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Volunteer 101

Keith Johnson

7 characteristics that spell the difference between good teachers and great teachers!

The teacher had obviously prepared her lesson because it was full of sticky notes, yellow highlights, and bold words in the margins. She'd clearly rehearsed her presentation because she stood poised behind her music stand, dressed in a striking outfit. During her lesson, the kids in her quiet classroom were too quiet. She'd prepared her lesson, but the children weren't engaged in learning. This fourth-grade teacher couldn't have been more ineffective.

After observing nearly 300 churches in the past five years, I've come to see that very specific competencies separate great teachers from those who are good teachers. While one or two of these qualities are intrinsic, most can be developed. The new teacher mentioned earlier simply lacked the skill to involve children in the lesson. With the right training and resources, though, challenges like these can be easily overcome.

How about you? Are you a good or great teacher? Consider these seven characteristics of effective teachers, and then take the test to find out where you land on the good-to-great continuum.


The French language has two words for "know" that are helpful to our understanding of the English word. They're connaître and savoir. This first word means to know about something. That's what the Bible means when it says the demons believe and tremble. They don't really trust Jesus to run their lives; they only know about him. In the same way, knowing that my wife's ring size is 8 and her eyes are hazel and she stands 5 feet 8 inches tall wouldn't show that I truly know her and love her.

Now savoir is different in remarkable ways. It means to know something experientially! And what I've observed about great teachers is that they may not know all the facts about Jesus Christ, but they know and experience him on a daily basis. This distinction is so great that it separates devils from the devoted followers we call Christians-it's that important! Why is this important in the classroom? Great teachers love and know Jesus, and it overflows to the kids.


"If you can't stand the smell of the sheep, stay out of the pastorate!" said Howard Hendricks, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I laugh every time I think about this, but it's one of the central truths to power in ministry. We must love people! We must love children.

"Miss Donna," a four-minute recruiting commercial in Make It REAL: Group's Easy Teacher Training & Recruitment (Group Publishing, Inc.), makes me weep every time I see it. This teacher (based on the real person who taught my friend Rick Chromey) expresses love through her gentle patience and persistence in the classroom. She never says, "I love you" -- she shows it.

Do you like children? What would children say? They can spot a phony every time. Loving Jesus and loving children are interrelated, and not simply because they share a common verb. Love for children springs from our love for Jesus, or else it's a purely ineffective sentiment. When we love in this way, we "connect the dots" by bringing kids full circle into a growing love for Jesus.


When a classroom teacher genuinely involves children in learning, there's a lot more noise than poise! Christiaan VandenHoevel is the children's pastor at Crossroads Church in Livermore, California, a church that's increased attendance by 2,000 in the past year. I visited his classroom of 4-year-olds, who were busy with meaningful learning in the form of a very active painting project. Shelley was covered with dried paint, but she could quite effectively relate the story of Jesus calming the storm on the blue sea because she was involved in its retelling through the use of messy paint.

Involving children means that, like a coach on the sidelines of a game, you're facilitating the success of your kids' learning, not spending your time doing all the talking. When asked about this important basic characteristic, a group of teachers in Wisconsin used phrases such as "Successful teachers let kids have fun learning"; "Get down on the floor with kids"; "Less hearing, more doing by students"; and "Chaotic learning is better than quiet boredom."


If loving Jesus, loving kids, and involving kids were all one needed (and these are critical), why would so many teachers resign from our classrooms? They've ceased to be learners themselves. The longshoreman-turned-writer Eric Hoffer said, "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

I recently witnessed a remarkable example of a teacher who's ceased to learn. She'd crossed out all the questions directed at the children in her teacher guide and substituted her own. Here's a question she omitted from a lesson about Jesus calming the storm: "What are you afraid of?" Which, if asked, would have given that teacher a wealth of important information about her kids. But she thought that she already knew them, so she short-circuited the thinking/ learning process. In its place she wrote, "Are you afraid of the dark?" and "Are you afraid of lightning?" and finally, "Who's with us when we're afraid?" Now these seem like benign questions, but what do they subtly do? They force-feed information to children in place of allowing them to think. The teacher has already learned the lesson, and teaching for her is simply telling the children what they need to know. This is a fundamental flaw of many teachers, one that's thinly disguised as legitimate and correct information.

When I started in ministry full time, it was the policy of our Christian education board that anyone who taught had to attend quarterly teacher training meetings. As a young children's minister, I thought this was unduly cumbersome because the fact was we needed teachers, and laying out this rather onerous requirement would only scare people away. But after multiple ministry settings and countless teacher training sessions, I'm convinced of its necessity. Teachers who feel too busy or aren't interested in learning something new will, indeed, inherit "a world that no longer exists."


You must know three things and forever be an expert in them: our Bible, your lesson, and your students. I list these three because they're interrelated. The Bible is eternal and will outlast heaven and earth. It's truth, and it's life, and by it we grow. Your students are finite; they're created and they're forever growing. The lesson is the bridge between the world of the student and the world of the Bible. Great teachers get students into the Bible. They must revere the Scriptures; they must "accurately handle the word of truth" because it's "powerful and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" and is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and instruction in righteousness." If you think this Bible is full of inaccuracies, you won't defer to it. If you don't understand today's kids, you won't be relevant, and if you avoid using curriculum that's deftly written and skillfully integrated, you'll be playing hit and miss with your students.


"Great teachers know how to recognize whether kids get it and when to move on," says a teacher in Wisconsin. This shows a level of objectivity and flexibility on the part of a teacher who can read an audience. Great teachers connect personally with their students. Notice this requires an approach that relies less on the lectern and more on the floor -- in other words, being at eye-level with children. Great communicators spend more time understanding their audience than they do preparing their speeches, or in this case, their lessons.

There are many different kinds of students in this world, and we do them a disservice when we teach in a manner that reflects the way we learn, rather than one that accommodates kids' individuality. Howard Gardner has done extensive research since the '60s when he was a graduate student at Harvard. His theory of multiple intelligences suggests another basic principle that separates good teachers from great teachers: Kids are different and that's great!

Because we're all "fearfully and wonderfully made," God doesn't have A students and F students in his Sunday school class. We teach kids about friendship with Jesus, not facts for some future test. This is how we distinguish our ministries from kids' school classrooms.

Keith Johnson is an Ah-Ha Architect for Group Publishing, Inc.


Use this self-test to find areas where you can develop your teaching characteristics.

BASIC 1: Know Jesus

1. I pray at least once a day.

2. I enjoy worshipping at my church every week.

3. I can truly say that my relationship with Jesus is better today than ever.

4. When I'm down or facing difficulty, I always turn to Jesus.

5. My class knows that Jesus is my first love.



BASIC 2: Love Children

1. I know the names of all the children in my class.

2. Children smile at me every week in my class.

3. Hugs or high-fives are always part of my interaction with children.

4. I know what's important in the lives of my children.

5. We celebrate birthdays in my classroom.
BASIC 3: Involve Kids

1. I try not to spend most of my classroom time talking.

2. I never answer my own questions but wait for the children to answer.

3. Set up and take down are fun times to involve kids.

4. I often find myself watching children enjoy themselves.

5. At least once a month children get really sweaty in my class.
BASIC 4: Keep Learning

1. I've attended training in the past three months.

2. I study my lesson and reflect on it during the week.

3. I'm a better teacher today than I was last year.

4. I sometimes allow questions to go unanswered because I don't know.

5. I read my Bible every day.
BASIC 5: Know What You're Teaching

1. I read "Keeping Current" in Children's Ministry Magazine to know kids.

2. I've visited the Web site of the curriculum we use at my church.

3. I'm interested in the world of children and the culture they inhabit.

4. I know how what I teach relates to my church's teaching goals.

5. I take notes when I listen to the sermon in church.
BASIC 6: Communicate Effectively

1. I know when my kids don't get the lesson I'm teaching, and adjust accordingly.

2. I'm energetic, enthusiastic, and fully diligent in my classroom.

3. My children are free to correct me when I make a mistake.

4. I rarely have children miss my class when they don't have to.

5. I call my children during the week if they've missed class (or send a card).
BASIC 7: Understand Kids' Styles

1. I know the way each child learns in my classroom, and adjust accordingly.

2. I try to challenge my children but not exasperate them.

3. Sometimes I go slower when someone isn't "getting it."

4. I avoid lecturing my children.

5. Sometimes I'm uncomfortable with how I'm teaching because it isn't my own learning style.

Total Number of YES _____out of 3

Total Number of NO _____out of 35

Total Number of MAYBE _____out of 35


"Yes" Score=1-15: Set an appointment with your volunteer services coordinator, or take a spiritual gifts inventory. You probably aren't placed in your most effective ministry area.

"Yes" Score=15-25: Spend some one-on-one time with your lead teacher or children's director to work on a personal development plan.

"Yes" Score=25-35: You're ready to be assigned a novice teacher to show them what a great teacher does!

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