bible in the second grade at their Christian school, but the information had clearly been forgotten due to disuse. I understood then why children’s curricula must be somewhat repetitive—that’s the only way to make the information stick! (We now recite the books of the Bible at the beginning of every class.)
- Brevity is a virtue.
Today’s adults have limited attention spans, and the children are even worse. While I can teach for a longer period of time with the fifth and sixth-graders than I could with the preschoolers, I am still well aware that economy of words is necessary if I am to hold their attention. Those of us who are prone to ramble must learn to use words efficiently if we are to communicate well with young people!
- If one has to go to the bathroom, all have to go to the bathroom.
Even children that “know their place” want to find ways to exercise some degree of control of their situations. Young kids do not have to be potty trained for very long before they learn that a request to go to the bathroom is a surefire way to get out of a situation they don’t like, particularly if they declare that they need to go “real bad.” Moreover, when one has to go, others will quickly follow suit. Teachers must learn to tell the difference between a real and contrived “emergency,” as well as learn the virtue of “one at a time.” Knowing that they won’t be able to bring their friends along has a way of decreasing most kids’ sudden urges.
- Older students need to bring and use their Bibles.
One thing that still bothers me about the fifth and sixth graders is that half the class never brings a Bible with them—to church!!! Given the modern day habits of printing passages for study in the Sunday School curriculum materials and the sermon texts in the bulletin, perhaps folks are somewhat justified in believing that bringing a Bible is unnecessary. Nevertheless, students will not learn to find their way around the Scriptures if they do not have a copy to use. Encourage and admonish them to bring Bibles along, and have a few copies in the classroom for those who still don’t bring them. If a student doesn’t have a Bible, give him one!
- Make them think, and speak.
Middle school and high school students that come to me for music lessons are often taken aback at first by my frequent use of the Socratic Method when teaching. Apparently they are unaccustomed to teachers asking them to form and express an opinion, which is really quite sad. Still, one of the best ways to get students really thinking about the topic at hand is to ask them questions and wait for them to think and answer. With a little directed questioning, students will figure out the right answers and retain them better than if you simply lecture at them all the time. And remember, this is the Bible; we want them to learn it better! Even the preschoolers can do this in a very limited way, but do be careful. I still remember the time I asked “What’s the first book in the Bible?” After receiving no answer, I said “You know, we’ve been studying it. It begins with the letter ‘G.’” Immediately a child yelled “Jesus!” Well, the “Sunday School answer” is not always right, but at least he tried….
- “Lick and stick.”
The activities included with the GCP materials for preschoolers frequently included apparently non-adhesive “stickers,” and we quickly began to wonder if our curriculum publisher had established some sort of back-room deal with the manufacturers of Elmer’s glue sticks. About halfway through our time with that class (and not a few articles of clothing marred by purple glue), we discovered quite by accident that our stickers were of the “lick and stick” variety. Or at least I think they were; maybe the moisture just made them stick to the paper in its own right. In any case, the kids liked saying “lick and stick,” and we liked not dealing with purple glue sticks. Everyone wins!
- You might be able to study less than for an adult class, but you will need to pray more.
I used to spend hours each week studying to teach college students and adults, yet have often prepared to teach children the day before or even early on the morning of the class. A person armed with a sound curriculum and a reasonably thorough knowledge of the Bible will be able to teach a children’s class with less study than when preparing to bring deeper material to adults. Nevertheless, no amount of knowledge and skill with the Scriptures or cleverness of delivery will substitute for the Holy Spirit working through one’s teaching to bring the children to faith in Christ. We are dependent upon God to bring forth the harvest. Teachers, pray diligently to that end!
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:6)