It is time to drag this weekly trauma out from under the church carpet and equip teachers to handle it.
Public schools, it is said, have lost control of the kids. Professional educators are alternately pitied and blamed for what Gallup says the public perceives as the most pressing problem in education. Christians, in particular, see lack of school discipline as both reflecting, and contributing to, lax moral standards in society as a whole.
But perhaps we should recall the biblical admonition about the beam in our own eye. Maybe we ought to turn our scrutiny inward to those Sunday morning church school classes that often never settle down, and at times break into open revolt.
Lack of discipline in Sunday school is a rarely publicized, pervasive problem in many churches. Tardiness, rowdiness, talking back to the teacher, and refusing to participate actively are often the standard menu of behavior on Sunday morning in the juvenile wing of the church. Sunday school teachers are often frazzled after only 45 minutes with a relatively small group of youngsters. It is not unusual to see these poor souls drag in late and dazed to the 11 o’clock service, stumble exhausted and depressed into a pew, and lapse into a glazed stare indicative of fervent, silent prayer. Happily for them, Sunday school happens only once a week and only for a brief period.
But why isn’t Sunday school a delightful experience? Why do students often act even worse in Sunday school classes than in public school classes? What can be done to improve church school behavior?
We will look in vain for simple answers. Perhaps Sunday school misbehavior arises from circumstances that relate more to the preparation and status of Sunday school teachers than to the characteristics of young people. When we look closely at how teachers are recruited and trained in many churches, the wonder is that student behavior is not worse than it is.
In most churches, Sunday school teachers are decent people who have been talked into “serving” through some subtle or not-so-subtle pressure. I was recruited by a dentist who, standing over me with drill in hand, said he didn’t know whether he could go on if he could not get away from “those kids”—his eighth-grade Sunday school class—for at least a summer. But goodness of heart, guilt, or (in my case) fear do not prepare one to do that job well. Even taking a job out of personal or religious commitment does not guarantee success.
What does prepare a person to do a job well is training. But very few Sunday school teachers come to the task with the needed skills, and even fewer learn those skills through on-the-job training. It is not completely true that good teaching prevents discipline problems; nonetheless, good teaching is of more help than good intentions.
Sunday school teachers need training in how to teach, and particularly in building a group, in speaking in front of a group, leading discussions, asking questions, planning lessons, and using audio-visual aids. A well-thought-out lesson, developed through questioning and discussion, supported by visual aids, and brought to a stimulating close, does not happen by accident or through good will. Sunday school teaching, no less than other teaching, requires training in instructional skills.
It also requires training in the skills of class management and discipline. Only recently (and reluctantly) have educators come to realize that good instructional skills alone will not create an orderly atmosphere for learning. The historical reluctance of those who educate public school teachers to go beyond instructional into management skills is part of the reason for the crisis over discipline in the public schools. But until these same skills are taught to Sunday school teachers, we cannot reasonably expect Sunday morning discipline to get better. Class management skills include nonverbal signaling, attending to two or more things at once, moving closer or farther away as the situation demands, and manipulating the physical environment.
Class management skills complement instructional skills and can be learned at the same time. For example, leading a successful discussion requires that the teacher first provide the students, generally through a visual aid, with something interesting enough to talk about. Then it requires careful questioning and refereeing. But discussion is also enhanced by a seating arrangement that lets students see one another’s faces instead of the backs of each other’s heads. Also important is a teacher’s eye contact, and movement that signals students nonverbally about when to talk and when to stop talking.
Teaching skills, of course, are form without matter unless the teacher has something to teach. Many Sunday school teachers simply do not know much about the content of religious education. Some curriculum guides are a tremendous help, but the teacher must understand the Bible and Christianity well enough to answer difficult questions students pose. The answer, “We accept this on faith,” may be true, but when given too often, it sounds like ignorance. Rigorous study in the content of Christianity is required.
But no one is a professional Sunday school teacher. Most teachers have other things to do, and must make time to prepare lessons and to teach. It is hard enough to get people to teach without also asking them to attend training sessions. We can partially solve the problem by attacking yet another reason for the poor discipline in Sunday school: the lack of status of the office of Sunday school teacher.
Status, it can be argued, is a particularly unchristian concept; we are all equal before the Lord. However, here on earth high status, authority, and respect seem to go hand in hand, and it would help Sunday school discipline if churches were to take steps to raise the status of the Sunday school faculty in the eyes of their students. Students know that for the most part, their teachers have little or no training or expertise in the subject or in its communication. Training, as already suggested, will remedy that to a large extent.
But in many cases, to get teachers to participate in training, churches will first have to raise their status. The initial step is recruitment. Church leaders must quit begging for warm bodies, and they must establish standards for teachers. These standards may not be exceptionally high necessarily, but high enough to lend some credibility to the people who meet them, and some desirability to the job.
Next, the people selected should be dealt with as a group. They should meet together, be referred to as a faculty in church notices, and should function as a group vis-à-vis other church activities. This would both make Sunday school teaching more attractive to those who shy away from it because it isolates people from their peers at church, and increase student regard for their teachers as people who are a little “special.”
Sunday school teachers would benefit from a little low-key “marketing and selling.” Having faculty members introduced in church at the start of the new church-school year is a good idea. So is devoting a bulletin board to a “teacher of the month,” or including short biographical sketches in the church bulletin or newspaper. What is badly needed is a perception of the Sunday school teacher as a person worthy of the respect of both adults and children.
Higher status, visibility, and training in teaching and content will improve discipline by increasing the teacher’s authority. How we feel about authority and our changing attitudes about what constitutes legitimate power are issues at the very heart of the discipline crisis in both public schools and Sunday schools.
Less well recognized are several different kinds of authority or power one person can exercise with another or with a group. The kind most used in Sunday schools is “normative” power. This calls on social or cultural norms that govern a situation, and these are assumed to be held in common. It sounds like, “Remember where you are, folks,” and “Is that how Christ would want us to act in his house?” In some churches, normative authority is the only kind the Sunday school teacher ever tries.
Unfortunately, many young people do not recognize such authority as legitimate in the Sunday school classroom. The teacher’s norms are not the same as those the student recognizes. Students are more likely to consider Sunday school as a time to socialize and visit with friends rather than as a time for reverence or spiritual growth. The student’s norms are social, the teacher’s are spiritual, and no amount of “ought tos” and “shoulds” can close that gap.
Happily, there are other kinds of authority that are both readily accepted by students and effective. “Exchange” power uses the promises of reward in return for good behavior: “If you will all just be quiet so we can get through the lesson, I’ll let you out five minutes early.” Exchange power has been used successfully in some Sunday school classes, but of the possible alternative kinds of authority it is ultimately the least effective. Rewarding children for good behavior works only up to the point where they come to value the behavior themselves. After a child has come to value “listening,” for example, a reward for that behavior decreases the likelihood it will be performed.
Similarly acceptable is “referent” power. Its use depends on the child’s desire to identify with some person or group. One common type is peer pressure, and all parents of teen-agers know how strong this can be. The effective teacher views peer pressure not as an adversary, but as a friend. The most well-disciplined and effective classes are often those where students control each other’s behavior.
Peer pressure works for the teacher when he or she turns over some power to the students. In practice, this means the Sunday school teacher needs to let the class have a say in determining class rules and curriculum. This is not accomplished by saying, “Okay, kids, what’d’ya want to do today?” Rather, the teacher may decide in advance on some alternatives, present them to the class, and let the members choose. That way, the students buy into the curriculum or rule, and have a stake in seeing it followed.
Another kind of referent power is often called “modeling.” Here the student is attracted to the teacher as a human being, and wants to grow up to be like that person. Modeling can have extraordinarily strong effects which, in the extreme, can be undesirable, but which in moderation can lead to enormous personal growth for youngsters, and to good behavior. Successful modeling, of course, depends upon the Sunday school teacher possessing personal characteristics that are worth emulating.
Another effective kind of power is “ecological” power, and is at the heart of many class management techniques. It depends on the teacher’s successful manipulation of the physical or social environment. The teacher who seats himself right beside the class talker is exercising ecological power, as is the teacher who refrains from handing out the paint or clay until instructions for its use are given.
The last kind of authority is “expert” power. This is grounded in the students’ recognition of the teacher’s superior knowledge and skill. It requires that teachers actually have more knowledge and skill than students, and that they are able to convey that knowledge and skill through instruction. This leads us, of course, back to the necessity for training in content, instructional techniques, and class management skills.
Sunday school classrooms can be well run. They can be places of learning. But to bring that about we need to recruit teachers into status positions, and systematically train them in content and teaching skills. Until that happens, many Sunday schools are likely to remain little more than places to stash the kids while the adults go about their business, and the teachers are likely to be little more than frazzled baby sitters. Surely religious education deserves more.
Margaret S. Verble is a writer and instructional consultant living in Greenville, Kentucky. In 1980 she wrote a television course, “Dealing in Discipline,” consisting of 12 programs and a book (University of Mid-America).
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