After church, Greg picked up his daughters from childcare. As he walked to the classroom, he had to duck before a paper airplane flew past his head. He looked around the room and saw the teacher pleading with one child standing on a desk and another throwing paper at other students. “Oh my god,” he exclaimed. Greg’s anxious gaze wandered around the room to find his daughters. He murmured under his breath, “This place is a zoo,” and led his girls out the door as quickly as possible.
In child labor, maintaining an orderly classroom is high on the list of priorities. Children do not naturally follow rules and routines or behave respectfully. Sin stands in the way of our ideal of a well-structured and decent class. In addition, serious Sunday school teachers are volunteers with no professional training. Even seasoned parents will soon find that a classroom of 15 is a lot more manageable than a couple of kids. Large groups need prudent leadership.
What makes a good teaching experience? A well-run classroom requires five components: love, leadership, expectations, routine, and fun.
Paul regularly expressed affection for the believers under his care. He spoke tenderly of the saints: “We were gentle among you, as a mother nursing her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7). If Paul spoke thus to the adults, how much more should we respond with encouragement and affection to the children in our classes?
A wise teacher once said, “You get more from what you encourage.” Shouting commands and threats at children can improve behavior, but it will not win their hearts. To borrow Paul’s analogy, if I have order in the classroom, “but have no love, I am a clanging gong or a jingling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
Adults supervise the lessons. You are in charge, not the children. The Lord entrusts the lives of children to adults, including discipline and training. This requires leadership. We’ve often said to Sunday School teachers, “You’re the boss, so act like it.”
It is tempting to fool around, act like a child, and be silly when ministering with the children. But we must accept the benevolent authority that God has given us to guide and love little children. There is certainly a time to have fun, but if you don’t take responsibility, the kids won’t respect you.
Teachers need to set some basic expectations for their children in the classroom: We listen during the reading session. We listen to the teacher and other children. Don’t talk about others. Raise your hand if you have a question. We share with each other. We treat everyone – adults and children alike – with respect.
Make your expectations clear and review them together at the beginning of each class. In some classrooms we’ve seen the expectations written in big, bold letters on a large poster board attached to the wall. This makes the rules easy for anyone to know and easy to repeat and reinforce each week.
When adults have conflicting expectations, they hurt their students and themselves. Some adults don’t want to be seen as strict, but low expectations, overindulgence, and inconsistency can ruin a classroom. When expectations are low, children live up to it. High expectations should not intimidate a teacher as long as the expectations are backed up with positive reinforcement, consistency, grace, and love.
Consider two scenarios. In the first, Johnny walks into a classroom and the teacher says, “Now just do whatever you want.” What should I do? What are the other kids doing? His insecurity increases his fear. In the second scenario, Johnny has been in his first grade for six months. He knows that class always starts with working on a coloring page for the first five minutes. When enough students have come, the teacher begins with “Good morning class” and then reminds the children of class expectations. Johnny knows the routine so there’s no doubt when he arrives.
A jack of all trades leads to chaos, fear and frustration. But the order, structure, and predictability of a clear routine gives children a sense of security that helps them thrive. It can be helpful to put a timetable on the wall for everyone to see. This can also help the children and new teachers.
Suppose a teacher, Mr. Jones, just reads the story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) to his elementary school class in a boring, monotonous voice. What would happen? Although it is an exciting story, within a few minutes the children would become restless and distracted.
When adults have conflicting expectations, they hurt their students and themselves.
Teachers need to make lessons engaging and fun. If Mr. Jones instead stood in a chair for all of Goliath’s lines and growled as he spoke them, the kids would be laser-focused on his presentation. Children love to exercise and participate in class. A teacher might have Goliath’s children cry out in defiance (“I defy the ranks of Israel today!”) and David’s faithful responses (“I come to you in the name of the Lord”). Mr. Jones could encourage children to act out David slinging the rock at Goliath’s head, or pass around props like Saul’s armor to try on, or a slingshot and rock to touch and feel.
God is central to the story, but creativity makes learning more enjoyable. When the teacher makes the lesson fun, children are less likely to misbehave and are more likely to remain engaged. It creates a better teaching experience for everyone.
The five teaching strategies taught here do not always come naturally to volunteers. Leaders need to encourage, train and empower each individual. But these skills can be helpful as we seek to remove any obstacle that stands in the way of children hearing, learning about, and knowing God.