Sunday School in the Protestant Reformed Churches (3)

We have, in the past two issues, said quite a bit about Sunday School but virtually nothing about Sunday School teachers. If Sunday School is important beyond what it does for parents, then the caliber of the teachers is extremely important. The effectiveness of the instruction given during the Sunday class session is going to depend on the teacher’s ability to handle the situation. Since, then, a staff of good teachers is of vital importance, one should be careful in his selection of teachers. Not everyone, you know, is able to teach.
There are a couple of qualifications of a competent Sunday School teacher. First and, no doubt, most important, is that he should have a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture, and also of the Reformed Faith as embodied in our Confessions. He should be thoroughly familiar with the lesson under discussion, to be sure; but in order to do an adequate job of teaching any single part of the Bible, one should have a knowledge of the whole of it. He must be able to see relationships, he should try to illustrate certain points with other passages of Scripture, and he should be able to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture. And that is possible only for one who knows the Bible from cover to cover.
The second qualification essential for effectiveness as a teacher, is the ability to communicate well with children. That’s not an easy task. Anyone who has tried teaching Sunday School knows full well that children do not come to class with bated breath, waiting with eager anticipation to drink in every word of the teacher. In fact, it doesn’t take very long at all to determine that the children have other ideas. And it’s this that really tests the mettle of the teacher. It’s this, I dare say, more than any other cause, that drives teachers out of the Sunday School. An iron hand on the part of the teacher can force a semblance of order, but only a whole lot of resourcefulness is going to make it possible to really get those ideas across.
It’s probably true to say that it’s a rare individual who is really good at that. It’s no doubt true also that the ability to teach is a gift, as much as it is a science. But we should not neglect that science part. It’s certainly possible to develop, to become a good teacher. Part of the training of a Sunday School teacher takes place long before he ever thinks of teaching. Through his faithful attendance of catechism and church services, and through his active participation in society, he is acquiring a knowledge of the Bible and of the confessions. He is, in other words, being trained in the subject matter with which he must deal when he, himself, becomes the teacher.
Since few Sunday School teachers have received special training with a view to becoming educators, the training they do receive in pedagogy and educational psychology will be, for the most part, on-the-job-training. There is no teacher like experience. The teacher will soon notice that some methods do not work at all, and that other methods work, howbeit not all the time nor with every individual. The alert, resourceful teacher will learn much simply by experimentation.
He can also, of course, learn much through an interchange of ideas with his fellow teachers. Teacher’s meetings should serve this very valuable purpose. At these meetings the lesson will be discussed, of course. But they need not, by any means, be limited to that. The teachers’ meetings can also provide opportunity to discuss ways and means of teaching the lesson. Teachers should be encouraged to bring up any problem they may have concerning methods of approach, methods of discipline, or whatever. Through general discussion of these matters, each teacher can help and be helped by others. Attendance at teachers’ meetings should, certainly, be mandatory. If some teachers feel that they’ve reached the point where they can no longer be benefitted by teachers’ meetings, then they’d better attend to be a benefit to others.
The teacher who carefully applies himself to his work (both as to mastery of the content and method of presentation) may surely develop into an excellent teacher. This improvement will come, however, only to the extent that one’s heart is in the work. It’s important that teachers remember that God requires one’s best – in every work, of course, but especially in a work as important as this.
Perhaps we ought to say a few words yet about the teacher’s preparation for teaching a lesson. One who takes his work seriously, one who realizes that he has a responsibility before God whose covenant children he is instructing, and with whose Word he is dealing, will never come to class either unprepared or half prepared. Attendance at teachers’ meeting is a must, of course; but study prior to that, and review subsequent to it, are equally important. Teachers’ meetings would lose half their value if no one came prepared. And without a concentrated study and review of the lesson before the meeting of the Sunday School class, the teacher simply would not have everything at his fingertips as he should.
Now then, just how should one prepare for that lesson and what should he be prepared to do. We could begin by saying that the teacher should know much more than simply the details of the lesson story. The children, especially those of the older classes, will already know these details (they certainly will if the parents are working with them). The teacher, therefore, will be able to hold the attention of the class only to the extent that he is able to make the story interesting and challenging. And the only way to accomplish that is through diligent study and research. There are good Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias available which give background concerning people and places mentioned in the Bible. Commentaries are also of great value. That of Alfred Edersheim gives good background as far as history, geography, customs, etc. are concerned. Matthew Henry’s, though not always sound from a doctrinal point of view, is, nevertheless, quite helpful in gaining an understanding of the historical narrative of the Old Testament. The point is, anyway, that the teacher should do as much research as he can to make himself thoroughly familiar with the passage, and enable him to hold the interest of the students.
There’s more involved, though, than simply reaching the point where one can say, “I have mastered this lesson.” There’s still the matter of making what school teachers call a lesson plan. Besides knowing the material, the teacher must also have clearly in mind what his objectives are for that lesson, and how he’s going to attempt to reach them. The objective of the teacher would be to convey to the students the spiritual and/or practical principle(s) found in the story. Now, using a well-planned lesson, the teacher would not simply relate the story and then tack a little moral on the end as an afterthought. These spiritual principles should appear in the story, and they should appear at the proper time and place. Already in the introduction to the lesson the teacher should be directing the students’ attention toward those underlying truths. The introduction, by the way, is an important part of the lesson. It’s possible to lead the child into the story, in a way that will arouse his interest right away at the beginning. Well-planned questions often work quite well to get the students thinking about the right thing. “Well-planned” is the key word. If the teacher leaves the choice of questions and the wording of them, the choice of examples and illustrations and the point in the story at which they will be introduced – if, we say, the teacher leaves these to spur of the moment decisions during his class, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be doing as effective a job as he could if he had planned it thoroughly. A forgotten illustration or a misplaced example just might make the difference between getting the idea across and not getting the idea across.
Well, I’ve about reached the end of my little essay. There’s one thing I should mention yet, though. There is, it seems to me, a very real danger in connection with this whole business of Sunday School. I fear the possibility that to parents, teachers, and children it may sometimes become a purely academic matter. You know what I mean – there’s a lesson for the parents to study with their children; so they, perhaps, do their utmost to have their children master that lesson. There’s a verse to be memorized; so the students study diligently till they are able to recite the words of that text without hesitation or error. There are certain principles that must, somehow or other, get from the mind of the teacher to those of the pupils; so the teacher does his level best to get them there. It shouldn’t be that way. We are dealing with the very Word of God, with those things that are more dear to us than life itself. And I would think that one sure test, to determine whether we are treating them as such, is whether or not we do so prayerfully. For parents and teachers alike, it’s of the utmost importance to seek, in the way of prayer, His guidance. We must recognize that God gives the fruit to our diligent labors, and that we would not even be able to labor as we ought without His sustaining grace. So, by all means, study and prepare prayerfully. Finally, the task of instructing covenant youth is no simple one. It takes a lot of work. But the rewards are great. Ask any Sunday School teacher.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 7 November 1970