Entries with tag teachers .

In Praise of Sunday Church School

Sunday school is perhaps the single largest program in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. On a national level, assuming 550 parishes with an average of 30 students per Sunday school program (and that's probably a conservative number), on any given Sunday, there are 16,500 young people in a classroom. Assuming 5 teachers per parish, on any given Sunday, there are 2, 750 adult teachers. Add the approximately 700 clergy in the Archdiocese, on any given Sunday there almost 20,000 people involved in handing forward the Orthodox Christian Faith. 

So many people seem to be highly critical or doubtful about this mainstay of parish life. So it might seem counterintuitive to praise Sunday Church school. The cures for what ails the program are many, ranging from dropping it altogether to finding ways to make teachers and students accountable for what’s being taught and learned there. There’s room for debate about the best way the Church can hand forward its Faith and Way of Life to another generation. There’s room for discussion about what’s important for someone to know, to believe, and to do (three classic educational categories) as a member of the Church. Scholars in the academic discipline of religious education study and discuss these questions. So do clergy, pastoral leaders, seminarians, and the teachers who minister in the program, as well as the parents of the students themselves.

But as the discussion continues – and this discussion has been going on for decades – consider some of what Sunday Church school provides.

Sunday Church school builds a community and advances the parish and wider Church. Sunday Church school prepares a group of Orthodox Christians to work together by building their relationships with one another. It provides the learners with a place to study and hold conversations that matter about topics of Faith, moving beyond feelings and into reasoned discussion that revolves around the sources of Orthodoxy: Scripture, liturgy, theological writings. In a regular and systematic manner, these sources are introduced into the lives of learners. It can raise questions that will last for a lifetime.

Sunday Church school is a model of hospitality for the rest of the parish to emulate. Dedicated teachers, usually parents of students, welcome children and teenagers into their classes, even if they have not been in attendance the week before, or for weeks at a time (unfortunately, this is common). We say that parishes should be welcoming environments. We even try to teach hospitality! But hospitality is being modeled Sunday after Sunday.

Sunday Church school continues to teach liturgical awareness and sacramental participation. Many years ago, Orthodox religious educators began to teach that children and families should be attending the divine services, paying attention to what was going on in those services, and participating in the sacraments as often as possible. It’s been a huge success, to the point that we complain about the long lines and have now witnessed the development of the diaconate, if only to shorten those lines (and we are now learning that deacons can do so much more than administer Holy Communion).

Sunday Church school is a place where one’s Orthodox Christian identity can be informed, formed, and transformed. The “given-ness” of one’s religious identity cannot be taken for granted. In a “classroom,” and I put this in quotes to remind us that there are many places where we learn, information can be shared and experiences can be explored. Simply, a classroom is a good place to discuss, “this is what we do and this is why we do it, making us who we are.”

There are issues, of course. Parental involvement needs to be increased. We need to better equip those who teach. As parents are often teachers, more efforts at adult education are needed. Even a regular discussion between the priest and teachers would be a good place to start.

There are issues related to “losing” our youth. Some of them are demographic. There have been fewer children born into our families. But there have been over 160,000 baptisms in the last twenty-five years in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, meaning that there is a potential pool of that many young people under 25 or so in our parishes. There are issues with younger people in the US generally abandoning organized religion. The question is, how can we engage young people in Church life over a lifetime? On this point, there needs to be a recognition that there is no magic bullet for retaining people in our parishes, building a congregation of faithful, and advancing the mission of the Church in the world. Camp, more videos, or technological use are effective but still can’t replace sustained face-to-face work.

The discussion should continue about the ways we teach, the resources we use, and more involving critique and edification so that we may successfully hand forward the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.


Questions, Questions, Questions

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47)

According to this statement Gospel of Luke, the twelve-year-old Jesus asked a lot of questions.

Lately, I’ve been asking clergy to list the questions that the young people they know ask them. The responses have been all over the map, from theology to ethics, to personal matters. “Is there a God?” “Why does the Church do this or that?” Lots of questions about sex and morality. As one priest said, “They ask about everything.”

Questions are normal. Adolescents are reaching new levels of intellectual and cognitive development. As a result they are able to wrestle with many topics. They also want to think for themselves. Of course, they have a long way to go, but they are trying to make their way in the world, thinking independently of their families, as they begin to take charge of their life and take their first steps into adulthood.

The critical tasks of the adults in their lives, parents, priests, youth advisors, camp counselors, and Sunday Church school teachers are to walk with them as they ask their questions. Walking in a group, sometimes we will lead, sometimes we will push, sometimes we will be in the middle of the group.

How can we begin to deal with this?

First, rejoice. Be grateful that the young people you know are coming to you with their questions. That indicates that you have created a trustworthy environment for discussion about the weightier matters (see Matthew 23:23).

Second, listen attentively. Don’t listen only long enough to formulate your response, but listen to the entire thought. If need be, take notes.

Third, avoid “you need to know” statements. The religious educator John Westerhoff once wrote, “Few, if any, learn what someone else wants them to know, care about or do. It is somewhat like my reaction to those who come to me and say, ‘You need to know,…’ to which I have typically responded, ‘No, you are wrong. I do not need to know. You apparently need to tell me.’”

Fourth, when you do respond, respond with stories from your life, your own experience. We’re hardwired to remember stories. Share the wisdom from your life, the lessons learned.

Fifth, open the sources of our Faith for them. Knowledge is important. The Bible, our Liturgy and Sacraments, the writings of the Fathers can offer insights and guidance. These sources should be studied, questioned, and brought into a conversation with our present understanding of an issue and the implications that the sources have on our lives. Let them share their questions with you. You can then create your lessons and conversations around their questions, using the many resources that are available.

Sixth, let them figure it out. The most frequent “teaching method” of Jesus was the parable. Those who heard the story were allowed to figure it out for themselves and once they did, they were probably more convinced than if they had merely been told. Of course, if there’s danger involved, you need to step in. You are the adult.

Sixth, accept the fact that they will fail and fall. Our natural temptation is to prevent failing and falling. But we learn from our mistakes. The important dimension is communicating that we care about this person no matter what mistakes he or she makes and we will accept him or her, faults and all.

“They ask about everything.” They will ask about everything. Let them ask. Be ready!

Thank the Teachers!

How will you thank the teachers?

It’s still that time of year. Another Sunday Church school year is about to end. There will be programs to recognize the achievements of the children. They will receive certificates, pins, and gifts. Students who will go off to college might receive a larger gift bag or toolkit for their dorms, a Bible, an icon, a prayer book.

What about the teachers? How will you acknowledge that from September to mid-May, around 35 weeks, their gift of time to the parish has been huge. They have been prepared lessons, organized projects and events, remained in contact with students and parents, attended meetings and seminars, read books, prayed for their students.

Church leaders should not take the teachers for granted. They are “major donors” to the parish. They might have been “pressured” to teach, but once they accepted, they have been there week after week. They spent time with their students, saw their faces, celebrated name days and birthdays, all to help them grow in their knowledge of the Orthodox Faith and Way of Life.

Some people dismiss the work of the teacher in the parish, saying things like, “It’s just Sunday school. No big deal.” And they wonder why they have a difficult time recruiting teachers. Some people say that the only requirement to be a teacher in a parish is a “warm body,” (I’ve heard that said about clergy too!). And they wonder why teachers get “burned out.”

In their book, The Other 80 Percent, authors Scott Thumma and Warren Bird note the following about church volunteers. “Any church that wants to strengthen its volunteer efforts should engage in regular training sessions and mentoring, rotate its leadership of groups, reflect its member diversity in committees, and offer public acknowledgement, reward, and recognition of volunteers.” Parishes that do this are twice as likely to be described as “spiritually vital.”

What to do?

Public recognition. Invite the teachers to come before the congregation, to receive a small gift, and tie it with huge thanks. Pray over them and bless them and their ministry. Include photos and biographies in parish newsletters and bulletin boards. Post photo displays on the parish television, power point style, in the parish fellowship hall. Post them online.

Regular training and mentoring. Use a buddy system of teachers. Pair up an experienced teacher with a novice, not in the same classroom, but a mentor. Offer regular training sessions, to study issues of faith and education. Encourage attendance at and financially support their participation in seminars.

Place some time limits and rotate. Teach for a few years in one grade, then take a break or move to a different dimension of the program, then return to a new grad or a new ministry altogether. Find new ways for teachers and others serve in the program, from finding small, manageable tasks, to utilizing new and other talents and skills of teachers.

Above all, huge thank you’s to the teachers!


Prepare by looking back

Prepare by looking back

It’s the middle of July and in about six weeks, Sunday Church School at your parish may already be underway, or getting ready to begin another year.  There are many things to do to prepare: look at new resources, sort out the calendar of events, make sure all the supplies are in stock, start making announcements to families about registration, volunteering with certain events, and organizing the teachers and classes.  There are plenty of things to do to prepare.

But part of preparation should also include reflection on last year’s program. A question I’ve been asking a lot lately is “How do you know that your program is being effective?” At a personal level, the question is “How effective have you been?” 

Here’s a straightforward checklist of “Did I” questions that could help you reflect on last year and your work as a religious educator. (I have to confess I'm borrowing it from an article I saw in another magazine). It’s a tool that helps you review you. Each question should help you think about your efforts, consider how the year went, and give you the chance to say to yourself, “well done” and “need some work.” 

  • Did I pray for my students, my student’s families, my fellow teachers, my fellow parishioners, for our Church?
  • Did I strive to build meaningful relationships with my students and their families?
  • Did I communicate with the parents of my students, sharing with them the goals of the class, trying to offer ways to bring the lesson home?
  • Did I show my respect for my students by being as well prepared as I could be for every class meeting?
  • Did I keep the learning space inviting, colorful, showing off student work?
  • Did I observe the Feasts and Fasts of the Church in the classroom?
  • Did I spend time with other teachers and my priest, learning from one another?
  • Did I learn from my mistakes?
  • Did I have fun, enjoyed being a teacher?
  • Did I grow in my knowledge of the Orthodox Faith and the practice of its Way of Life?

Spend some time in prayerful self-reflection as part of your preparation. Look back before you look ahead.

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