It’s that time of year again! The time of year where you are starting to realize that summer vacation is over and that the Sunday Church School year is starting up any day now! (PANIC TIME!) Before you know it, you are attending the welcome back luncheons, kick-off picnics, parent/teacher mixers, whatever events your parish may do at the beginning of the year, and then boom – you are standing in your classroom with a group of kids and an attendance sheet in your hand.
If you are like me, chances are a few months ago you ended the Sunday Church School year a little bit (or more than a little bit) exhausted, but with a list of things to improve for the next year. And, if you are also like me, that list got moved to the bottom of a pile, LOST, IGNORED and FORGOTTEN. And now, here we are about to start the new school year with the same old-same old.
Well perk up Sunday Church School teachers because I have some good news! It is not too late to make some changes for this coming year!
First off, let’s start off by talking about the purpose of Sunday Church School and about your role as a religious educator! Sunday Church School is not meant to replace the Divine Liturgy and other services, but rather it is meant to be a supplement to them by providing historical, sacramental, and spiritual context to all of the amazing services and feasts of our faith. It is also a place to teach about Orthodoxy as a whole and to explore living a life in Christ, by teaching through the examples of the lives of the saints. Last but not least, it is a place to create a small community within the larger community of the Church. The majority of church communities are made up of mini-communities, which can help provide a space for each person to feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie. The most important part about these mini-communities–and the part that can often be missing–is making sure to link the mini-communities back into to the larger community.
Your role as a religious educator is to help teach and nurture your mini-community. You have been given a huge role and honor by being a Sunday Church School teacher. You are helping to contextualize and link your students into our Faith. That is not a small role!
When I think about religious education, the following passage comes to mind:
“The gifts He gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11-13
Being a Sunday Church School teacher is a calling! As teachers, we are being called by Christ Himself to help build up the body of Christ. The Church is the Body of Christ, which is why it is so important to make sure you link your mini-community into the larger community!
So now, with all that being said, how can we get away from the same old-same old and shake things up a bit this year?
Something that I have to remind myself to do each year is to try and put Sunday Church School into a proper context. Below are a few things that have personally helped me and some of my teacher friends prepare for our classes.
Tips for helping update your lessons:
- WHO are your students:
Start off by learning about the age group that you are teaching. Even if you have been teaching this grade for one year or many years, it is not a bad idea for us all to get a bit of a refresher! We can gain much insight into our students just by learning more about what is going on with them developmentally and we should adjust our lessons and teaching tactics accordingly to make sure we are teaching to their level.
- WHAT are they learning:
Time to update your curriculum! The world that our students are living in revolves so much around technology, something that is constantly changing and improving. I am not saying that you should constantly be trying to keep up with the latest tech in your classroom and trying to find the coolest and most hip lesson plans, but rather, take the time to read over your lesson and see where you can improve and update it
- WHERE are they learning:
Your students sit in classrooms for 5 days a week at school and the last thing they want to be doing is sitting in another classroom on their day off. Shake things up, make things hands-on, get up and move! Teaching a lesson about Holy Communion? Prearrange with your priest to come for the last 5 minutes of class to actually show your class the Chalice and other tools used for Holy Communion close up. Teaching a lesson about the environment? If the weather is good, teach the class outside! Teaching a lesson about [insert your topic lesson here]? Bring in a guest speaker, bring in props, incorporate technology, have a class debate, etc! The possibilities are endless! The hardest part of teaching is setting aside adequate time to prepare yourself to teach. You won’t be able to make your lesson hands-on and interactive if you are only preparing 15 minutes before.
So to recap: keep your lessons student-centered, not content-centered; incorporate different types of learning and cater to different learning styles within your lesson; and change up the routine by including active learning and group collaboration.
Another very important thing that you can do to help you and your class prepare for the lesson is to pray! Say a prayer before you teach, pray for your students, and most importantly, pray as a class. The following prayer is from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
Shine in our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind that we may comprehend the proclamations of Your Gospels. Instill in us also reverence for Your blessed commandments so that, having trampled down all carnal desires, we may lead a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all those things that are pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the illumination of our souls and bodies, and to You we offer up glory, together with Your Father, Who is without beginning, and Your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
These are things that we can all do on a week-to-week basis to help improve our class time, but there are also some things that you can do and continue throughout the year to help build your classroom into a safe and fun mini community.
Here are some more tips to help manage a safe and fun classrooms:
Elementary and younger:
- Set clear classroom rules or boundaries. Yes we want our classroom to be fun, but we also want it to be safe. Setting classroom rules or boundaries can help create a safe environment without stifling creativity!
- Have a class routine, but keep it creative! Kids, especially younger kids, need a routine. Something as simple as starting and ending your class the same way every week can help students better focus and feel comfortable in the familiarity.
- Co-establish classroom rules and guidelines. This age group can be harder to manage; they don’t want to just be told what to do. So combat that by having your students collaborate to come up with the classroom rules and guidelines write them down on a poster board and hang it in the room (I have even had them sign the poster to show that they agree to follow the rules). Make sure the students include anti-bullying guidelines to help make the classroom a safer place.
- Create class traditions: Have your class come up with some fun traditions that they can do together and look forward to – a change up from the regular routine of class. (Examples: every second Sunday someone brings in donuts, or at the end of every class they all have a funny dance they do together.)
- Know what your students want to learn. Teenagers have reached the age where they are taking their independence by storm. They are learning how to drive cars, learning how to be leaders and taking ownership of their lives. Let them take some ownership of their class. Have them choose topics that they might want to learn about sometimes, let them choose what order the lessons will be in. Allow for them to grow in their faith by allowing them to own their faith.
- Respect your students by being prepared! Teenagers know when you are prepared and when you are not and they often are not afraid to let you know that. Respect them as your students by being a prepared teacher. If your class is more discussion based, make sure you have researched that day’s topic and run it by your parish priest to make sure that you and he are on the same page. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t pretend that you do because they will know when you are trying to make something up. It is ok to let them know that you don’t know the answer and that you will research it or talk to the priest and get back to them next week…and then make sure you DO get back to them. And most importantly, no matter what the topic is, be sure to include references to the scripture and always link the lesson back to our Faith and church tradition!
- Create a safe no-judgment zone. Yes, you want your class to be cool and edgy with mind-blowing conversations. Guess what, your students aren’t going to open up and talk about these things if they don’t feel like their opinions or thoughts are safe from laughter and judgment from either you or their fellow students. Bullying should never be tolerated. No one should feel like they are not welcome or taken seriously in their Sunday Church School class. As a teacher, take what they say seriously, let them know that they can talk to you and ask questions, no matter how “stupid” the questions may seem, and encourage them to think deeper about the topics.
To recap, keep your classroom fun, but safe; be flexible, but prepared. Some of these tips may not work for your classroom, but hopefully they will help you think deeper about your class and give you a little bit of encouragement and inspiration to think outside the box and make your class better than it ever has been before!
As a teacher, you are so needed and appreciated and remember you are not alone! Not only is your class a mini-community within your larger church community, but you as a teacher are part of a mini-community of teachers! There are thousands of Orthodox Religious Educators all across the country who are just like you! Create a support system by having monthly or bi-monthly meetings with your parish Sunday Church School teachers, not just to plan, but as a time to talk about the ups and downs and to support each other. There are also Religious Educator Facebook groups that you can join. These help connect teachers across the country and provide a space for everyone to share resources and lesson plans (DRE plug: the Orthodox Christian Religious Educators Facebook group, is a group created and monitored by the Archdiocese Department of Religious Education).
Here are a few more links and resources that can help you prepare as a teacher
THANK YOU for answering the awesome CALLING to be a Sunday Church School teacher!
Angeliki Constantine is an Educational Ministry Specialist in the Department of Religious Education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. She has bachelors in Early Childhood Education and a Masters of Divinity. She has been a GOYA advisor and a co-Sunday Church School teacher at St. Nectarios Greek Orthodox Church in Roslindale, MA since 2009.