Word is going around church that I kicked the high school boys out of Sunday School last week. While this is not necessarily true I’ve decided I kind of like the reputation of a bad-ass chick who will kick kids out of class in a heartbeat. So I let it ride.
Allow me to bask in this new personality for a minute before I tell you what really happened. Aging Nerds need all the help our image can get. My favorite game to play with youth is Two Truths and a Lie. In this game everyone tells three things about themselves and the others have to guess which are the truths and which is the lie. I always tell them: “I have a motorcycle license. I have a concealed handgun license. I have a tattoo.” I figure any one of those would surprise them and give me some street cred. You do what you can to get them to see through the gray hair and dumpy physique. You walk a fine line between accepting yourself for who you are and being relevant to youth in a very superficial society. I seem to always be teetering on the edge.
On the Sunday in question the boys commandeered the couch in the corner. One group of girls sat politely in the chairs across the room and another group of girls buried themselves in the pile of pillows in another corner and settled in for a nap. This was not an auspicious beginning. I opened with prayer while silently praying “Dear Lord God Almighty: don’t let them smell fear."
Within fifteen minutes the boys were positively vibrating with energy while one clump of girls had fallen asleep and the other group had begun to talk amongst themselves. Clearly I had lost control. Sitting around discussing the finer points of The Prodigal Son was not going to cut it today.
Here is my philosophy of teaching:
· Kids want to learn.· The bible is a vibrant collection of action, drama and poetry. It is interesting of itself and all the leader needs to do is get out of God’s way.· Sometimes some kids have a harder time paying attention than others.· Any time an adult engages in a power struggle with youth they have already lost.· A good teacher will find a way to adjust her tools in order to engage a class.· Any time you are in a position where you need to ask someone to pay attention, instead of doing that you should just go to Plan B.
My problem Sunday was that I had no Plan B.
I fell back on a question that had worked for me once before. Years ago in Confirmation Class I had a kid similarly hyped up and out of control. He had somehow ended up beneath the counter in the church kitchen. I sat down on the floor next to him, wrapped my arms around him and earnestly asked, “Stephen, how can I help you?”
I figured he had the best intentions and also had more experience in being himself and might know what I could do to help bring him back into the fold. I felt him relax in my arms and he gave me an honest answer: “I don’t know.” But somehow just asking him that question told him I cared—that I was on his side and wanted to figure this out with him.
That kid is now in his third year of Seminary. He still has more energy than he can contain sometimes but he’s also learned how to cope with it well enough to make grad school happy.
So, last Sunday, I tried that same tactic. I asked the boys what they needed from me that would help them calm themselves down. They suggested that it would help them to go outside and throw a football around. So I said to go do that—go outside and burn off the energy. I didn’t mention the cold reality: nothing was going to happen in class the way it was going because I had no Plan B. They stood up and walked to the door. At the door they lingered like they weren’t sure they really had permission to leave. I sent them off with a cheery and carefree shooing motion: “Go on. Run around outside. Just don’t be late for church.” I didn’t think this was quite the bad-ass benediction the boys heard from me but it is far more satisfying to think I have my bluff in.
Clearly I need to get a Plan B. And Plan C. Maybe a whole set going all the way to Plan P or Q. I will be consulting several Christian Educators and Youth Directors over the next few days. I’ll go over countless training manuals for youth work because I know there is a tool out there.
I also think our classroom is too big. The church recently bought a house that sits next door to the main church building. The house came with a detached 2-car garage and they immediately dubbed it the youth house. Every congregation dreams of this. They outfitted it with carpet and air-conditioning. It has a foosball table. There is a big couch in one corner suitable for sleeping. There’s a big pile of throw pillows in the other corner. And enough room in the center of the room for wild games without bumping into anything. The three clumps of kids were able to get 30 feet of empty space between themselves. And that was the mistake.
I have long held a whole philosophy of Big Spaces. I wrote a blog about why you don’t want to live in a big house. Whenever you set out to develop a faith community you need to get the group as physically close as you can get without getting kinky. Every year at Synod Youth Workshop the small group leaders are assigned a room for their group time and every small group leader I know hopes they get a room that is not too big. I’ve known leaders who blocked off part of the room in order to make it smaller. The experienced leaders know you can build community faster and easier if you are all crammed together.
I have some work ahead of me but I’m confident this is do-able. Send me any ideas you’ve got-- I’m open to anything no matter how harebrained-- just as long as it’s legal and affordable.
I might be willing to fudge on the legal part if you’re sure it will work.