I am blessed to live and work near the University of Notre Dame. Summers are always a great time here. I’m a graduate of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program and my wife still works for one of the ACE programs so I get to hang around people who are passionate about Catholic education all summer long. I also get to meet and talk to first-year teachers enrolled in the ACE Service through Teaching program.
As they were leaving Notre Dame and heading to their first jobs as teachers, it got me thinking, what would be the one piece of advice I would give to myself years ago before my first year as a teacher or catechist?
There is no question in my mind, the number-one piece of advice I have to give first-year religious educators is . . .
In fact, this is a good advice for any teacher whether you are just starting out or moving on to your second, third, fourth, or even fifth year of teaching.
The only way to really learn and improve at anything is to fail. You really don’t know what is going to work well and you never know until you try.
Failure is truly the best way to get better and it’s at the core of the Christian message. Christ died on the cross and rose again. The disciples constantly failed to listen and understand the message of Jesus, which prepared them for their ministry after his death and resurrection. They knew the struggle, they knew defeat, and they knew what it meant to be successful.
Turning Failure into Success
Here are a few ways that you can turn failure into a productive learning experience as quickly as possible:
1. Study other teachers and test out their techniques.
You have a specific personality and approach to teaching that will always be unique to you. As you progress in your career, you will start to take on a style that is uniquely your own. Like clothes in the outlet mall, you have to try things on to see if they fit. Keep what works and quickly set aside the techniques that don’t work. Don’t try to be someone you’re not, but learn from other teachers to get better at your craft.
2. Think outside the box.
Veteran teachers tend to dismiss new ideas and approaches to education. It is easy for us to get set in our ways. Most of us feel there is a certain way of doing things that is the only way to do them. When you are just starting out, it is your chance to do unconventional things and learn from them. Not all of them will work, in fact, most of them will fail, but you will be creating a repertoire of techniques that will make your classes unique and engaging experiences years down the line.
3. Be predictable 80% of the time.
Plan 80% of your lesson in a predictable framework. Use resources and approaches to teaching that you can rely on to be effective. For example, if you use some of the activity pack resources at The Religion Teacher (i.e. Lent & Advent), you will follow a predictable format during each lesson:
- watch the video,
- complete the graphic organizer,
- answer questions and add comments,
- complete the practice worksheet,
- and take the quiz.
You can use a similar format with your textbook and the resources that the publisher provides.
Now with the other 20% of your time with the students, experiment with new and exciting activities and projects. Try them out and see if they are effective in meeting learning goals or deepening your students’ relationships with Christ. If it doesn’t work move on to something else next time. If it does work, try it again. Turn it into one of your 80% of predictable activities. Students will expect it and they will know it works.
4. Measure what works.
How do you know if something is effective or not? First of all, don’t base your judgments on what the kids say. They would play games all day if they could. You have to find a balance between the activities that get kids asking, “Can we do that again?,” and activities that are effective.
Here are questions to ask to measure if an activity is effective or not:
- Did the students meet the lesson objective?
- Did the students show understanding in verbal discussion, on a worksheet, in a quiz, or on the test?
- Did the students ask meaningful questions about what they were learning while they worked on the activity?
- Did the students display appropriate openness to God’s grace during the activity (quietness, verbal participation, meditative posture, etc.)?
- Did any students talk to you personally about the activity? Did they say it helped them or that it was just fun?
Okay, there are my two cents. How about you? What advice would you give to a beginning teacher or catechist?
(photo credit: audiolucistore)