So, you finished that theology degree that everyone rolled their eyes at, and you’ve found the holy grail: gainful employment in your field. I was in your position a few years ago, except without the theology degree. If I knew then what I know now, I probably still would have made a million mistakes. In hopes that the things I’ve learned might be of use to some other newbie, here are 7 tips for new religion teachers (and if I’m feeling generous, I might even offer a bonus!)
Plan. Do not expect to be spontaneous.
Are you imagining that your best class will involve a deep, free-flowing conversation about Big Ideas with your students? Please put that out of your mind. Your best classes will likely be the ones in which they move between two or three different kinds of learning activities every twenty minutes or so, all linked by a similar theme and directed toward a particular outcome. If any portion of your lesson plan includes “talk about X” or “discussion”, please cross it out immediately.
There may be a point in the academic year when your students want to talk about a particular topic. You won’t know which classes have that in them for at least a few months, and they might not know you or trust you enough to share for at least that long.
As you progress, you will keep adding more options to your bag of tricks: reflective writing, short quizzes to gauge learning, independent reading, group reading, group discussion (with clear discussion questions!), hands-on projects, long-term assignments, worksheets, videos, homework review. Put them in a bag, shake it up, pull out two or three, and write a lesson plan.
Articulate what you want
With your theology degree, you are possibly more familiar with the hypostatic union than with the acronym SWBAT. It stands for “Students will be able to”, and is one of the education catch-phrases you’ll pick up from the people around you with degrees in education. When you’re working on a plan for a lesson or unit, what do you want your students to be able to do, say, or understand at the end of it.
This is not the place for mushy ministerial talk. Students will be able to feel good about themselves and be nice. NO. Students will be able to identify one positive personality trait that they hold, and name and describe three ways that they can use that trait in the service of other people. YES.
I should add this disclaimer: you can write learning objectives on the board all day, and it still won’t have as much of an impact on your class the first day as how you react when someone wants to go to the bathroom, or when they get up out of their chair and start wandering around the room.
Think ahead about what sort of classroom vibe you want. Some teachers allow students to get up, walk around, go to the bathroom or get drinks, and it works fine for them. If that’s not you, think about it before hand. Will there be a bathroom pass? A limit on how many trips to the bubbler someone is allowed each term? Do you want them to push in their chairs after each class? Do you expect raised hands, no exceptions? Think about what you want, and tell them. There are very few wrong ways to run a classroom, as long as you don’t expect your students to read your mind.
Be confident in your worth
When you were in school and everyone thought this was some sort of phase you were going through and eventually you were going to work at Goldman Sachs, they were probably pretty indulgent of your counter-cultural choices. Now that you’ve gone all in, you may encounter a little more resistance.
When you tell people you teach religion some people will immediately and vociferously hold you personally responsible for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Some will press you on your teaching of sexual ethics, even if you are teaching a completely unrelated branch of theology. Some will glare and clarify that you are not at a public school, immediately assuming you are part of a sinister plot to undermine the separation of church and state.
In short, you may not always be approached with a hermeneutic of grace.
At your school you will not run into these same problems (if you do, your school is in trouble). It is possible, sadly, that you might be viewed as teaching a second-tier subject, perhaps by colleagues, perhaps by parents.
Remember: someone hired you to do this job because they think you have value and that the job has value. You took the job because you agree with them. Prayer helps when you come across this challenge. Keep checking in with your vocation.
(NB: It is likely that anyone who ever went to CCD will think they know how to do your job better than you do. If you work in liturgy, multiply that by anyone who ever went to church or saw church on TV or drove by a church. Smile and nod.)
Accept and embrace that you are not the final word
Unless you are teaching seniors, and unless those seniors definitively lack the interest and intellectual curiosity to pursue your subject formally or informally at any point in their life, you will not be the last word on religion.
You do not need to make sure they understand everything perfectly. They won’t. You do not need to make sure to say everything there is to say before the final bell. There’s an adage in theater design that “perfection is not having nothing left to add, but having nothing left to take away”. Let that be your guide.
It is impossible for you to cover everything. Luckily, you don’t have to.
Know your place
You see students for under an hour a day, a few days a week, for just over half the weeks in the year. They come to you a certain way, and they go home every night to a world that shapes them more than what happens in the classroom.
To be blunt, you are not that important to them.
Hopefully every teacher has a few students that go on to list said teacher on the acknowledgment page of their bestseller, or thank them in an acceptance speech. There is a slim likelihood you will be deeply influential in someone’s life. Do not let that distract you from the fact that you are deeply influential for the 50 minutes a day that they are in your classroom.
At the same time, believe that what you are doing in those 50 minutes is extremely important. That’s your job. You push one way, your colleagues push another, students’ parents push another, administration pushes another, and somewhere in the middle of that creative tension everyone finds the right balance.
Don’t expect to feel good
This is related to realizing you are unimportant: the goal of ministry is not for you to feel good. I am SURE you covered this in your ministerial formation, but allow me to offer a quick refresher.
If you were uncool in high school, this is not your chance to be cool. If you just moved to a new city and are feeling lonely, the classroom is not the place to find friends. If you need to be needed, don’t seek out vulnerable students and make them need you.
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. But you knew that already.
There will be days when you are proud of what you are doing and all goes well and you feel really good. Enjoy those days. Just be careful that you are not going into work every day to have your own emotional needs meant.
Love your students
This is the hardest and most nebulous and possibly most controversial piece of advice I have. There are very strict boundaries that you will maintain as a teacher, and they are constructive, appropriate, and necessary. But the more that you open your heart to the people in front of you every day, you may find a unique type of affection and care developing. If you allow this to grow, you will be a better teacher.
Though I don’t usually give bonuses, I’ll make an exception today. If you stick with this for a while – and I hope you will – you will have conflict (which you will manage well, no doubt), disappointment, and frustration. There will be times when you have to forgive your students, their parents, and colleagues. That will be the easy part.
The harder part might be to forgive yourself. There will be mistakes and days when you wish you took a job at Goldman Sachs. Let those days go, put the blunders behind you and be kind to yourself. You’re doing a difficult, exciting, valorous job. Maintain your habit of prayer so that peace is easier to come by. Have fun. You’ll be great.
Anything I left out? I’d love to hear from other teachers what their pieces of advice would be, too!