Controlling The Pitch

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One of my deepest convictions about teaching is that it must be
learner-focused. I believe that’s the biblical model. When Jesus
taught, he didn’t throw a fast pitch of truth out to people and
expect them to bat like the pros. Instead, he brought great truths
to people in ways they could grasp — like you do when you teach a
toddler to play catch. Jesus told stories based on learners’
personal experiences. He brought objects from their world along to
make his point. He took the time to get to know who his learners
were, then he developed personal ways to meet their needs.

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Sometimes we use curriculum like a fast pitch. We prepare, wind
up, throw, and hope the kids catch the message. Don’t get me wrong
here — I believe in the value of good curriculum and have spent
many hours writing and editing lessons that I hope anyone can use
effectively. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can
get the focus off what we educators do and on what our students
do.

I’ve discovered there are lots of ways to do this. We make sure
we greet each child by name. We ask questions about what’s
important to kids — and we listen. We hone our observation skills
so we can better understand a child’s play. We display children’s
artwork. We mold clay with them. We talk to parents. We visit
homes. We focus on kids’ voices so when they call our names, we can
answer without looking to see who spoke. We ask their opinions. We
give them opportunities to retell the story to us. We pray for them
– not just in passing — but really communicate with God about who
these children are and who they’ll become. And as we do these
things, we begin to see ways we can tweak our lessons so the
activities we bring to the classroom aren’t just appropriate for
the age level we’re teaching, but they’re also appropriate for the
children we’re teaching.

When I student-taught more years ago than I like to brag about,
my supervising teacher told me something that continues to form me
as a teacher as it plays over and over in my head. She said, “Lori,
you aren’t these kids’ mother. They all have mothers. You aren’t
their friend. They have friends. But you’re the only fifth-grade
teacher they’ll ever have.” I learned from Juanita Yancey that I
needed to know my place in my learners’ lives, and theirs in
mine.

Children don’t learn from curriculum (as wonderful a tool as it
is). Children don’t learn from Sunday school (as wonderful a place
as it is). Children learn from relationships with teachers like
you.

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Because you know your students, you can speak into their lives
in a way no one else can. If we aren’t clearly convinced of our
place in kids’ lives, we may be tempted to focus on our
preparation, our neat activities, our storytelling ability — and
subtly lose track of the vision that it’s all about them and God’s
grace that comes through us as vehicles of his love.

So choose the best curriculum you can find. Use all your
teaching tools to the best of your ability. Prepare as though the
peace of the session depends on it (it does). Learn everything you
can about developmental characteristics. But remember: The most
important knowledge you have — the expertise no one else can mimic
that’ll make a difference in your learners’ lives — is the fact
that you know them.

Lori Niles is the teaching director of Moreland Family
Preschool, an associate pastor, and a teacher at the seminary level
in Portland, Oregon.

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