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What Teaching Sunday School To Toddlers Taught Me About Mindful Learning

Some of them couldn't walk. Their ability to answer questions was limited. Yet I -- and they -- got so much from the experience.

My wife, an Anglican priest, knew exactly what she was doing. 

At the time, she was working in a church where she was responsible for children and family ministries, which included things like developing and overseeing Sunday School, a youth group and various evening and weekend events. Then there was a community-within-the-community: what I’ll call the zero-to-aged-five set of really little kids. 

This was a group that couldn’t reasonably be expected to take part in the regular Sunday School, but which needed a place to have their own, unique experience. After two unsuccessful attempts at hiring someone to lead this ministry, my wife persuaded me to take up my rightful place in the nursery. 

“You’ll be so good at it,” she lied, pointing out that we had two kids of our own in that age range who would directly benefit. “And it’ll only be about 40 minutes.”

My qualifications for teaching Sunday School were meagre. I was raised Roman Catholic and went to Catholic elementary and secondary schools. I had married someone who had taken Holy Orders (her). That was about it. 

Still, it seemed simple enough. After singing a few hymns and saying prayers during the service, we would all go downstairs to the nursery where I would run a program that included some songs, reading a story, playing some games and making a craft, bookending the whole thing with a few more prayers. How hard could it be? 

It’s really, really hard. 

Our class size went up and down but it could be as little as three and as many as nine. Over the course of about five years, some became old enough to graduate into regular Sunday School. One was my youngest son. When this happened, my friend and fellow teacher grew worried. “But who will answer all the questions?” she asked. 

This was a fair question because, at that point, the other toddlers couldn’t talk. 

Although I’ve since left that church and its nursery behind, what happened during those classes continues to inform a lot of what I think about the process of learning. This includes understanding complex subjects in my work as a technology writer, trying to inform and educate those who have already taken everything from executive coaching and sales courses to Python courses and full stack developer courses.

Looking back, it almost seems laughable to try and get across the fundamentals of theology and the Bible to children still developing fine motor skills, but here’s what I found out. They’re not really commandments, but I’ve almost come to treat them as such: 

I: Thou Shalt Accept The Latency In Acquiring Knowledge

Every class I could either read kid-friendly versions of Bible stories or a well-known children’s book that touched on a similar theme. With enough enthusiasm and wild gesticulating, the kids would pay attention. 

This was often preceded or followed by songs. However there were many, many weeks when I was the only one singing, my face contorted into a smile as the kids stared back as though I were about to be buzzed out of America’s Got Talent. 

One mother, who later became a fellow leader in this ministry, commiserated with me about the lack of response from the kids in the room. One Sunday morning, however, she took me aside. 

I had done a lesson that told the story of Esther and how she summoned the courage to save her people. As usual, the reaction from the babies and toddlers was like crickets chirping. However during a bath much later on, the mother told me, she and her daughter had been talking about courage and she had mentioned someone being “brave like Esther.”

Over time I heard similar stories of kids who looked confused or downright hostile during the lesson, but who talked about it at home afterwards. Sometimes weeks afterwards. 

In the technology world we often talk about the concept of latency, and it’s usually a bad thing. When you’re watching a video and the sound does not align with the image of someone’s lips moving, that’s not good latency. When it takes an application seconds to respond to a basic command, that’s not good latency. 

Teaching Sunday School made me recognize that we sometimes fail to anticipate the latency effect in learning. This isn’t something limited to toddlers, either. Much like failing to memorize something in the moment and then having it come back to you later with perfect recall, I’ve learned to be more patient in letting ideas or skills take up comfortable residence in my brain. 

II: Thou Shalt Recognize The Unseen Students

My wife and I initially worried about finding a second volunteer to join me in the nursery, since legally I couldn’t be alone with them. We needn’t have. At this age, one parent always came down with each child. 

You might think this would make things easier in that I didn’t have to manage temper tantrums or outbursts, but it also meant I wasn’t just looking ridiculous in front of an audience who would likely never remember me. It meant I was singing, reading and acting out in front of adults who almost certainly would. 

Having had three children, I knew that for these parents, coming down to the nursery was a bit of an escape or reprieve from the normal weariness of managing toddlers. I also knew, however, that some of them missed experiencing the main parts of the service, like the weekly sermon. 

At first, I just did my best to ignore them. My focus, after all, was on delivering this rather ambitious educational experience to people whose regular drop-in activities consisted of rolling a ball back and forth across the floor. 

Then, as I got more comfortable, I realized I had an opportunity to not only support these kids in their lives of faith, but their parents in becoming a more active part in those journeys.

I began recommending ways to replicate or extend certain crafts or games at home. 

I suggested additional lyrics to songs we would sing. 

I made sure they could perform the finger plays I was performing, knowing this could sometimes help them fill a few precious minutes when there was nothing else. 

Taking a cue from shows like Sesame Street, which always included in-jokes for parents, I began peppering some of my lessons with allusions or references I knew only the other adults in the room would pick up. I think they appreciated it. 

When I’m learning new skills today, even things like digital marketing, I now think more intentionally about who else might become part of that educational process, even if they’re not there at the time. 

Anything I learn on the job or through additional training, for example, will inevitably get passed on to my clients, at least in part. How can I ensure they’re getting the most useful takeaways? 

What about my peers, to whom I occasionally offer work or who come to me for advice? 

Will my wife be able to use any of my very secular skills in her role?

If you’re teaching, you’re always working with more than the minds of your students, because those minds will connect and transmit to a much wider network. 

III: Thou Shalt Not Learn By Assigned Curricula Alone

My wife did not push me into the metaphorical deep end when she made me a Sunday School teacher. She used a recognized children’s ministry program to source lesson plans that she printed out and provided to me each week. 

There was just one problem. Those lessons would typically work for about 10 to 15 minutes. I needed to fill at least double that. 

This meant, more often than not, I could be found Saturday night (or even early Sunday morning!) scouring the Internet for last-minute ideas on how to playfully get across the meaning of John the Baptist getting beheaded. Or how to create a game that would teach toddlers how to resist the temptations Satan put to Jesus. 

Fortunately, Anglicans don’t have a great tradition of regular confession, because I would be forced to admit that this became kind of fun. I adapted games I’d long forgotten. I wrote original songs that are still performed in that nursery. I became expert in interpreting Scripture via glitter and glue. 

This is very different from my long-ago days as a full-time student, where I not only expected pretty much everything I needed to be in the textbook, but was almost offended when a teacher offered a supplementary reading list. 

When I need to get up to speed on artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things or other game-changing technologies affecting business and society, I now know I need to be actively helping curate the syllabus. This will include not only articles and books but Meetups, videos on YouTube and podcasts. There is no shortage of sources, but the art is in being open to repurposing them in creative ways. 

Even when I still taught Sunday school in the nursery, I realized that a lot of what I was trying to teach might not stick with the kids, but I felt it would be an onramp to what they would learn later.

This is an attitude of mindfulness we should cultivate as lifelong learners, too. It’s not something I can definitively prove. But maybe you can take it on faith. 

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