How To Train Sunday School Teachers

In order to learn how to train Sunday School teachers you have to have some in the first place. (I’m full of these types of deeeeeep insights….)

So let’s start at the beginning…a very good place to start!

How to find good Sunday School teachers that you can later train…

One of the hardest things for most of us is finding volunteer Sunday School teachers who are committed and reliable.

Often, we approach potential volunteers as if we are parents asking our children to clean their rooms or empty the dishwasher—with a mix of begging and acknowledging it as a favor.

We can tend to downplay the importance of it or the commitment of it, saying it’s “just one Sunday a month…” or “you don’t need to do any prep, I’ll take care of it all!”

Let’s think about that for a moment, though. What kind of message are we sending potential volunteers when we approach them this way?

Sell the opportunity:

When we speak to potential volunteers this way, we are discounting the importance of children’s ministry. We are communicating to the volunteers that time invested in Children’s Ministry isn’t important, that preparing for it isn’t essential, and that it can be an afterthought in their weekly schedule.

Instead of downplaying the commitment, try selling the importance of it.

“At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

– Matthew 18:1-5

Jesus himself says that those who become like children are among the greatest in heaven, and one of the greatest gifts of being a Sunday School teacher is to be among children, and to learn first-hand what Jesus meant when he said this.’

Whoever welcomes children, welcomes Jesus.

The last verse, especially, speaks to the importance of children’s ministry. Whoever welcomes children, welcomes Jesus. Jesus obviously greatly valued children, and ministry to children.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly, I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them, and blessed them.”

–Mark 10:13-16

Once again, Jesus shows his love for children and the importance of children in our society. He models how children are to be treated by embracing them and blessing them.

As volunteers in children’s ministry, we have the opportunity to do as Jesus did, and to embrace children and bless them as he commanded.

When you’re looking for volunteers, it’s most important to give them the answer to their why..

Why should they become teachers? They have an opportunity to directly impact a child’s life, and to set him or her on a trajectory of following Christ.

Which would make you want to sign up to volunteer:

“We really need Sunday School teachers, but it’s so easy. It’s only once a month, and you don’t have to do anything really. It’s really so easy! Will you do it?”

OR

“We have an awesome opportunity in our Children’s Ministry for a new teacher. Teachers get to pray with the kids and introduce them to Jesus, and get a front-row seat to watching a child’s life change forever as they follow Christ. My life was changed by a Sunday School teacher. Would you consider taking on this awesome, important role?”

You may get a “yes” either way, but only one of these scenarios will bring a teacher who is fired up and wanting to teach.

Be honest about the commitment to teach Sunday School:

Remember that you are filling a volunteer position, not employing a worker.

Volunteers often show up out of the goodness of their heart, without any idea of what to expect. It’s important to be honest about the commitment and what the volunteer opportunity entails.

Resist the temptation to downplay the time commitment it takes, and instead, explain the reason for the commitment.

People want to know what to expect, and being honest about the commitment enables the volunteer to truly examine whether or not they can meet the commitment required. Instead of downplaying the responsibilities, be honest.

If the commitment requires two Sundays a month, and an hour each week of preparation time, tell them that. Explain why it requires that type of commitment.

Preparation is important because the material you’re teaching is important. Attendance twice a month is important because relationships are important. Tell your volunteers the why, and they will be more apt to put the effort required into the position.

Clarify the job of “teaching Sunday School”

Imagine you go in for an hour long interview, and you’re offered the job at the end of it. You get home, and you realize you don’t remember or didn’t ask about a few important things. Maybe you don’t know the dress code, or how to clock in for the day. Suddenly, you feel less confident going forward in the position.

In a time like this, it’s helpful to find the employee handbook or manual, right? It helps you to know what your new employer expects. You spend the evening reading it, and not only are your questions answered, but you even found out some new information you didn’t know before.

Consider writing or giving out a manual to Sunday School teachers.

Conduct a training session for volunteers, then send them home with a recap of the information you gave them.

Include the vision for your children’s ministry, a sample schedule or curriculum, FAQ, and a job description that outlines what their mornings should consist of and what you expect from them.

It may seem like overkill, but people want to know what to expect. A manual gives Sunday School teachers a written account of what to expect, and enables you to have the confidence going forward that your teachers are all on a unified page.

Scheduling Volunteer Teachers:

You should aim for having one volunteer for every 5-7 kids, and at least two volunteers present for each Sunday School class (or at least someone quickly reachable if needed).

This strategy not only protects children in the case of an emergency or situation of abuse, but it can provide moral support for the lead teacher, and can provide a way for a behavior situation to be taken care of without disrupting the class.

One of the biggest problems for Sunday School teachers is burn out. We’ll talk a little bit later about how to avoid burnout for your teachers, but one of the best ways is to create a rotation.

create a teaching rotation

Say you have a third grade class of eleven students. Aim to get four volunteers, and give each volunteer one Sunday a month where he or she takes the lead teacher position. The volunteer would then be a “helping hand” for a second week as well, but wouldn’t take the lead during this week.

Your rotation could look like this:

• First Sunday – Volunteer A, Volunteer B
• Second Sunday – Volunteer B, Volunteer C
• Third Sunday – Volunteer C, Volunteer D
• Fourth Sunday – Volunteer D, Volunteer A

In this scenario, each volunteer is working one Sunday a month as a lead teacher, doing all of the prep work and teaching. Each volunteer is also working one other week a month, this time as a helping hand.

This type of teaching rotation will not only give each volunteer another adult to help or bounce ideas off while teaching, but it will give each volunteer an opportunity to observe another teacher’s teaching style and behavior plans.

This schedule also allows for each volunteer to attend church twice a month, to go on a family trip, or rest if need be. If a volunteer is scheduled to work a week that they are unable to attend, they could call one of the other volunteers to switch weeks with them, as well.

 

Training Volunteer Sunday School Teachers

I would highly suggest you begin by holding a training session for all of your volunteers at least once a year.

This gives you the opportunity to make share the vision of Children’s Ministry, to go over procedures and best practices, to answer questions, and to thank your volunteers for their time.

Schedule it in advance, and stress the importance of being there for all volunteers.

So you set the date, you have the RSVP’s for the volunteers, but now what do you do? How do you set up a schedule for training, and what do you include?

Every training should include the following things:

• Vision
• Procedures and Requirements
• Preparation
• Behavior Problems and Rewards
• Teaching Methods
• Abuse Prevention
• Needs of Workers

 

Vision

While Jesus never spoke directly about Sunday School, he did make quite a few statements about the importance of children to the Kingdom of God. In addition, there are many statements in the Old and New Testament that show the importance of teaching children

It would be wise to go over these verses and the vision of the church when it comes to children’s ministry. You may want to do so as a large group, or split into smaller groups to talk and share about the verses and how they relate to the mission of the church.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and when they are old they will not turn from it.”

– Proverbs 22:6

For many children, church is the only place they hear of Jesus.

We have a tendency to believe that children at church are also being fed spiritually at home, but often, this is not the case. As a result, we should train our Sunday School teachers to view each child who walks through their doors as a child who has never heard the Gospel before.

For many children, their Sunday School teachers are the first face of God they see.

Remind your teachers that their impact on students won’ t just impact them right now, but could be life-altering.

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”

– Deuteronomy 11:18-19

Sunday School teachers are entrusted to care for and teach children, and part of doing that means sharing their own experiences with children.

The Bible is clear that following God should be part of your every day life.

Many children are not exposed to this kind of life, yet Sunday School teachers can teach them how to do so.

By sharing how they keep their faith strong at home, they can give ideas to children about how to do so too.

Spend some time discussing with your Sunday School teachers what this verse means to them, and how they feel it could or should impact their teaching of Sunday School.

“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matthew 5:19

Matthew is clear in this verse that teaching is essential to the growth of the kingdom of heaven.

Teachers are held at a high regard, and called great because of the work they do. As teachers of children, Sunday School teachers are held in high regard. Reiterate this, and the importance of teaching children to God.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

– James 3:1-2

Because teachers are held to a higher regard, they are also held to a higher standard.

At this point in the training, it’s important to note to your teachers the importance of following God in their daily walk, and doing everything they can to show that to the children they teach.

There are few things that can be as damaging to a walk of faith as watching a teacher or someone who mentored you falling away from it.

Remind teachers that students are always watching, and they will follow by example. Their faith is forever influenced by their teachers, and that can be for good or bad.

“In everything, set them as an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness, and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”

– Titus 2:7-8

The vision and mission of Sunday School is simple. Sunday School exists to educate children in their faith so that they can begin following Jesus, and to continue following Him into adulthood. No matter what happens in Sunday School, it should all come back to educating and encouraging children in their walks with Christ.

 

Procedures and Requirements for Teaching Sunday School

Prior to the training, create a list of procedures and requirements for Sunday School teachers, and be prepared to discuss the list and pass it out. Some requirements and procedures you should include are:

• How do children “check in” and “check out” of Sunday School? Do they begin in the service or are they brought to your classroom beforehand? Do parents have to sign them in and out, or can they leave freely?

• What kind of information should you take from visitors?

• What is the protocol in an emergency setting?

• What do you do when there is a behavior problem or another incident?

• Do your teachers need to be First Aid/CPR certified? Do they need to have a background check done on them? Do they need to take an abuse prevention class?

• What is the ratio of students to adults in your classrooms?

 

Preparation

Before beginning the training, pass out a copy of a sample lesson to each teacher in attendance. Use the lesson throughout the training to help the teachers see how they could apply what you’re training them on practically.

The first thing you will want teachers to do when you give them their lessons is read over and prepare for them. Give the teachers in attendance a few minutes to read over the lesson, then ask them what they would need to do to prepare for the lesson. Write their answers on the board.

Teachers, when preparing for a lesson, should:
• read the lesson thoroughly
• gather materials that are needed
• come up with an ice breaker if one isn’t provided

In addition, if there is part of the lesson that doesn’t make sense or that a teacher hasn’t read about before, it would be wise to instruct them to do further research.

It’s far easier to teach a lesson that you are also excited about, and one of the easiest ways to get excited about a lesson is to learn something about it yourself. Encourage your teachers to use each lesson as an opportunity to grow their own faith by reading and researching the lesson at hand.

 

Behavior Problems and Rewards

Anyone who has ever taught a class has quickly learned that each member of the class has a different personality. Children are no different, and no matter how well behaved your class is, chances are there will still be times when you will have to deal with behavior problems.

A teacher who can predict behavior problems and already has a game plan to address them will fare far better than one who does not. That’s why it’s important to train teachers on how to deal with behavior problems.

One of the most simple ways to prevent behavior problems is to care for the children who are in the class.

It may sound elementary, but a child who knows their teacher cares for them is much more likely to put on their best behavior.

Encourage all of your teachers to get to know each child individually.

You can model this in your training session by beginning the session with NERF, a technique used by many teachers. NERF outlines the questions you should ask a student when you first meet them:

N – name
E – education (where do they go to school? What grade are they in?)
R – recreation (what do they do for fun?)
F – family (who is in their family?)

Train your teachers to NERF kids, and then to remember their responses. Kids will feel even more loved and paid attention to if a teacher remembers their NERF responses and refers to them later.

Most behavior problems are either due to an inability to focus or a desire for attention. A lot of these behaviors can be changed with a few changes of teacher behavior.

Go over the following ideas with teachers on how to change behaviors:

Change speaking – Sometimes, a change of speaking method can shake up your lesson enough to cause that kid to start paying attention. Speak slower, whisper, speak louder, put on a funny accent. Do something with your voice that breaks up the monotony and captures attention.

Brain break – If you start to see kids with some glazed over expressions, stop and have a quick brain break where you get their bodies moving. Have all of the kids stand up and do a few jumping jacks, act like a gorilla, run in place, or play a super quick game of Simon Says! Do something to mix up the lesson, and they’re more apt to pay attention after.

Create a leader – If there’s one kid that is consistently an issue, make a leader out of him. Have him come up and act out part of the lesson, read part of the story, or give him a responsibility.

Provide presence – A simple touch of the shoulder or getting up and moving to his area could cause the behavior to lessen a bit. If you choose this method, it’s important to do it in a non-obvious way, and one that is subtle.

Name drop – If you’re telling a bible story, and you have one kid that’s just fazing out, try dropping his name into the story. Maybe you’re talking about David and Goliath, and you’re trying to get Trevor’s attention. You could say something like, “it was like Trevor going up against King Kong!” This will get Trevor’s attention and make him wonder if he’ll appear in the story again!

 

Sunday School Teacher Training Game

As a teacher trainer, you may want to practice some of the methods mentioned above. One of the best ways to practice is to play a little game to get the teachers thinking. Assign each teacher a small group. In the small group, pass out identities to each person in the group other than the leader. The group members will pretend to be the identities on the paper, while the leader will attempt to keep the group on track.

Know It All Karen – She’s probably a pastor’s kid. This girl has been in Sunday School since she was in utero, and she knows every answer. She wants you to know she knows every answer, too, so she’ll be sure to answer every question as quickly as possible.

Lazy Linda – This girl is either unfocused or tired, but either way, she’s not paying attention to a word you say. She might even be literally laying down on the job!

Fighting Frank – Frank has a problem with everything you say, and he’s always willing to play the devil’s advocate. Whatever you say, he has an answer for it.

Rabbit Trail Rob – Rob would rather talk about his legos than anything you have to say. He means well, but his contributions to the group seem to always end up somewhere outside the realm of the teaching for the day.

Shy Shannon – Shannon doesn’t want to answer anything, and she’d rather just fade into the group.

Allow the groups to discuss part of the lesson you gave them for about 5-10 minutes. Once they’ve gotten a chance to really get their group to gel, hold a discussion about the trials from each personality, and the behaviors that were effective. You might also want to ask your trainees why they think each child acts the way they do. They might have been one of these personalities and can tell you what the motivating factor is.

 

Reward and Behavior Systems for Sunday School Teachers

You should also take this time to discuss a reward or behavior system for students, and also, what the protocol is for badly behaved students.

For most Sunday School classes, a group-think behavior system is better than an individual behavior system. Your children’s ministry should all be under the same reward system, so that as new teachers come in, they can easily assimilate to the system without changing too much for the kids.

This is a good idea to have your group choose how to go about it, but here are some ideas to get the discussion started:

Marbles – Have two mason jars filled equally with marbles. One is the jar and one is the jar. As children do noteworthy things, move the marbles from the jar to the jar. As they have behavior problems, silently move a marble from the jar to the jar. When the entire jar is full, let the children pick a reward. This system will take many weeks to earn a reward.

Points – If it’s really important that students bring a bible every week, or you want everyone to answer a discussion question, a points system would work for you. Unlike a marble system, a points system only adds points, rather than taking them away. Create a chart with empty boxes, and for each point earned, put an ‘x’ in a box. When all of the boxes are crossed out, the kids have earned a reward. This system will take many weeks to earn a reward.

Extra Recess – Write six blanks on the board (the way you would if you were playing hangman). As kids are behaving, fill in a letter here or there. If the students can spell the word RECESS before class is over, they get five minutes of free play or free time.

Treasure Chest – Have a collection of small $1 goodies from Target and allow students to choose one at the end of the lesson if they were good. This is the most expensive option.

You will want to discuss with your group not only which method to use, but also what kind of rewards are useful.

Try to stay away from food rewards, as many kids have allergies or their parents may not want them rewarded with food.

Instead, you could use rewards such as: stickers, extra play time, another round of a favorite game, bookmarks, art time, etc.

Also take time to remind teachers that positive affirmation goes a long way. If there’s a student who is being disruptive, praising a student that is doing what you like them to do is a good way to get the disruptive student’s attention. Reward good behaviors with praise, and bad behaviors tend to decrease.

Reward good behaviors with praise, and bad behaviors tend to decrease

This is also a good time to remind teachers of behavior protocol for your church. If a child is acting unruly and the teacher cannot manage the class, what is the protocol for what a teacher should do? Should they bring the student to the church? Should they try to continue teaching? Is there somewhere else they can take the child, or someone who can come get him?

Teaching Methods

There are a few different type of teaching methods that can be used in the classroom, and some may be effective for some students, and not for others.

In addition, teachers may feel more comfortable with some methods than with others. Briefly go over each of the methods, and ask trainees what they see as the positive and negatives of each.

Discuss the different methods, and see if the group can come up with ways to make each one work in a Sunday School setting, and how to reduce the cons.

Direct Instruction – This is usually a more formal style of teaching, and it involves the teacher standing in front of the students and presenting information to them. In this method, the students are listening to the knowledge presented by the teacher.

Hands-on Learning – This is an informal style of teaching where students and teachers both are learning at the same time. It generally requires students to make, create, or engage in activities that will enable them to learn, rather than just listening to an instructor. In this method, students are more active.

Inquiry based learning – This method of learning will require students to initiate the questions that they have, and the teacher to provide answers or resources to answers. For instance, a teacher doing inquiry based learning might give the students the Bible and have them read a passage and then open it up for questions, rather than reading the passage to the students and then asking them questions.

Talk about these different teaching methods, and have trainees discuss when they think would be best to use each one. Remind teachers that they can mix it up at times, and that different children will respond better to different forms of teaching.

This might also be a good time to break back into small groups. Give each small group one of the methods of teaching (or let the teachers pick) and have them practice teaching one section of the lesson using that method. Then come back together and discuss how it went.

Abuse Prevention

Hopefully, none of your trainees will ever come across the issue of suspected abuse. However, the odds are that at some point, there will be a child that comes into your class who is a victim of abuse.

Being a member of a church does not eliminate the threat of abuse.

As the saying goes, “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a gathering of saints.” As adults in the teaching position, we have to remember that the church is indeed made up of sinners, and as is the nature of sin—it’s painful.

There may be children in the congregation who are hurting from abuse.

In many states, teachers, including Sunday School teachers, are mandatory reporters of abuse. This means that if they see or hear something that points to a child being abused in any fashion, they are required to report it. This is hard to do no matter what the circumstances, but many people in faith-based communities find it even harder.

As Christians, we believe that God’s grace covers a multitude of sins. We believe that our God is all-knowing, that He uses even the bad things for good, and that we shouldn’t judge others for God is the ultimate judge. We believe that repentance is essential, and that salvation is dependent on God alone.

All of these factors combine to create a problem in mainstream society where the abuse of children is often overlooked, and abusers are encouraged to simply repent and sin no further.

I would argue that it’s even more important in Christian community to be at the forefront of how to respond to abuse appropriately.

What this means is not brushing the matter under the rug because it’s uncomfortable, or because it may challenge someone’s faith or witness, or because it’s been handled internally as a church. Rather, this means showing children the heart of God—a heart that is about justice, about caring for children, and about holding people accountable for their actions.

In this vein, I would highly suggest finding a church-focused abuse prevention program and requiring all teachers to go through it prior to teaching. Many churches require this already, but if yours doesn’t, now is a great time to start.

Needs of Workers:

As mentioned before, one of the main problems Children’s Ministers have is retaining good Sunday School teachers.

One of the biggest reasons for this is teacher burnout. Part of Sunday School teacher training should include information on how and when to take a break, and how to keep strong in their faith.

Remember that teachers are most likely missing services in order to teach Sunday School.

Remind teachers that it is essential that they bathe their time and their lessons in prayer, as well as that they spend time doing things that are energizing for them.

Encourage your teachers to spend time with their families, to build times to relax and have fun into their weeks, and to spend time with God throughout the week, especially in weeks when they will not be attending a service.

Be mindful of scheduling a teacher to teach Sunday School many weeks in a row, and allow the time off for them to attend church or travel with their families if needed. This will give them a breather and help make Sunday School feel less like a chore, and more like a joy.

Periodically check in with your teachers and ask them how they are doing with burnout. If they are struggling, give them an extra week or two of a breather and fill in or find someone else to.

Your Children’s Ministry is only as strong as those teaching it, and if your teachers are burnt out, your Children’s Ministry will be too.

During training, have teachers make a list of ways they can prevent burnout individually, or hold a discussion with teachers about ways they are planning to help stay energized about the lessons at hand.

Show your volunteer teachers appreciation

Lastly, make sure to show your appreciation to your Sunday School teachers!

The more appreciated a teacher feels, the more likely he or she is to avoid burnout and to continue teaching at a high level.

Send small notes of encouragement to teachers, bring a coffee in once in awhile, have the kids draw thank you letters or notes for them, or hold a special lunch after a church service to show your appreciation. Whatever you can do to say “thank you!” and “you’re valuable” will go a long way.

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