Sunday School for Dummies: How to Use and Develop New Teachers
Do you have more teaching slots for adult Sunday School programs than you have teachers to fill them? More than a few pastors would say so.
In my church, we have 850 members, quite a few of whom are excellent teachers. But to fill our schedule of adult Sunday school classes we need 72 teachers each year, assuming no one teaches more than one quarter each. It’s a stretch to find that many men who know their Bibles well and are capable teachers and have the time to devote to teaching a class.
Our solution? We have adapted our adult Sunday school program to accommodate less-qualified teachers. Aside from filling a class schedule, this enables us to train more men to teach, which carries additional benefits.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE FOR DEVELOPING NEW SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHERS
As our adult Sunday school program has matured, we have learned a number of tricks of the trade for developing inexperienced teachers. Here are a few of the more salient lessons:
1. Ask new teachers to teach from a manuscript.
We’ve found over the years that while teaching from a manuscript is unnatural for most new teachers, with some practice most can learn to do this in a way that is engaging and compelling. If we must choose, we would rather have material that is biblically sound but presented dryly than a compelling speaker teaching heresy or fluff. And, over time, with a manuscript our teachers can generally provide the best of both worlds.
This isn’t just our church’s experience. Prior to working as a full-time pastor, I ran a line of business at an executive education firm. There also, the dozens of new teachers who started with the company each year began by teaching from a manuscript, and for largely the same reasons. The integrity of the content was virtually guaranteed, and new teachers could quickly learn to be engaging with a manuscript.
Of course, this approach to teaching has its advantages and disadvantages.
- Quality control. As a pastor, I can review any manuscript before it is taught. And if I hear concerns about a class that was taught, I can review the manuscript to figure out exactly what was said.
- Time management. One of a new teacher’s greatest pitfalls is that they try to squeeze too much material into too little time. Limiting the number of words in a manuscript (say 4000 words for a 45 minute class) is a substantial help.
- Continuous improvement. Each new teacher who picks up a manuscript has the opportunity to change it and improve it. By maintaining a word-for-word manuscript, these improvements are captured over time.
- Time investment. Having a manuscript by no means eliminates preparation time for teaching a class, but it certainly reduces it.
One potential disadvantage worth mentioning:
- Class engagement. Teaching from a manuscript has the potential to make a class very dull, so we do a few things to minimize this risk. First, we ask new teachers to read a manuscript out loud at least two or three times before they teach it at church. As teachers get used to teaching from a manuscript, this type of preparation becomes less necessary. Second, once each year we run a teaching clinic to help teachers teach from a manuscript in an engaging way. Third, we encourage teachers to break from the manuscript every now and then, especially when they are sharing a personal story as an illustration.
2. Adopt a master-teacher, rather than discussion-based, approach.
A discussion-based class is less predictable and thus much more difficult to manage than a class where the majority of the talking is from the teacher at the front of the class. As a result, most of the adult Sunday School classes at our church are based on a master-teacher approach, and the few that are more conversational in nature are taught by more experienced teachers.
The master-teacher approach has additional benefits as well. By relying primarily on what the teacher has to say rather than what the class has to say, we are able to communicate more material in the short time that we have. And this approach makes it clear that we are most interested in hearing what the teacher has to say rather than what the class has to say. After all, the teacher is the one selected by the elders based on his understanding of the content, and the teacher is the one who spent several hours preparing for the class.
But, you might say, people learn better in an interactive environment, don’t they? Maybe you’ve heard the statistics which say that people retain 10% of what they read, 30% of what they hear, and 70% of what they discuss. As it turns out, these figures are not grounded in any kind of research and have been disproved repeatedly. People can refine their ability to learn from a monologue. After all, the primary teaching methods we see in the New Testament are sermons and letters designed to be read to churches—both monologues by their very nature.
Of course, a master-teacher approach does have its drawbacks. Here are some of the disadvantages of this style and some ways we’ve tried to compensate:
- Master-teacher style can be un-engaging. We strongly encourage our teachers to not only stop for questions, but to periodically ask the class a question or two. One best practice for starting a class is to ask a question of the class in which the answer gets to the main teaching point of the class. This helps the class to wake up, engages them in the content, and gives them a preview of what is about to be taught. Of course, the best questions rarely have a clear “right” answer but instead engender discussion by inviting multiple people to voice their perspectives.
- People often prefer talking to listening. A class billed as “discussion-oriented” will often garner more interest than one billed as a “lecture.” I suppose the only thing that will ultimately change this attitude is your people’s experience benefiting from lecture-based classes. To help, however, we equip our teachers at our annual teacher training session with an explanation of why we prefer the master-teacher format so they in turn can explain our reasoning when asked.
3. Adopt a team-teaching approach for each class.
A final strategy for helping inexperienced teachers to teach effectively is to ensure that at least two men are responsible for teaching each class. Ideally, one of them (the “lead” teacher) has more experience and one of them (the “supporting” teacher) is new to public teaching. In some of our classes, we actually have three different men teach so that we can train more men in the skill of teaching.
Below are some of the expectations for lead and supporting teachers that we’ve established over time.
Lead Teacher Expectations
- Attend every class, even when not teaching.
- Meet with the supporting teacher at least once every other week (can be by phone) to exchange feedback and discuss how the class is going.
- Provide ultimate ownership for the class manuscript, reviewing all substantive changes by the supporting teacher and ensuring that a copy of the manuscripts is sent to the church office once the class is complete.
- Commit to being the lead teacher for at least three years (barring unforeseen circumstances, of course).
Supporting Teacher Expectations
- Attend every class, even when not teaching.
- When teaching, provide a copy of the manuscript to the lead teacher so that the lead teacher can differentiate between extemporaneous comments and material in the manuscript.
- Meet with the lead teacher at least once every two weeks.
Sometimes the lead teacher is responsible for the majority of teaching. But many of our lead teachers, having embraced their role as coaches, prefer to do the minority of teaching so that more opportunities can be given to helping a new teacher learn how to teach.
 Lalley, J., & R. Miller (2007). The learning pyramid: Does it point in teachers in the right direction? Education 128 (1), 64-79. Available here.