“Jack, I want to do something else,” a new kindergarten teacher told me. “I’m ready to quit.”
“But you’ve only been teaching three weeks,” I replied, “and you were so gung-ho. What happened?”
“I don’t know, but the kids are off doing their own thing most of the time,” she said. “It’s just not working.”
I couldn’t afford to lose a teacher, especially one who was so enthusiastic just a few weeks earlier. “Let me sit in on your class this Sunday,” I said, “and maybe we can figure it out.”
Just a few minutes into the Sunday school time, the problem was obvious. She was teaching kindergarteners on a third-grade level. This fresh, sweet, but inexperienced teacher was reading the lesson with the children, and most of them couldn’t read. As a young public school teacher myself, I recognized the issue, and I told her.
“You have to teach on their level, whatever it is.” We worked on her methods, planned activities to keep young children engaged, and in just a couple of weeks, the class was enjoying their new teacher. And she was gung-ho again.
I have remembered that particular disconnect between teacher and students because I’ve seen it repeated many times. Good, well-intentioned teachers don’t recognize the learning level or styles of their students, whether they are children, youth, or adults.
It’s critically important at any age level to understand what the student is capable of doing cognitively. For example, if a child is still in a concrete thinking stage and not thinking at an abstract level, he’s going to have a hard time learning about the Trinity. Children who think concretely struggle with concepts that you cannot touch and see.
There is a point in their development when they truly understand more abstract concepts such as sin and forgiveness and what Jesus did on the cross. Reaching that point is different for every student, even adults. We can’t draw a line and say where they must be in their development. But we must understand the appropriate ages and stages in order to teach effectively.
Even for longtime teachers, it’s good to assess the learning level and learning styles of the students. Thinking “my class isn’t getting this” may be an indication that either the material is above their learning level, even if it’s the right grade level. Or, it may mean the class needs different teaching methods, such as learning stations and activities.
I have found that some teachers stick to the teaching styles they like, rather than asking what the students need. Are they visual learners or auditory learners? Do they prefer quiet play or vigorous activity?
Too often, Sunday school looks like school, when it should look more like VBS. The variety of teaching styles and activities employed in VBS are easily translated to Sundays, so that the most exciting (and effective) week of the year is repeated every week all year.
Effective teaching begins with assessing the needs of the learners.
May I recommend …
– Jack Lucas is IBSA’s leadership development director.