The teacher as educator? At first glance the phrase seems redundant, because many of us think that teaching and education are the very same thing. But in reality, lots of things other than teaching have a part in educating us. Books, television, the behavior of other people- all these can educate us, even when they are not trying to teach us anything. Experience can educate, sometimes in a happy way, sometimes less pleasantly. Most of us could describe a personal example of that sort of experience; we say wryly. "I graduated from the college of hard knocks" or "Trying to chair that committee and work with all those opinionated people was a real education!" All of this leads to two conclusions about teaching: first, that it is something very specific, and second, that it is only one among many kinds of education that we experience. Each of these ideas has a great deal to tell us about our church school teaching, and each has many ramifications.
What is the Church School Teacher's Job?
If teaching is something specific, it seems a good first step to define it. And our definition must be even more specific - we are talking in particular about church school teaching. So, how do we define the church school teacher's work? We might say it has to do with using curriculum materials to inform students about the Orthodox faith. We might define it as the effort to make students understand who God is. Both these definitions are correct, but they don't go far enough. Let's define church school teaching in a more dynamic way: its purpose is to give students the desire and the tools to be faithful Orthodox Christians.
Let's begin with the more concrete aspect first: giving students the tools to be Orthodox. This is where our curricular materials come in. They give the basic information-historical, doctrinal, liturgical- that an Orthodox person should know. That knowledge itself is a tool. It is our job as teachers to be very familiar with the information and ready each week to share it effectively with students. But I doubt there is any curriculum writer who would not cheer on a teacher's effort to go beyond the curriculum, to broaden it in a way that no teacher's guide can suggest.
For example, when we teach young children to make the sign of the cross, we can merely make sure that each child knows how many fingers to use, how to touch forehead, shoulders and chest in the right order, and the proper words to go along with the motions. We could stop at that; we have done our job. In fact we have given our students a tool they need - every Orthodox person should know how to make the sign of the cross. But we can go beyond that. We can tell our young people that they share the privilege of making this sign with other Orthodox people on every continent, and with Orthodox ancestors who lived a thousand years ago. We can give them that sense of sharing a great honor, a deep truth, every time they make this sign. How much richer this is than simply seeing to it that they can do it properly!
It is the same in teaching older students. We want them to know, for example, about the Holy Trinity. To know that God is Three Persons yet One God is extremely important for every Christian. That knowledge is a tool for understanding God's relationship with us, His creatures. It is also a tool for understanding the worship of the Church, which constantly recalls and reflects on the great truth that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We could merely be content to expect our students to know who the Three Persons are, and perhaps be able to recite the articles of the Creed that our students to know who the Three Persons are, and perhaps be able to recite the articles of the Creed that describe each one, or cite places where the Bible and the Liturgy describe them. All this is fine as far as it goes, but more could be done. The fact is that God being Three-in-One is a mystery we can never fully understand. He is One; at the same time He is Three distinct Persons perfect in love and cooperation. This is really beyond our human comprehension. Rather than merely giving students the outward facts about the Trinity, we can urge them to think about the privilege God has given us in revealing so great a mystery. We are indeed His children, for He has shown our poor mortal eyes His Being. This is a shining gift from God, to be savored and contemplated and worshipped throughout our life.
A teacher might also do some historical research and present the fact that during the Church's long history it has been very hard for some to accept this Trinitarian revelation. From the fifth-century Arians down to the Jehovah's Witnesses today, many heretical groups have sprung up because peoplecould not accept God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They tried to simplify or alter the teaching in ways that better suited their own ideas. Yet after 2000 years the Orthodox Church stands firm in her adherence to this most basic truth. What a gold mine forclass discussion and consideration!
This is where teaching as the giving of tools mixes with the giving of a desire to be faithful Orthodox Christians. If a teacher seems comfortable with and attuned to what he is teaching, students will be affected. If they can see that he thinks about the material often, because of the ease with which he ties it in with everyday events, they will notice. Such experiences can lead young people to see dedication to Christian teachings as a desirable thing, and lead them to desire that dedication for themselves. Even a simple thing like our attitude on Sunday morning means alot. Do the students see a teacher ready to teach, who looks happy to be there? If so, wonderful. But if the teacher looks fretful, still bustling around "getting ready," it telegraphs the message that the teacher does not consider his "chore" important enough to have prepared for in advance.
Or take the whole question of attendance at services. If students know that we go to feast day Liturgies and to Vespers - even if they don't go - it can have a positive effect on them. If they see us go into church to light a candle or pray before the service, rather than chatting and dawdling till the last possible moment outside, they will see that worship is something we want to do; church is a place we want to be. All this we can do without a trace of ostentation or selfrighteousness. We should never believe that such an example will have no effect on students, including the most inattentive ones. Even preschoolers, with their myriad of interests and notably short attention spans, take in more of our behavior than we could ever dream they would.
The Other Education Our Students Get
We said above that teaching is only one form of education; our students are influenced by many things other than their church school experience. Our direct responsibility is for what we provide in the classroom, and the personal example we give. But we also have an indirect responsibility, which is to reinforce - or if necessary counteract - some of those other influences.
How are young people being educated in today's world? They live in a society with values that are incompatible with Orthodox Christian life. And this society highly values conformity. Consequently, they are pressured to conform to an anti-Orthodox way of life. We teachers need not rail against society's ills every Sunday morning, but we can stress the Church's belief that a follower of Jesus Christ will never feel at home in this world. This belief is reflected in Christ's own words, in the New Testament history of the early Church, in the lives of numerous saints. It is proved true by the harsh experiences of Christians in the many contemporary societies that consider being Christian to be a crime. If we can help students see the truth of this belief, we can help them not fear that ache of "leftoutness" that comes from trying to live as a Christian in a secular society. Rather than try to suppress the ache, we may help them have the courage to pay attention to it and to recognize it as their soul's aching longing for God.
But not all "outside education" our students get is negative. We should look for and discuss with them the good things happening in the world, always giving thanks to God for them. It is important to teach young Christians that this is still His world, and that some of its inhabitants are still trying to do His will.
Does The Church School Have An Image Problem?
Before a teacher can do any sort of teaching, those warm student bodies have to be present. And here is one of our biggest problems: lack of interest, sporadic attendance, general indifference to church school.
I am old enough to remember how the Western movie star Roy Rogers, during his public rodeo shows, would at one point ride to the middle of the arena of his gorgeous horse Trigger. There, bathed in spotlights, he would inform his adoring young fans that "it isn't sissy to go to Sunday School." Well, Trigger is now a stuffed exhibit in some Western museum, and old Roy sure doesn't pack them in like he used to, but the problem is still around. Maybe our kids don't call church school sissy, but it does seem irrelevent to a lot of them. And we feel responsible for their attitude. We want to attract them.
Our chances of doing so are good. We have more resources to hone our teaching skills than ever before. There are teacher training workshops offered by most jurisdictions, as well as useful articles in the Orthodox newspapers. New tapes, filmstrips, and books for teachers keep appearing on the lists of available materials.
Nor are all our resources new ones. A leading Christian educator Locke Bowman, writing in his book Teaching Today, recently wrote about the new interest some Protestants have in observing the Church's feasts and seasons, and discovering the rhythm of the liturgical year. He also described as an excellent teaching device the new series of Bible readings the Protestants have chosen, to cover each day of the year.
Of course, to Protestants these things are new, but the Orthodox Church has always offered them to us. They can be wonderful tools for us to learn about our faith, and also to find ways to pass it on.
It is important, especially when we get discouraged as teachers, to remember that we are not alone in this work. Parents, priests, and the parish council are responsible for the church school too. We should keep in touch constantly, letting them know what is happening in the classroom. Parents can be asked to review things at home with their children, and to read Bible passages with them. Priests should be called on for information that teachers might need about some subject, and should be asked to speak to the students periodically on special topics. The parish council should be told what materials and assistance teachers need, with the expectation that those needs will be treated very seriously.
eaching is serious work. It can be arduous, and sometimes our effects seem to go unappreciated. We won't succeed with every student. But we can affect many. In ways we may not see, and by the grace of God, we can seek and find ways to give our students the desire and the tools to become faithful Orthodox Christians. It is the most precious gift in the world.