Last fall I arrived to class with my course neatly mapped out: What we’d study, what activities we’d do, the works. Five minutes into the first class session, I knew I’d have to scrap the whole thing.
My situation was unusual: I’d been asked by a group of parents to teach an “Apologetics for Kids” class, and it turned out the kids were so well-catechized that they could comfortably articulate all the basics I’d planned to cover as a foundation. More often it will work the other way, and you the instructor will need slow down to review material that students should know, but don’t. In either situation, or a combination of both in a single class, there’s no need to panic — it is for just this reason that you’ve been put on the job.
1. Always keep the essentials in the forefront of your plans.
No matter how introductory or advanced your course is, keep the basics of the Christian faith firmly in mind. It does no good if your students can quote Aquinas all afternoon, but don’t understand the story of salvation. There’s a time and a place for insisting that students meet certain prerequisites for a course, but most parish catechetical programs are not going to be that time and place. You get the students God has entrusted to you, and it’s your job to make sure they hear the Gospel preached.
2. Consult your supervisor.
If the changes you need to make are more than just a quick pause to review and refresh, you need to keep your pastor or director appraised of the situation. Resist the urge to whine, complain, or blame. State the problem in objective terms:
- “My students don’t know basics like the Sign of the Cross and the Our Father.”
- “My students memorized these exact same Bible passages last year, and they are falling asleep on me.”
- “I’ve got three kids who are ready for confirmation this morning, five who are working more or less on grade level, seven who don’t come to Mass and don’t know what I’m talking about when I discuss the parts of the Mass like we’re supposed to study this year, and one who keeps falling asleep at his desk because he gets up a 4AM to catch his bus.”
Then propose a solution:
- “I’d like to take six weeks to review the checklist items from the bishop’s guidelines for grade-level subject mastery.”
- “Since the students already know this material, would it be possible for us to do a quick review, and then use this free Youcat study guide I found to go a little deeper?”
- “I’d like to divide the class into groups, and let the advanced students work independently on some special projects while I put most of my attention on the kids who need more help.”
You might get the green light to go forward with your proposed changes, or to carry them out with some minor tweaking. Your pastor or director might propose a completely different solution that also works. Or you might get a firm, “Teach from the course plans as written, thank you.”
It is very frustrating if you feel that you cannot teach the course you are expected to teach. Charitably assume that there are good reasons you are being asked to teach as directed; sometimes those reasons involve a situation that your director is not at liberty to discuss. Even if you have to limp along with a curriculum that fits poorly, your students are better off in the hands of a skilled and loving instructor than they would be with no instructor at all. Regardless of your situation, give it your best and keep preaching the Gospel.
What to Change and How to Change It
I can’t give you a template for the perfect set of class adjustments, because every class is different. You are going to have to observe and discern, and figure out some solutions that work within the limits of your situation. Some options to keep in mind as possibilities:
- Include a review session at the start of each class, during which you revisit fundamentals from previous years.
- Use part of the class for independent work, with the possibility of grouping students so they can each work at an appropriate level.
- Allow the few especially advanced students to read independently during class time.
- Spend relatively more class time on the parts of the text that best match your students’ needs, and relatively less time on the portions that are too easy or too advanced.
- Work with another instructor to regroup students so that one of you can work with the students who need the most help.
- Find materials at the library or online that teach the topics in your text in a way that students understand it better.
The possibilities go on. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my book, which includes a handful of chapters on teaching techniques that fit the most common problems in parish religious education. I’d like to hear from you: What have you done that works? What did you try that failed? What advice would you give a struggling catechist in need of a course overhaul?