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Help for New Homeschool Teachers

So You’re Teaching a Class?

Practical Help Based on Biblical Principles
for New Teachers and Parents Who Teach

Home school parents are often asked to teach classes for children of other families, when co-op groups are formed for mutual benefit.  The prospect of teaching an academic class can be somewhat daunting for first-time teachers – especially those who feel unprepared because they lack “formal” training.  Having briefly taught a Sunday School class just doesn’t give you the confidence that you need, or let you feel adequtely prepared, to teach an academic class!  Academic instruction is also more intense than the incidental learning that occurs as parents train a child in the way that he should go.

A teacher always needs to lean heavily on the Lord for wisdom and direction, but teaching academic material can be easier if one also seeks the help of others with successful teaching experience.  In that spirit, I would like to share some Biblically-based principles of instruction.  These principles will make your teaching sessions run more smoothly, help you to handle minor issues of misbehavior, and ensure that your students master the content they need to learn.  Many of the principles may seem applicable primarily to younger students, but they are solidly grounded and can be adapted to any age group.  They have been used during twenty years in a variety of classroom settings.  These principles will work for you.

Set Expectations at the Start
The most important principle for successful teaching is to establish firm and realistic expectations.  Our expectations include rules, standards and goals.  We expect our students to achieve success.  The Bible is God’s communication to us of His love and His expectations.  We should communicate to our students that we hold high standards for them – behaviorally, academically, and spiritually.  Expectations need to be established in the first class meeting.  They may need to be reviewed at each class meeting for several weeks.

Consequences for not meeting expectations also need to be presented.  When expectations are not met, we must state clearly and firmly which one was broken, and what consequences will follow, with repetition of our belief that the student can meet them in the future. 

If we establish rules for classroom behavior, it is easy for young children to remember only three or four rules.  They should when appropriate be stated in positive terms.  Only on occasion do extreme behaviors need to be declared as forbidden – as “thou shalt nots....”

For example, a child who repeatedly shouts out in class will need to hear, “In our class, we raise our hands if we have something to share.” Not only does this avoid a personal rebuke of a child, but it re-establishes that the teacher has expectations for all students, and one of the expectations is to raise our hand if we have something we want to share in this setting.

Expressing expectations positively makes it much easier to restate them when offering correction and directions, such as “Line up, and please remember, we keep our hands at our sides.” Four rules that work well for little ones are: (a) six feet on the floor (chairs are solidly planted with young feet on the floor), (b) all eyes up front, (c) hands in your lap (or on your knees,) and (d) raise your hand if you want to share.  These “rules” cover safety, attention, and good manners for classroom behavior.

Honest Praise for Valid Accomplishments
Young students are easily motivated to seek praise from a teacher whom they respect and admire.  When that teacher “catches someone ‘being good,’” other children do a self-check and usually bring their own behavior into line without a word of correction being needed.  You need to make your praise specific – it should state exactly what that child has done (not who they are).  An example would be, “I really appreciate the way that Sandra just raised her hand.” This is a way of repeating expectations without sounding repetitive.

Jesus praised Peter in Matthew 16: 16-17, and he was very specific.  Peter knew exactly what he was doing that Jesus approved.  We know that we should live our lives in such a manner that when we stand before the Lord one day, we will hear Him say, ”Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

The desire for sincere praise is deep within the hearts of us all.  Praise is more than “compliments.” Praise reflects on specific accomplishments – not on attributes over which the child has no influence, such as natural beauty or intelligence.  Praise should b be a natural consequence for the student who meets firm expectations.  Teachers should also praise students who try hard to meet expectations, even if they fall short – they can be praised for the hard work and effort that has been put forth.

One other note needs to be said about praise during teaching time.  If we spend too much of our teaching time praising or restating the rules each time a student errs or succeeds, we will draw too much attention away from our lessons.  We must seek a healthy balance between instructional time for lesson content and time spent on building character, a process that is always underway during interactions. 

Remember that it is possible to correct misbehaviors indirectly, by stating that “someone is not following the rule for __,” without naming the child.  Negative comments directed by name are not typically necessary when praise is given often for positive choices.

Rewards for Hard Work and Consequences for Negative Acts
God’s love is unconditional, and His mercies are new every morning.  Even the most challenging students have attributes that can be praised, and we must ask the Lord’s direction and spiritual discernment to help us find those attributes and give praise for them.

In particular, we cannot allow a child we are teaching to conclude that students who have better grades are more lovable!  It is important that a child’s intrinsic worth not be connected to the academic grades that they obtain!  Each student is uniquely created in the image of God – no matter how they act at the moment or how well they achieve academically!  Thus, we work hard to praise those specific deeds and choices that are praiseworthy in every student, and we must take great care not to leave any child aside.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that there are many contingent promises in the Bible.  There are some promises that depend on our obedience, such as “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” We are to seek first, and then we receive the particular blessings that God has promised in that regard.  God often reminded Israel that they would receive blessings if they were obedient.  Jesus mourned that Jerusalem could not have its children gathered under His protective wing because they would not allow Him (Matthew 23:37).

Working with children in teaching situations, we lay down certain contingencies such as, “Do a good job and receive a high grade.” We make “rewards” contingent upon the child’s fulfilling specific requirements for a task, for adhering to a behavioral rule, or for general performance of academic works.  This use of external motivators brings a child into a place where we can reach or teach them.

Teachers and parents begin a process whereby we gradually teach the child to love learning for internal satisfaction that does not rely on external or material rewards.  We ultimately seek to bring a child’s heart to a place that he or she desires pleasing his or her Heavenly Father as the primary motivation for the best choices in life.  The transfer of a desire to please others into a desire to please God can be taught as we, the teachers, model Christ-like attitudes and principles by which they can learn.

There are many positive “rewards” that can be made part of a learning environment for the young – they love handshakes for a job well done, stickers or smiley faces on a worksheet, or even a pat on the shoulder as a “reward.” If the child’s instructional material is at an appropriate level, if the classroom structures and expectations are in place, and if the teacher is sensitive to student accomplishments, the need for “negative” consequences should be minimal.  There should not be an excessive focus on earning “prizes” or material rewards.  It is also unwise to make regular activities – such as recess – part of a “reward” or “punishment” system.  The time for recess is an important part of developing a whole child – spirit, soul, and body.  There are other significant negative consequences that are more effective overall.

Rewards should be viewed as an “extra” – not the only means of getting students to work.  Our Heavenly Father speaks of giving us eternal rewards, and Proverbs mentions material incentives, but we are cautioned against excessive desire for material wants.  Too much use of a rewards-based system of material rewards stimulates a child’s more fleshly and selfish desires – this is contrary to the best interests of the child. 
That does not mean that the occasional “big” treat shouldn’t be a part of a school year!  A reading goal of 500 pages by each class member may indeed merit a class pizza party!  Exceptional accomplishments merit exceptional treats.  This should not be seen as “bribery” with young children – we are acknowledging that their spirits and minds are immature and cannot derive the mature fruits of satisfaction for a job well done for its own sake.  For older children, rewards and incentives have their place as well.

Have the Full Attention of Every Student
We must have the children’s full attention before we begin to the lessons.  No exceptions.  Again and again, our Lord entreats, “Hearken unto me,” as He shares essential truths.  Our students can only benefit from what we have to share when we expect and require them to pay full attention as we present our teaching material.  This is essential for effective teaching, effective parenting, and effective discipline.  If we do not have the full attention of every student, we should remain silent until each student corrects his or her inattention and is focused on the teacher.  Only occasionally will something need to be said to bring a student to full attention, if silence has been used effectively.

Wise parents require the child to cease what he or she is doing and look directly into the parent’s eyes when correction needs to be given or directions are stated.  The importance of this principle cannot be overstated.  We are teaching the children to focus full attention on the Lord in their adult lives, and we instill courtesy and respect as they are growing.

Setting Up Your Classroom Teaching Area
The well laid out classroom has few discipline issues.  It can be difficult to change much in most co-op settings, since the parents are often using facilities granted them by a church or private building owner.  In those cases, it may be necessary to modify these directions.  Keep in mind the guiding principles, however.
The optimal teaching setting should avoid:
1. Blind areas where you cannot see every student’s face.
2. Areas in which some students have a lot of traffic passing them as others come up to turn in work or seek help.
The classroom should have:
1. Easy-to-travel paths to the teacher’s desk or front of the room.
2. An area for students who need a quieter place to work.
3. Good visibility for all students to see the teacher, a screen for overheads, or a table for demonstrations.
4. Adequate lighting for students who are reading or taking notes.
5. Enough room for students to place their essential learning materials on a desk.
You should have room to walk up and down the rows both to monitor behavior and inspect work.  It is important to be looking at students’ work as they are carrying out tasks.  Your careful attention to them at this stage can prevent their going home without the skills that are needed to work independently.  You should use class teaching time to lay the foundations, and seatwork time to keep an eye out for those who may be struggling.  An effective analogy that comes to mind is that of our Good Shepherd who knows His sheep by name, looks them over carefully as they enter and leave the sheepfold, and who monitors them carefully for signs of disease or trouble.  The successful teacher lays before the students a rich menu of intellectual challenges, but that teacher also provides time for the students to digest that material under careful supervision.

Appropriate Instructional Material
One principle that is too often overlooked by teachers is the requirement that students be given instruction and instructional materials at the level appropriate for their ability.  This is a very significant and essential requirement.  When this principle is ignored, a host of problems can follow – some are academic, some are behavioral.  Without appropriate instructional material, both the teacher and the child may fail to see the connection between misbehavior and frustration over a learning difficulty.  This frustration can cause some deep hurts to the child’s self-confidence and self-image.

It may be the norm to assign all students in a group the same textbook from the same grade level.  However, it may be important for some students in that class to have access to the book in taped format, to reduce the amount of text that they must read per assignment.  Some students may need to have worksheets with larger print to allow them room to write.

Recall that Jesus told his disciples that he had many things he would tell them, but that they were not ready to bear the burden (John 16:12).  As the perfect teacher, Jesus knew exactly what his pupils were prepared to hear and capable of understanding.  How much more should we, as teachers, be sensitive to the younger and more tender hearts and minds? It is significant that Jesus then promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would come and lead them into all truth.

In the same manner, teachers can seek the leading of the Holy Spirit when faced with a student who is struggling with specific instructional materials.  The student may have weaknesses in background that make them unprepared for the material being taught.  The student might have learning disabilities which are outwardly invisible, yet which make it difficult for him or her to acquire knowledge, respond to questions, or retain information.  The student may be dealing with serious emotional issues that are unknown to the instructor, but those issues are a major distraction for the student at that time.

The Lord must give wisdom in dealing with students who are struggling, but it is always important to seek whether the material itself is appropriate for that student.  There are several ways to check on this.  One is, can the student read that material? This may sound too obvious, but research indicates that about one out of five American children have reading difficulties!  (Dyslexia for Educators, Infosheet, Resource Collection, Schwab Foundation for Learning.org/).  That means reading disabilities are a very real possibility for some of the students in any teacher’s class.

Second, the material may be overwhelming in quantity for a child who struggles to write because of motor skills.  Third, the child with language processing problems may be unable to put ideas onto paper.  Fourth, the student with spelling weaknesses will write very elementary sentences that do not reveal the full scope of their learning.

The key point here is to consider whether the material fits the student.  You could even ask the student!  Students are remarkably able to explain what might be happening as they see it.  If problems continue, it is wise to speak with the child’s parent and suggest an evaluation from an educational consultant.  Not only can the child’s disabilities, if any, be identified, but the consultant can provide helpful recommendations for you to work with the child in ways that maximize success.

Monitoring Progress for Accountability
There are several Scriptures that emphasize the need to set goals and press on toward them and to count the cost along the way (Philippians 3:14, Luke 14:28).  We must prepare chldren for the discipline of accountability in all their ways, but as teachers, we are particularly focused on academics.  The expectations established from the outset make it clear that certain criteria are in place for specific assignments.

We can make those standards clearer with the use of pre-determined scoring charts that are called rubrics.  There are plenty of examples and samples that can be downloaded from a variety of Internet sources.  Briefly, a rubric is a chart that delineates specific attributes of non-objective assignments – such as writing or cursive writing -- that are evaluated subjectively.  More importantly, a rubric clearly describes the grade that will be assigned as a function of the quality of work in each of those attribute categories.  The rubric says not only what categories will be judged, but it also tells exactly what to do to achieve high marks.

For example, on creative writing, one of several attributes would be “mechanics.” The rubric might describe an “A” paper as having less than one error in each of the following: punctuation, capitalization, and grammar.  The student who submits a paper with superb writing, terrific content, but three errors in punctuation and capitalization would not get an “A” grade for the mechanics portion of the composition.  The important point, however, is that the student knew in advance what was required because the rubric was available as a guide during the time the student did the work.  Because the work did not meet the expected standards, the outcome is clear to student and teacher.

As stated earlier, the teacher’s expectations are a critical ingredient for student success.  The rubric is a very powerful teaching tool that functions for students the same way that God’s Ten Commandments do for a believer.  They spell out clearly and specifically those qualities and behaviors that God requires – everyone is equally informed and has the choice of how devoted to be to meet the requirements.  Scripture teaches, however, that no one can meet God’s standard apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the enablement of the Holy Spirit!  (Galatians 3:24; Romans 2-3).

The rubric, then, is an essential part of the teaching plan as well as the means for evaluation.  The rubric, or scoring guide, is one more way to clarify expectations for specific assignments.

Setting Behavioral Expectations
Teacher expectations are critical, and they are an essential element of good instruction.  Clear expectations are a means of eliminating discipline issues as well.  Just as students require structure in assignments, the use of consistent behavioral standards provides a great sense of safety for the student -- he or she will not be hit blindside by breaking an unknown rule. 

Once in a while, it will happen that a student will break a teacher’s rules.  These situations require a response, of course, but that response must be one that leads to repentance and changed heart attitudes – or at least lays the foundation for such change.  The principle of accountability plays a significant role in dealing with disciplining children.  There are many examples of sowing and reaping throughout the Bible, too many to mention.  We are told to “train up a child in the way that he should go...” (Proverbs 22:6-7).  Accountability requires that there be consequences of a misdeed, but correction unto repentance requires not only pointing out what was wrong, but also the right way to act.

There is a set of questions that can effectively deal with rule-breaking in a way that is non-threatening to the child’s self-esteem.  The questionshave brought forth good fruit for many students.

When a child has not met the teacher’s expectations, the teacher asks the following questions in sequence:
1. What did you do? This invites and requires confession.
2. Who did it hurt? This directs the child outside defensive self-justification, to think of others.
3. Who did it help? This can help the child see the selfishness and thoughtlessness of the act.
4. What are you going to do about it? The teacher can use this step to lead the child to pray.  The child gets a chance to repent and restore relationship by taking positive actions, seeking reconciliation, or making amends (Biblical restitution).
5. What should you do next time? The child can be led to build positive steps for better choices next time.
It can readily be seen that these steps do not allow the child to avoid consequences nor their own accountability for misbehavior.  The steps take time to be administered properly by a loving adult.  For older students, the steps can be accomplished initially through a written assignment rather than a discussion, followed by teacher or parental discussion.  The personal involvement of the teacher or parent is essential in training the child’s heart in the way he should go.  This is very consistent with Godly principles of accountability.

For extreme misbehaviors, in addition to the above, punishment may be necessary, but it should be arranged in consultation with the student’s parents.  A Biblical principle for guidance in this situation is that mercy follows and triumphs over judgment (James 2:13) – the judgment involving a penalty must come first, before the mercy.  Remember that we were not set free until after Jesus paid the penalty at the cross.

Handling Students Who Will Not Do The Work
It is essential for the student’s growth in responsibility, as well as for academic success, that academic work be completed correctly.  It is not likely to help the student when the teacher publicly shames the student – embarrassment has seldom brought improvement in student achievement nor in student attitudes.  It is a given that the home schooled student will be submitted to parental influences, and the parents’ involvement is an essential element in correcting rebellious attitudes.

The student who will not complete assignments knows that he or she is not meeting teacher expectations.  That is evident, and the student often makes ineffective efforts at trying to cover up the failure to carry out assignments. 

It is seldom wise to ask the child, “Did you do the work?” because it can add an opportunity to lie about the missing work, which is leading the child into temptation.  There is a better way to deal with not-completed work.  You can lead the child to confess his or her negative choice by asking:
1. "Did you know what to do?" This question can help the teacher determine whether the assignment was clearly presented and explained.  It can help the teacher decide whether he or she needs to take more care in explaining assignments.
2. "Do you know how to do the assignment?" The answer to this question will help the teacher learn whether the child has learning problems.
3. "Are there distractions or other reasons that prevented you from doing the work?" (The dog that ate homework does not qualify here!) After the child has been led through these questions, and you have explored whether the child has the ability and knew what to do, you lead up to question #4.
4. "So, you chose not to do the work?" Once you determine that the not-completed work is a consequence of refusal to carry out an assignment, it has reached a level of an issue where discipline will be appropriate -- one for which there will be negative consequence (loss of free time, a note home, etc.).  The teacher may have spelled out consequences, and the parent should be involved with applying those consequences.  Teacher and parents should seek a solution to this situation as a team.
The responses to questions 1-3 may lead to an opportunity to provide necessary help, accommodations for students who may lack skills, and/or to provide emotional support for a child who needs help.

Handling Students Who Cannot Do the Work
It is a frequent event in the classroom that at least one student submits work that is significantly below expectations, no matter how carefully those requirements were spelled out in advance.  In some cases there may be factors beyond control that brought the student to class without completed work.  It is best, particularly when the teacher does not have the full story, to ask the student privately to meet after the end of the class. 

If the student was responsible for a presentation that affects the outcome of the entire class, then it may not be possible to handle the situation without some awareness of that student’s failure by the other students.  In such situations, it is wise to fill in the missing information that the class requires to progress – whether from student volunteers or the teacher’s providing what is required.  The student should be required to remain behind after class to investigate that student’s failure to participate as required.

The questions suggested earlier are a useful and non-confrontational way to open the discussion.  The teacher is well advised to remember that some students will risk noncompliance rather than risk exposure for inadequate skills!  The negative attention of teacher disapproval is safer than public humiliation of looking “dumb.” Thus, the student should first be given a safe opportunity to provide an explanation for not doing the work -- for whatever reason.  The teacher will require the discernment of the Holy Spirit to determine the truth of the student’s explanation.

Once there has been a satisfactory explanation from the student, it is essential that the teacher restate his or her positive expectations for that student’s success on the assigned work or project.  Older students can be very articulate in self-evaluating what is working and what is not working for them.  They may be facing impossible situations due to family illness or crisis; they may be trying to hold a job and work on schoolwork; or they may be lacking the academic skills necessary to complete the job.  The teacher must sensitively explore with the older student what needs to be a priority and what positive steps the student can take to fulfill teacher expectations as well as make good on the missing work.

Consequences for failure to submit required work must have been clearly set forth at the onset of the instructional term.  Without having the expectations in place in advance, the teacher is subject to making circumstantially based decisions that will be unfair to that student and to the others as well.  Such relative “justice” is a very poor example of God’s justice and does not model fairness to the student.  Our responsibility as teaching is not a situation-based set of expectations.  We can certainly have mercy – as noted earlier, James 2:13 states that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (discernment and fair consequences for failure to meet expectations.) It is essential however that we seek to show consistency as much as possible. 

Upper Grade Level Expectations
As with younger students, for older students it is critical that teacher expectations be crystal clear for school work and conduct.  We expect higher levels of self-governance with older students, rather than a closely supervised externally-imposed system of classroom behavior management.  There remains a need to have policy in place for work that is not completed and for misbehavior, rudeness, or unkind behaviors toward classmates.  The issues do not change much in working with older students, but the opportunities are greater for a more in-depth exchange of ideas and creative thinking.

The teacher is under closer scrutiny by the older student, and situations may be more complex for an older student.  Therefore, the teacher must be a very solidly-grounded model of Christ’s behaviors and attitudes in every interaction with the students.

The principles that underlie solid teaching are effective at any grade.  Suggestions up to this point have most directly applied to younger students.  To effectively reach and teach older students, it will be necessary to modify the manner in which these principles are implemented.  As we train up the child in the way he should go, the maturing adolescent student becomes more capable of handling responsibility.  The opinions and ideas of the adolescent matter greatly to the child.  Without putting the leadership for the course in the hands of the student, teachers can acknowledge the increasing importance of these ideas by bringing students into decision making as much as may be appropriate for their ages.  We are seeking to plant within the students’ hearts opportunities to grow under carefully controlled supervision.  This avoids having students become automatons who merely repeat facts verbatim. 

We can gradually accomplish this transfer of responsibility for the student’s own learning as follows:
1. Invite student input into goal-setting activities.  After laying out the boundaries of the course assignment, such as a research project, help the student break down the big picture of a long-term assignment into smaller goals.  Provide minimal inputs as you lead the student to set the timetable that would be necessary to achieve the goals.

2. Involve the student in discussing the standards to be used in evaluating some assignments.  This is by no means absolving the teacher of the role of leadership.  Rather, this process stretches the student into thinking of appropriate standards that should be applied to evaluate personal work products.  It pushes the student into being an active participant in learning rather than a passive recipient of some other person’s knowledge.  This is solid training for a real-world job where the hiring company expects the hired personnel to know how to plan and achieve goals.

3. Encourage the student to imagine what an ideal version of the project or work would be like.  You should lead carefully to make sure that all essential areas are included in the final model that the student imagines.  The preparation for long-range planning and an ability to visualize the outcome provide real and tangible motivations for the student’s work.

4. You may want to have the student sign a “contract” which states what is expected and what the rewards and consequences for non-fulfillment are to be.  This is also an ideal training ground for adult responsibility and job training.  The teacher is always in the leadership role, carefully leading the student, handing out rewards and consequences.

5. Encourage the students to consider more than one way to be evaluated.  The real world does not provide one-size-fits-all performance ratings, college grades, and personal success.  As the student progresses through the project or long-range assignment, it may be necessary for changes to be made with teacher approval.  The on-going mid-course corrections are very positive teachable moments for the student.  The teacher’s handling of these “crisis” points can model positive ways to interact with future supervisors or professors.

6. Make certain as the student progresses through the planning of long-range projects that he or she is provided with ample structure in the form of checkpoints or target dates.  These help the students deal realistically with pressure and planning skills.

7. Each element of the above incorporates the key elements of accountability, responsibility, and teacher expectations.  In maturity, what changes most is that the student becomes self-motivated and self-directed under God’s leadership and Lordship.  The student must learn to set Godly goals, seek God’s direction and practice obedience to an unseen Father rather than a visible instructor or parent.  The transition can be made easier with carefully established increases in the student’s life for practice of accountability and responsibility.
Concluding Comments
It can be immensely satisfying to work with students, and it is hoped that the above suggestions will provide many useful tips and guidelines for parents who share teaching responsibilities for students beyond the immediate family.  The principles shared here are useful for successful teaching – no matter whether the students come from one’s own family or from others’ families.  The principal task is to present a Godly model and example of one who teaches by being a living book!  The academics are important for effective citizenship in this world and the character formation is essential for citizenship in the eternal kingdom.  What a powerful role of trust is given to teachers.  Base your knowledge and your practices on the Lord’s direction, and you can expect to see an abundant harvest from the seeds you plant in young hearts and minds.

Special thanks to Dr. Marilyn Stepnowski whose teaching at Regent University in the 1980s opened up many of these principles to me, so I could watch them work over and over in my classroom.