10 Ways to Encourage Teachers

February 13th, 2012

I knew a grade school teacher who had an overflowing bookcase of mugs and apple tchotchkes and slogan boards in her apartment. She often received 26 per year, which is the number of students she averaged in her third grade. On the last day of school, parents showed up with “a little something.”  After thirty years of teaching, these mementos added up. When she retired, she dusted them all regularly and kept their clutteredness as a sign of what she used to do and who she used to be.  Sometimes the dust rag would find a little something it couldn’t rub off: it was the wonder about whether what she had done had really mattered.

Sunday school teachers experience the same wonder as the grade school teacher. Does what they do each weekend matter? And if so, how? We don’t need to give a material gift to a teacher as much as a spiritual one. That gift is the gift of encouragement; possibly for the Sunday when no one shows up, unaware as they were that the lesson had been particularly well prepared. The gift of encouragement is different than appreciation. Appreciation is part of the art of the well done exchange: we thank you for what you said you would do, and we thank you for showing up and doing what you said you would try to do. Teachers will also feel appreciated if the congregation or pastor or parents do these things. But appreciation doesn’t touch the matter of meaning or impact.

Encouragement goes a little deeper: we want you to do what you said you would do with drive and purpose. We want you to know it matters. Encouragement means to put in the heart (coeur in French and corazon in Spanish), the core of our being. It means to pump the heart and to fill it with a willingness to try even what is hard, even what might make a heart afraid.  Encouragement overcomes the sense that what we do might not matter or might not matter enough.  It is the action of reflection following the action and deepening the action over time. What fills the heart and gets to the core of encouragement is mutual, participatory reflection by teacher and the community he or she serves. Encouragement comes from the heart and goes to the heart.

What follows are ten ways to grant courage to Sunday school teachers, beyond the obvious asking how things are going. These ten are hardly sufficient but they are a start on seeing Sunday School teachers as part of an action-reflection loop.

  1. Mend the gap. Make sure the congregation knows who the teachers are. Integrate what happens in one part of the building with what happens in another part, especially if Sunday school happens at the same time as adult worship. Name the teachers in the newsletter, on the web site, in the bulletin. Act proud of them.
  2. Be sure the children are in the adult service at least once a month. When they are there, have the teachers bless them out loud. We use a Nigerian blessing every communion Sunday when dismissing the children, after their fifteen minutes of fame. “Go to the far corners of the earth and always know that this place is one of your spiritual homes.”  Repetition over time ritualizes the welcome.
  3. Fight the second-class citizen tendency. Make sure the Christian Education Director and/or the teachers get to speak out loud, in public, in such a way that the children get to hear them speaking. Increase their authority with the children they serve at every turn.
  4. Stand with your teachers. If there are complaints about anybody in the Sunday school, react like somebody pulled the fire alarm. Defend the teachers. Mediate with the parents. Engage the difficult child or children. If the pastor or the council is not actively engaged, the teacher will feel hung out to dry. That is no place for a teacher to be.
  5. Have an annual heart to heart with the Sunday school teacher you want to retain and keep filled over time. Talk about his or her ministry and its long-term significance.
  6. Help the children to be thankful. They can write letters, sing a song, dedicate a song, and surprise a teacher in a pageant. Give the kids a way to look like the good guys in the system.
  7. Offer vacations. Put the teachers on a rotation so that they don’t get sick of doing even the very thing they enjoy. Have strong substitutes ready, willing, and able to fill in so that teachers don't have to stress about missing a week now and then.
  8. Say something personal about the teachers in the congregation’s annual report.  Name names. Tell the number of years they have taught. Ask for an anecdote.
  9. Set term limits. Three years is plenty of time for a person to be without the sustenance of regular worship or education.
  10. Implement an apprentice program. Choose the best people to be a part of it and have them train “under” someone who does a good job. Today's teachers feel extra-special, and you get better teachers for tomorrow.

If you follow these points—or creative ones that you come up with on your own, custom designed by your congregation and its teachers—you will find a very encouraging Sunday school environment, one that benefits children in thought, example, and deed. You will also have happy teachers, whose hearts are full.

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