#2 – Great Teachers Set High Expectations

Article 2 of 4 in a series from Neil MacQueen, www.sundayresources.net
Insights for Sunday School gleaned from the book Teach Like a Champion (TLAC,  D. Lemov).

Doug Lemov spent thousand of hours observing, interviewing, and videotaping great teachers in public schools, and distilled their characteristics and strategies in his book, Teach Like a Champion. This series of articles by Neil MacQueen summarizes many of those traits and practices from a Sunday School point of view. I’ve also adapted some of his wording for a Sunday School setting.

Great Teachers create Great Students by Setting High Expectations

Seems pretty obvious, but in Lemov’s book, he describes several “high expectation techniques” that great teachers use to improve student performance which for our purposes easily translate into Sunday School.

They include:

“No Opt Out”  …great teachers do not let reluctant students rely on, “I don’t know.”   During discussion, for example, instead of moving on to a student who DOES know, great teachers rephrase questions to help the reluctant student participate. This also reduces student’s stress about being called-on, or about being “wrong.” They come to learn that the teacher isn’t trying to put them on the spot and will help them think of an answer.  (In article 3 in this series, I’ll share Lemov’s conclusions about how great teachers ask great questions and get everyone partipating.)

[In Sunday School, kids often come in “cold” to our lesson content, and some don’t want to be there. Since we can’t grade them, they know they can sit back and “opt out.” I’ve seen many volunteer teachers only talking to the kids who will talk to them.  And rather than trying to draw a student into answering a question, they simply lecture. I’ve often observed among older “good” students –they will clam up around the “opted out kids.”  Non-participating kids make the participators feel uncomfortable. This is especially true as they approach their pre-teen years and have an increased desire to fit in. Thus, if a teacher allows “opt out” behavior or is doing things that encourage it, it can have the unintended consequence for the willing students.]

Not Accepting “Close but Wrong Answers”  …average teachers accept a “nearly correct answer” and then add their own “more correct” answer. Great teachers say things like, “You’re almost right, can you explain that a little further?”  and, “That’s close, but what about….”  And, “Kim just hit a double on that, can someone help her get home on that?”

[Especially as they get older, kids don’t want to look stupid in front of their peers. Thus, our Sunday School teachers need to excercise positive reinforcement when responding to a student who didn’t give the correct answer to a question. We don’t have the luxury of compulsory attendance. If we subtlely send the wrong message, we may be subtlely helping them to not come back. ]

“Stretch It”  …good teachers follow up on a student’s right answer by asking them a follow up question.  Example, “You’re right, King David did do that, –can you think of some reasons  ‘why’ he did it?”

“No Teacher Opt-Out!”  …good teachers don’t “discount” their content with comments like, “I know this is a little boring, but….”  That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather, good teachers discuss WHY material might be important and how it can be applied. (Neil comment: I often start off my own lessons by telling the students WHY I think today’s lesson is important.)  Great teachers says things like:   “This is great because it really challenges us to grow.” “You’re going to learn something that many people have been searching for their whole lives.”  “There’s a secret inside this story that’s going to amaze you, but we’re going to have to really dig to find it.”

Neil Comments on Teacher “opt in”:
One of my personal techniques for setting a high level of expectation is to tell the kids at the BEGINNING of the lesson WHY I think it is an important lesson to learn. To do that, I’ve found that it helps to SHARE A PERSONAL STORY that relates to the lesson of the day. Example:  “Today we’re going to learn about a paralyzed man who’s friends brought him to Jesus, and I’m here to tell you, once upon a time, I WAS that paralyzed man…..”

After briefly sharing a story from my experience, I’ll segway into asking students if they have had a similar experience.  Example:  “Do you know someone who’s life is kind of messed up right now? …is making bad choices, or is faced with some medical problems?” ( Of course they do.) And so before we even get into the Bible’s story, they’ve become invested.

Sharing personal stories at the BEGINNING of the lesson (rather than waiting til the end where many lesson plans place such sharing), creates a BUY-IN.  Especially with older students, it dispels the question, “is this class going to be relevant and interesting?”   It “opts in” the students.

(Neil continues to comment:) 
Appropriate self-disclosure is a powerful teaching technique.
Telling our story, and inviting students to tell THEIR  stories is an important part of sharing the Good News, in part, because the Good News needs “bad news” to contrast it with.  Example:  “Once upon a time in my life, I thought I didn’t need anybody’s help. I knew about Jesus, but didn’t really want to be close to him. I didn’t think I needed healed or anything. I was just like the paralyzed man, -but paralyzed by my lack of faith, and my disinterest in learning anything more about Jesus. I didn’t want to go see Jesus because I thought church was boring.. Fortunately, I had some friends who got through to me.”

Part of the power of  sharing your own story is that personal sharing can help forge a bond teachers and students. Students care more about content if they sense it’s important to you.

The story doesn’t always have to be personal, however. They can be about people you’ve known. They can be pulled from the headlines, from the lives of pop/sports stars, or from stories you have gleaned from books.  Relevance helps students opt-in.

Preachers use this technique all the time… telling a story that parallels what the Bible passage is about.  It’s important to remember, however, that the stories shouldn’t always be about you, and ultimately, they should be used to help students express their own stories.

Feel free to post your own comments & suggestions below.


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