I come from a long line of church teachers.
My grandmother taught Sunday school; my mother taught Sunday school; I taught Sunday school. After that, I taught a few small groups and youth groups and college groups. And then I decided I didn’t have enough teaching in my life, went and got my Ph.D., and became a college professor, too.
Most Sunday School teachers or small group leaders in many churches are lay people, like I was, with no formal training. I’ve been blessed by so many of these teachers, whose call was unmistakable, and who explained and analyzed the Word for me and with me. And yet I boggle at how little support or training so many of our church teachers receive.
In most churches I’ve attended, teachers and small group leaders who have been called to teach and approved by the church receive a study guide or book (if they are lucky), given a class, and unleashed without further instruction or help. And while it’s simple enough to go “by the book,” and while plenty of teachers I knew and loved had enough natural ability to simply fall into the rhythm of teaching, I’ve watched others struggle for lack of guidance. Many people have the calling to teach, but lack the training that might help them be better or more effective at doing so.
In light of that, and in celebration of the fact that college classes are starting for the winter term, a set of six tips for teachers and small group leaders who might otherwise be going it alone:
1. Don’t think “letting God lead” means “winging it.” Have a plan for your session. The amount of people who can convincingly “wing it” while leading a class or a study is about 75% smaller than the amount of people who think they can “wing it.” Have an idea of what your key points will be and what you want to touch on; sketch out an outline to guide you so that you aren’t led astray by tangents and what-ifs and random questions. The plan will vary by individual – mine are more like loose outlines because I like speaking extemporaneously – but have something. Not knowing where you plan to go in your teaching or guiding can lead to meandering, rambling, and…well, a really bored or confused group. Besides, you’re the teacher/leader: your job is to be prepared.
2. Do your research. A lot of small group and Sunday School leaders are given a curriculum – a book or a guide – and told “teach!” After that, they rely mostly on…well, the guide and pretty much nothing else. In fact, I’ve been in courses where the “teaching” was nothing more than the teacher reading through the guide with us. That’s not the way it’s supposed to go. Part of teaching is broadening your scope – either to answer questions, to provide context, or to help people to think more deeply about what they’re reading. If teaching was just reading a book alongside other people, we wouldn’t need teachers at all. So do some research. Read any supplementary materials that come with your texts (especially since texts can be fallible!). Get online – there are tons of Biblical resources and translations at hand. Look for real-life stories or other Bible stories that might relate so that you can share them. And be sure to give yourself the time to do those things.
3. Know the personality of your group and respond accordingly. The leader of a group is the one who dictates the tone and tenor of it. That means it’s your responsibility for how things unfold, where the discussion goes, and what happens or doesn’t happen. Watch out for people who get “talked over” or constantly interrupted, and make sure they have time to speak if they need it. Gently moderate those who have a tendency to run off on tangents or take over the conversation. If nobody wants to speak, try to find out why. Do you have a shy group, a talkative group, or a contentious group? Figure out the personality and identity of your group, and keep a watch on the members during discussions and meetings. There’s always going to be a time in which the Spirit might work and take things in an interesting direction, but keeping a general eye on things can avoid a lot of the problems that crop up in small groups and Sunday School classes. Many a class or study has been derailed by people who monopolize the time; by people who simply sit in awkward silence and stare at each other; by people who don’t do the reading; by people who say hurtful things; by people who want to talk but need to take some time to think. It’s your job to smooth these things over – that’s part of the reason you’re there!
4. Know the purpose of your group and abide by it. This is ultimately something that will be decided between your church and you, or whomever has given you the class, but make sure you know what the group is meant to do and what your role is. Are you a Bible study leader – someone to guide discussion, keep things moving, and encourage reading of the Word? Are you a teacher – someone to explicate and offer ideas or thoughts on interpretation and analysis? Is the group fellowship-oriented or study-oriented? For new Christians or longtime believers or both? Figure out what the group is meant to do and what your role in that will be, and then dwell in that role. If no one knows, or if the answer is “whatever you want,” then be sure to define it for yourself so you can define it to others. Nothing’s worse than when a group meant for study devolves into a chips ‘n’ dip bonanza; nothing’s worse for people who came to hang out over chips ‘n’ dip to get smacked in the head by grad school theology. You don’t want to lecture at a group that’s meant to be discussion based; you don’t want to ask leading questions during a class where you’re meant to lecture. Make sure you’ve pinned down the fine details!
5. Learn how to communicate well. I know so many knowledgeable, wonderful teachers who have been bewildered by their shrinking classes or the disinterest of their members. When I’ve attended their classes, though, I understood immediately: these teachers spoke the entire time in monotone, or never looked up from a page to glance out at the class, or never asked for feedback, or rushed through the entire lesson without pausing for breath. What follows are some communication tips to help you communicate more effectively. Don’t fret – these are field-tested!
– If you’re talking a lot, breathe after every period, or between your sentences. A full breath. This will slow you down if you’re a fast talker. People will be able to digest big chunks of words better if they have time to process them.
– Make eye contact. If you’re glued to a page, you miss the ability to gauge other people’s responses and react accordingly. Pause after a sentence, or a joke. Glance around. Smile. You don’t need to stare one person into the back wall, but let your eyes glance over people naturally. Pay attention to the people in the room with you. Even lecture-based teaching does not occur in a vacuum; it’s a communal experience between you and those listening. Besides, looking at people will tell you if they’re bored, if they’re confused, or if you need to clarify something.
– Vary your tone. If you’re telling a story, and it’s sad, don’t be afraid to sound sad. If you’re telling a joke, laugh or smile. Try to avoid mumbling or speaking in monotone. If this means you need to practice what you want to say in advance, practice it.
– Add interest and consider different learning styles. Don’t be afraid to be human. Share some funny, interesting, or powerful anecdotes – even from your own life. Tell a story or two. If there’s a picture or a song or a video you like that works, incorporate it. If some people like to pipe in and offer ideas and answer questions, allow for that. If using a prop makes the point, give it a go. Some people learn by looking, some by listening, others by doing, and still more by a combination of all of those things.
6. Be authentic. There is no “ideal teacher” for you to imitate. My “teacher” personality is pretty cheerful and good-humored in terms of how I interact with a class: I joke, I tease, I tell stories that matter to me. Some people will be more sardonic, others more serious, some gentle, some emboldened. Whoever you are, be that person. Lean on the stories and experiences that matter to you. Don’t add a joke because you think you need to be funny; add a joke because you think it’s funny. Don’t tell a story because it seems meaningful; tell a story because you think it’s meaningful. Your authenticity and your connection to the material will be contagious.
Hopefully at least some of these tips will offer a little more guidance than some of our teachers and leaders often get; go forward in confidence that God has called you and will use you for His glory, whatever happens.