So… you were just asked to teach the kids at your church and you are thinking to yourself…”how to teach Sunday School?”.
At first, you might have been excited to sign up.
You thought of all the children in their beautiful Sunday dresses, gathered around you as you spoke to them about Jesus and helped lay a foundation for their faith for decades to come. Perhaps, you didn’t even sign yourself up to teach a Sunday School class, but you found out a few weeks or days later that your spouse had.
Either way, there comes that point for every Sunday School teacher, even the veterans who teach children five days a week in school, where they realize that the children you are going to be teaching aren’t angels but real, live children with real, live emotions, thoughts, and sometimes, an ability to find that button and push it repeatedly.
You thought, “oh, it’s only an hour every week, I can handle that.” Maybe, it’s even less. Then, the children come in and suddenly you think, “how am I going to get through this minute?”
The first thing to do, in order to teach Sunday School, is to put it all into perspective.
Remember, the Bible is clear that spiritual instruction should begin and end at home, that the onus for teaching children and encouraging them in their faith begins with their parents.
It’s easy to couple that knowledge with the “it’s only one hour every week”, and feel that your influence isn’t that important.
One hour every week is 52 hours in a year. Imagine leaving your child with someone for 52 hours? Imagine the kind of influence that person would have.
That’s what we’re talking about, here.
Sure, some of these kids may come in knowing all the answers, ready to spout them off to you quickly. Others, though, may have never stepped in a church before in their lives, and you are the first face of God they see.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from it.” Essentially, what we teach our children now influences their entire lives. When you teach Sunday school, you have the chance to influence entire lives for the sake of the Gospel.
If that’s not important, I don’t know what is.
So how do you manage to entertain a classroom of children? How do you interact with them enough that you can get them to listen to the message? What do you do when things go wrong? How do you deal with that kid? What do you do when you start to feel burnout? What makes a “good” teacher?
To Teach Sunday School: You Must….Prepare Yourself
When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was constantly burnt out.
She would come to school every day in a disheveled mess, speak as if she dreaded the idea of even opening her mouth, and give up in defeat when anyone challenged an idea or raised a question. It was a literature class, where communicating about what we read was essential.
As a student in the class, I looked at my teacher and realized that she didn’t really care about being at school, and she certainly didn’t care about teaching our class. Did she care about the material we were studying? If she didn’t care, should I?
If she didn’t care, should I?
Through that class, I learned that it’s as important for a teacher to be “ready” for class as it is for a student.
I don’t just mean the material covered, but the actual teacher himself.
Preparing for class doesn’t just mean making sure you have all of your notes and supplies, it means preparing your mind and body to stand in front of a group of children and to convince them to care about the subject as much as you do.
Prepare yourself to teach Sunday School by making an effort to do things that calm you and energize you before you teach.
It may mean spending time with your family the day before, instead of running errands. Perhaps it means going to the gym to run off some stress, or spending 15 minutes alone with God to vent to him about what’s going on in your life.
Prepare yourself to be able to give all of you for that hour on Sunday.
There’s a great children’s book called “Fill Your Bucket”. The book talks about how every human has an empty bucket, and when we get compliments from others, our bucket gets filled up. The objective is to help others fill up their buckets so they can gain a sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Whenever you’re working with children, it can be tempting to try to empty your own bucket in order to fill theirs. Therefore, it’s imperative that you take time ahead of the lesson to fill your own bucket.
There may be times during the year where this is as simple as taking five minutes of alone time to take a deep breath before you head in to teach Sunday School. There may be other times in the year when your bucket fills so empty, this task of filling it takes more like an hour or two. However, this is essential to being a good teacher.
All good teachers know how to keep themselves energized for the work ahead.
Lastly, remember that for many children, their Sunday School teacher becomes their first glimpse of Jesus.
I can still remember my Sunday School teacher, and how much I looked forward to my Sunday mornings with her.
Kids are facing many different battles at home or at school, and sometimes, a Sunday School teacher who genuinely loves them and cares for them can help them escape and fill their own buckets so they can make it through the week.
Preparing Your Lesson
Many churches now offer a “plug and play” style of lesson, where you are given a printout or email of the lesson before Sunday morning, and can essentially show up and read a script and be done.
There’s nothing wrong with these lessons—in fact, in many ways they are excellent tools that enable more people to get involved with teaching Sunday School, and allow people who are trained and professionals to check the lessons for accuracy.
However, just because a lesson is plug and play, doesn’t mean you should treat it that way.
Think of it as a manual from IKEA. Sure, IKEA says it gives you all the parts, and you could begin building your furniture from page one and follow it until it’s done.
What happens when on page seven, you suddenly realize you need a second person to help you set up?
Or you realize that you might have used the wrong screw five pages back?
It’s one of the reasons every primary teacher tells their children, “read the instructions first”. Sure, you can still accomplish something knowing just the start and finish lines, but it’s a lot easier when you know the route it takes to get from one to the other.
One of the best things I ever did as a teacher was prepare my lesson.
Even when I got a “plug and play” lesson, I always took about a half hour at some point the week before to really dive into what I was teaching. I read every word, highlighting different points that stuck out to me. I read the passages that were on the page, spending time with God and asking Him to show me what He was saying in those passages.
Treat it as a form of quiet time with the Lord, going over the lesson. You’ll be far more invested in your teaching it to the children if you’ve had your own moments of “getting something out of it” prior to teaching it to them.
The excitement on your face will catch on, and they’ll be excited about it too.
Last, examine the lesson for accuracy.
Titus 2:1 says, “teach what accords with sound doctrine,” and Titus 1:9 says, “he must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.”
Early in my time teaching, I was doing a Bible lesson on the story of Abraham, and how his belief changed God’s mind. I had also just come across a verse in Numbers that says, “God is not man that He should lie, nor son of man, that He should change his mind.”
As I was reading the lesson, the story of Abraham changing his mind clashed with the verse I had just read, and I had to go back to both the story and the verse to examine it. Where was the contradiction? Was what I knew about God correct? How would I teach this lesson to the children in good conscience, having doubts about it myself?
After studying more, I realized that the Numbers verse was referring to God changing his mind based on a lack of ability and in order to save face, not based on a lack of heart for the people around him.
No child asked me about the contradiction, and probably few even knew about it.
However, the time I spent preparing the lesson and delving into what I found in the Scripture helped me understand God more deeply, and produced fruit in my own spiritual life. It then enabled me to walk into my classroom with confidence, as I’d researched what was in the scripture and I knew I was teaching sound doctrine.
Preparing For Real, Live Children
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to sit and fantasize that you will have lovely, always listening, engaging children at each and every Sunday School class you have. However, this isn’t the case.
Children have personalities, emotions, and thoughts, and they are learning how to navigate a world by using them.
One of the most effective exercises I ever did as a Sunday School teacher was a role-playing exercise. I’d encourage you to get a few other teachers (or even your own kids!) around, and practice teaching a lesson with personalities in mind.
Write down each of the following personalities on an index card, and pass one to each member of your group. If you have more people in your group than players, some can just play themselves.
• Know-It-All: This is the kid who has spent a lot of time in church, and knows that the Sunday School answer is generally “Jesus”. He has read the bible passages you are reading, and he knows the sermon by heart. He’s often the child of someone influential in the church—the pastor, music director, youth director, etc. He is trying to get your attention and earn your affection by providing you with the answers ahead of time. He feels like this is a place where he is smart and on top, and he wants to showcase that. (Hint: Pull this kid aside and ask if he can be your “helper” by staying quiet. Recognize his knowledge.)
• Quiet: This is the kid who doesn’t want to speak up in class. It’s easy not to notice her because she attempts to blend in with her surroundings. She doesn’t want to read out loud, she doesn’t want to answer a question. She just wants to take it all in, and she feels more comfortable when the spotlight isn’t on her. (Hint: Put this kid in a very small group, ask questions directly to her, or involve some sort of activity where she has to draw/write. She might get her thoughts out more effectively with something to read or stand behind.)
• Scoffer: This is the kid who probably has a brother or sister, or a parent, or someone else influential in their life who isn’t gung-ho on Jesus. This kid has a question for everything, and a rebuttal for every point made. This is usually a defense mechanism a child employs because they feel uncomfortable.
• Bunny Rabbit: This is the kid who can’t stay on topic. You’re reading a passage about Jesus feeding the children, and five minutes after this kid raises his hand, and you’re discussing the merits of In-N-Out burgers and why the ice cream machine at McDonalds is never working. This kid is usually bored, and he’s in need of a change of pace. He’s usually not trying to be distracting, he just is.
• Distractor: Kind of like the bunny rabbit, this kid can’t focus… but instead of steering conversation, he may do things that distract others from paying attention. Maybe it’s clicking his tongue, or standing up, or moving around in his seat. He’s not trying to be distracting—he just can’t sit still. He’s looking for a change-up in what’s happening.
Begin teaching a lesson as usual, having your volunteers act out the card they have.
After about five minutes of this, you’ll want to pull your hair out, but don’t fret—this is the worst it will ever get. It will also teach you how to handle the different personalities and behaviors that might come out while you’re teaching.
Ask for help from others on how to handle the different personalities… You never know, someone in your own family or church may have been that personality when they were little, and they know exactly what you should do to fix it.
Teaching the Lesson to Real, Live Children
So now that you’ve prepared yourself, prepared the lesson, and prepared for the different personalities you’ll encounter as a teacher, it’s time to talk about what you will do when it’s actually time to teach the lesson. You’ve got to convince, engage, instruct, and correct.
First, before any learning can take place, you have to convince the kids you’re teaching that you care about them, and that you know who they are.
Any person is going to have a hard time being taught something if they aren’t convinced the person standing in front of them cares about them.
The easiest way to convince kids you care about them is to take note of who they are.
The easiest way to convince kids you care about them is to take note of who they are. Begin your first time as a Sunday School teacher NERF-ing with each child. Ask them:
• N – name
• E – education (where they go to school, what grade their in)
• R – recreation (what do they like to do for fun)
• F – family (who is in their family?)
Remember their NERF answers, and they’ll feel important and valued.
In subsequent lessons, start out by going around the room and having each child give an answer to a question.
It can be as simple as “what’s your favorite Starburst flavor?” or as elaborate as, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Remember their answers, and you’ll help convince them that you care about them.
Once you’ve convinced them that you care about them, they’re much more likely to listen to what it is you have to say.
Second, you have to engage them.
When most people think of Sunday School, they think of six children in pretty dresses sitting around a table and reading a passage of scripture…
Sunday School is often synonymous with the words ‘boring’ or ‘chore’, and it can be difficult to break out of that mold. But remember—what you’re teaching is far more exciting than anything they’ve ever learned in school!
Following Jesus is an adventure—make Sunday School one, too!
Obviously, you can’t deter away from the lesson that’s being taught—but you can have fun with it!
Do funny voices or accents when reading long passages
Include as much humor as you can, and don’t shy away from being a little off the cuff with how you present things—after all, Jesus was pretty off the cuff. Do funny voices or accents when reading long passages of dialect, or have the kids act out what’s happening in the story.
Bring in props that they can use, or play a fun game with them (Minute to Win It! Games are great for Sunday School!).
Give them each paper and have them “quick draw” scenes from the lesson. Wherever possible, relate the lesson to something that is near to them.
Kids respond more when something feels normal to them—so do whatever you can to make things seem normal.
• Instead of saying, “Jesus turned three fish and five loaves of bread into enough to feed 5,000 people,” you could say, “Jesus turned three fish and five loaves of bread into enough to feed 5,000 people, which is kind of like your school cafeteria opening a can of sardines and using a hamburger bun to feed your whole school at lunchtime.” You could further engage the kids by taking out a can of sardines and a hamburger bun, and trying to feed them all snack from it!
• Instead of reading out the passage about Jesus riding into town on a donkey, have one kid be the donkey, and have another kid ride him into town while the rest of the class shouts “Hosanna!”
• Instead of talking about the writing on the wall, give each child a piece of paper and a white crayon and have them write on it—then paint over it with watercolors.
Anything you can do to make your lesson more than just reading and remembering will engage kids.
If you see kids start to drift away, use a tactic called “Brain Breaks”.
Before your lesson, take about 10 popsicle sticks and write different actions on them. These actions could be jumping jacks, burpees, twirl in a circle, etc.
When the kids start to lose interest or look like they could use a jump start, pull one of them out and lead the kids in a little “brain break” by getting their bodies moving.
Research has shown that kids learn best in a variety of different ways, and has grouped these different ways into seven categories: verbal (words), spatial (pictures), kinesthetic (movement), musical (music), logical (reasoning), interpersonal (people), and intrapersonal (self discovery).
To have a lesson that reaches each child in your classroom, incorporate something in each of these different categories.
For instance, say you are teaching a lesson on the Tower of Babel…
A verbal learner will want to read the Bible passage, a spatial learner will want to draw pictures of the story, a kinesthetic learner will want to act out the story, a musical learner may want to make up a song about the story, a logical learner will want to figure out why something happened in the story, an interpersonal learner will want to talk to a small group about the story, and an intrapersonal learner will want to think quietly about the story.
Whichever type of learning you use, the students who learn best within that category will be most engaged.
When I teach Sunday School, I try to incorporate each of these types of learning somewhere in the lesson.
It may mean that I have to put a game at the beginning or end of a lesson that doesn’t really mesh, but if I can tie it back even remotely, the child that learns best through games might “get” the rest of the lesson, as well.
I always try to start and end with a fun activity, as it’s easier to engage a child with a game of “who can spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious the best?” first, them move on to….“let’s read Romans 12:8”.
The more you can convince the kids you care about them, the more they will want to listen to you. The more you engage them, the more they will be able to focus on what you’re saying.
Third, you have to instruct them.
In the midst of convincing and engaging, it can be easy to miss out on the instruction part. Kids will naturally want to spend more time talking about themselves and playing fun games than they will listening to you talk about the Bible.
…you’re given 52 hours a year to make an impact on a kid’s life
Nevertheless, they’re at Sunday School to learn from you, and you’re given 52 hours in a year to make an impact on their life. You don’t want your only impact to be that they remember super fun games!
Begin your lesson with prayer.
This will signal to the kids that it’s time to come down from the fun and games, and time to focus on the lesson for the day.
Do your best to make it as interactive as possible, but remember that there is always a point that needs to be made. Before the lesson, identify what the main points are, and create a phrase that you an repeat throughout the lesson. This will help gather kid’s attention, and will help you instruct them more efficiently.
For instance, you might be talking about Feeding the 5,000….
You want kids to understand that Jesus worked a miracle when he fed the 5,000 with just a few pieces of food. So you come up with a creative catch phrase like, “Jesus divides… and multiplies!”
This phrase doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is enough to jog a child’s memory to remember the story.
Whenever there comes a point in the story where a child is losing interest, or when you want to reinforce the point, you could say, “Jesus divides…” and have the kids pitch in with “and multiplies!”.
You could even add in some hand motions to make it more exciting for them.
In this way, you’re both engaging them and instructing them.
Every time they hear the phrase, they’re locked right back into what you’re saying, but you’re engaging them in a way that also brings the truth of the lesson home. You’ve got them repeating, multiple times a lesson, the point you’re trying to make.
Every lesson should end with a time of reflection, and of asking questions to test comprehension. Questions are a great way to test if a child knows what’s happening.
As you’re reading a passage, you might want to stop at the end of a paragraph and ask a comprehension question—use the 5Ws as a cheat sheet if you’re not sure what to ask (who, what, why, when, where).
Sometimes, it’s even effective to play dumb. Finish reading a section of the passage, then look up and say, “I don’t get it… Can somebody help me?”
Fourth, you have to correct.
This is one of the hardest things about having the opportunity to teach Sunday School, but also one of the most important.
In a collaborative classroom, where students are seeking to learn from each other and to teach each other, it’s unavoidable to have a few kids who spout out ideas that are not aligned with scripture, or are just plain wrong.
It can be tempting to not correct them in order to spare their feelings, or because you don’t want them to feel they can’t speak up. However, if a child is wrong, he or she should be corrected.
a good teacher always corrects mistakes
A good teacher always corrects mistakes, but does so in a way that’s loving and affirming.
Say you are teaching and a child says that “the devil isn’t ALL bad”.
It’s tempting to let that one slide, or to just shrug it off and not correct it. However, in this statement, the child is clearly wrong. If you don’t correct it, the others in the room, including the child who said it, will think you condone it.
There are a few different ways you can correct a child without hurting their self-esteem and also validating their bravery.
• Ask a follow up question: What makes you say that? How did you come up with that?
• Affirm part of what they’re saying before correcting the other part: It’s true people aren’t ALL bad, but the devil is.
• See if you can find something from scripture that contradicts what they said, then discover it together.
Correcting children not only is beneficial for them to learn, but is also beneficial in gaining the trust of all of the children in the room. If a child knows you will correct them when they’re wrong, they will feel more confident that you are a teacher worth listening to.
How to Deal With Bad Behavior:
There are a few different ways to deal with bad behavior. Every child is different, and every child responds differently to punishment. Some children respond better when it’s personal, and others, when the entire class is working as a community to earn something.
Here are a few of the best tricks to minimizing bad behavior when you teach Sunday School…
• Community Rules: Work with the kids to come up with your list of rules for the classroom. Let them be the ringleaders on what’s fair, and offer your own ideas when they’ve reached a stall. Then, have the kids sign the rules. If they’ve created the rules themselves, they’re more likely to see them as important and worth following.
it could also mean having a Mr. Potato Head…
• Reward System: Create a rewards system with the children in your class. This can be as simple as having them earn “letters” on the board for good behavior, and earning 5 minutes of free play for spelling a word. It could also mean having a Mr. Potato Head, and letting the kids add one item to the potato at different intervals. Be sporadic about when you reward their good behavior, so they know they have to be on their best behavior at all times.
• Praise: Kids feed off being praised for good behaviors. One of the most effective ways to get your entire class acting well is to praise a student who is doing well. If your class is being extraordinarily loud, you could praise one of the students who is not being loud. “I like the way that Hannah is being quiet,” is a great way to get others’ attention.
• Leader: Sometimes, taking the rowdiest kid and promoting them to “leader” or “helper” can pay huge dividends. If you can take a child that’s usually misbehaving and convince him to be a leader in good behavior in the class, a lot of behavior problems may subside.
• Redirect: If a child is acting out and is doing something you don’t want them to do, try redirecting them to another activity. Say Johnny is throwing markers at a friend. Suggesting that Johnny go play with the blocks instead, might be a way to redirect him and change his behavior.
• Consequences: This is my least favorite way to punish, but for some kids, it can work the best. Tell children that misbehavior will result in consequences, or things being taken away from them.
Above all, recognize that usually bad behavior stems from a need for attention.
Try to give each child individual attention during class. It can be as simple as a smile or a “good to see you,” followed by their name, but it will go a long way in making them feel part of a community and important to you.
Finishing The Lesson:
When you finish a lesson, it’s important to do three things: summarize, pray, and show you care.
First, summarize the lesson with students. Ask them what happened, and what they recall from the story.
Repeat the phrase you’ve learned together, and see how much the kids remember. This well help tie the entire lesson together, and also help you re-emphasize the important points and make sure kids are taking away from the lesson what is essential.
Second, pray. Ask for prayer requests and have kids pray for each other, and close out the time in prayer together.
Third, say goodbye to each child individually. Whether it’s a secret handshake, using their name, fist bumps, or something else you come up with, find a way to make each child feel important as they leave.
One of the biggest problems facing those of us who teach Sunday School is getting “burn out”.
What starts out as something fun that you are excited to do every week can quickly turn into a chore if you get burn out.
If you have the resources available, try sharing duties with another teacher.
Perhaps that will mean that you go week-on/week-off, or maybe it means that you take the eight week series, and then she takes the next one.
Time off can do a lot to help you regain a sense of excitement for teaching. I would suggest finding a “backup” teacher and letting them take the reigns at least once every two months.
In addition, make sure that you are getting enough time in church. If you aren’t attending church, how are you being fed?
So many Sunday School teachers find it difficult to teach because they consistently miss church. Find a way to get what you need spiritually—even if that means you have to find someone to take your class for you.
If you don’t have the resources available to you, explain the situation to your pastor and see if you can get him to help you get the break you need.