Ten Points For Maintaining High Standards in Smaller Church Schools

1. Class should meet every Sunday for the full ____minutes. (classes should meet for at least 35 weeks per year, and a minimum of 45 minutes)

2. Classes should have (and follow) a real Orthodox curriculum, even if this is self-designed.

3. No story telling or favorite topics should get in the way of the day’s material.

4. Use only experienced, “trained”* teachers, or have those who are not, work with someone more experienced if possible.

5. Make sure all teachers have ongoing training and regular meetings together with the church school director.

6. Run the church school professionally, using:
a. application forms for teachers/volunteers
b. student “registration day”
c. church school announcements in bulletins, newsletters, posters, web site, and sent home with students
d. keep attendance, and recognize good attendance
e. have programs and pageants just as you would in a larger church school

7. Involve the parish:
a. have “open house” and programs to which all are invited
b. have a supply drive, soliciting donations of pencils, crayons, colored paper, etc.
c. have a display once or twice a year in a central place, showing student’s work, art projects, and the curriculum you use
d. ask the priest to talk up church school just before it opens, and have him recognize the teachers in some way

8. Place is important. Make sure each class has: a quiet place in which to meet, good lighting, enough tables and chairs, a whiteboard/chalkboard, and wastebasket, as well as a supply container which includes pencils, pens, pencil sharpener, crayons, paste, paper, colored paper, tape, scissors and glue sticks.

9. Have a high standard for student behavior. Students should be reasonably attentive and respectful of the teacher and others. If a student is out of control, he should not be in the class with others who are trying to learn. Call Mom or Dad!

10. Last but certainly not least, include prayer in the package. Pray about your class and lesson before hand, pray with your students in class, and model for them how to pray for themselves and (especially) others.

Remember, high standards foster a good learning environment where your students can learn about their faith, and see examples of how to live an Orthodox life. Even though you will probably not see many instant rewards, what you say and do can have profound effect on your students later. You are helping foster the future Orthodox Christian laity, deacons, priests, church school directors, choir directors, etc. What an awesome thing that is, and what an important position you hold!

Note: by "trained" we do not necessarily mean people with a college teaching degree, but people experienced in the field, who have taken opportunity to take teacher training when available to them. If you would like to provide a teacher training opportunity for your parish, contact your diocesan Christian Education representative, or Myra Kovalak, OCEC Director of Teacher Training at: mekovalak@gmail.com .

Teacher Meetings

Many of us hate meetings, myself sometimes included. Many we sit through seem to have no real purpose, and we wonder whether these folks have never heard of e-mails or memos or what. When it comes to church school however, they are vital. The only way a church school staff (be it two or three, or a hundred) can effectively work together as a team is not only by communicating with each other (e-mails are great for this), but also, by actually sitting down together and hashing through problems, and planning together for the future. Often, we then find that others have had our very experiences, and may indeed, have the solutions we are searching for. Also, we find that our weaknesses are another’s strengths, and we can take advantage of this. Needless to say, face-to-face meetings help to minimize discontent, misunderstandings and unhappiness within the ranks as well.

I believe teachers’ meetings should take place not less than three times during the year- a number of weeks before church school is to start, during the Christmas break, and at the end of the school term. (Do this fairly soon after, while everything is fresh in everyone’s minds.) I suggest you make this fun- perhaps combine with a pot-luck or a barbecue. (People are happier with food!) Make sure the time is convenient for all of your teachers, and do not finalize the date until you have all committed to it. Give lots of notice, of course.

Review successes and failures, and discuss. Ask for feedback on how the teachers feel about the curriculum, and respond in concrete ways to their comments. You may need to rethink what you are using, if it doesn’t seem to be working well, even with your help. You may need to find more resources to supplement. Ask for suggestions. People come up with wonderful ideas when planning together, and the church school director does not need to come up with all of the ideas, nor should she/he.

If you are the director, be sure to thank your teachers, and tell them (honestly) how you plan to support them and give them training during the coming period. If your parish has never done so, ask the Department to come and do a training for your teachers. This costs you nothing, and you can get your teachers certified by the Church in this way. (It is also a good way to meet teachers from other nearby Orthodox parishes, whom you will of course, invite.)
A good bit of your planning time will need to be spent thinking of how the material you have can be adjusted for use by a wider age range. You may wish to break up into groups of about four or five and work together on this. Do not try to cover the entire year, but focus on the few months coming up. That will be enough work for you!

A Three or Four Year Curriculum Plan

There are many ways to determine what curriculum plan you want to follow. If you are using a good curriculoum series, this is really done for you. You can choose to follow a series of books such as Fr. Hopko's 4 book "Rainbow" Series. This series is divided into five categories: doctrine, spirituality, church history, scripture and liturgy.

This is a great series for reference, and you should certainly own them, but it will need a good bit of work on your part to make it "used friendly." If however, you want to use several resources, or this does not work for you, I found the following guideline worked well:

Areas to Be Covered:
Old Testament

New Testament

Church History


Church Music

Church Teachings (theology)

Church Practice (what we do and why we do it)

Each of these general categories will probably be touched upon each year. Decide which topics you wish to center on during a certain year, and take the material you wish to use and “tweak it” for each age level.

For example, with the Sacraments, you may wish to cover them in this way:

Year 1: Baptism and Holy Communion

Year 2: Confession and Anointing

Year 3: Marriage and the Priesthood

Then in year one, you will teach Baptism and Holy Communion to all, just on different levels. Same for teaching lives of Saints, or any other topic.

*This plan is a must if you are designing your own curriculum, but can be very useful too, even if you are using actual textbooks. Your 45 minutes or hour should not consist only of using the textbook, but of supplementary material- films, games, maps, lives of the Saints, stories, etc.

Adjusting Curriculum to Age Level

Adjusting Curriculum to Meet Age Level Needs

Before you take on the task of adjusting curriculum to meet the needs of your class, review Bloom's Taxonomy if you are able. (Or another similar reference.) This will tell you what sorts of learning styles and abilities are found at various age levels. Then, read on.

What do you do if your class is not composed of only one age or grade level? There are ways to adjust the curriculum you use to make this easier. Begin by filling in the questionnaire below, and go on to read the posting to the right: "Cognitive Levels of Learning"

(Prior to filling this out, inventory your supplies!)

Curriculum Title: ________________________________
Original Level: ______________
Level/s to be Adjusted to: ______________
Lesson Number:_______

1. What is the main theme of this unit?

2. How would you re-word this to fit the new age level/s?

3. Look at the teacher prompts and lesson questions. Which are concrete
(suitable for smaller children), and which are abstract?
How can you change them?

4. What extra materials can you use to teach this unit to the new age level?

5. Look at the extra activities/worksheets/art projects. How do these fit with the new age level? How can you change them to work better? Or what new materials/activities can you think of that will work for your new level (use the back of the paper)?

6. How will you conclude this lesson (what comments/activities will tie it all together?

7. What assessment tools will you use (how will you be able to tell that the child has learned what you wanted him to in the lesson)?

(copy this to another word document, make the font size bigger, and leave lots of space between questions- this is a worksheet! If you have less than two sides, you are not leaving enough room!) You will use this sheet for every lesson you are adjusting. Believe me, it will be worth it in the end! For an example of how to adjust a portion to an actual lesson, look at the Sample Lesson (listed at right).

Selecting Resources

We have discussed this a bit, but it is an important enough topic to go into further. Perhaps the greatest factor in what you choose for curriculum (for the small church school) is how easily it can be converted into lessons which can be used by your teachers for the children you have- where you may have three or four (or more) grades in one class. Don’t be fooled, however, it will still be work on someone's part, preferably the church school director, who sees the bigger picture.

Secondly, how does the curriculum fit into your 3 or 5 year plan. If it doesn’t, think again. While studying comparative religions may be interesting and fun, we shouldn’t do this instead of using material that will actually cover the basics of Bible, church history, sacraments, the Saints, etc. Another factor is whether it is something that can be converted into two or more levels, so that the whole church school is dealing with the same general topic at once, making it easier to do projects and programs.

Also, look at the time you estimate it would take to present the lessons of the curriculum. There is a big difference if you only have a half hour, as compared to an hour-and-a-half (personally, I feel 45 minutes is an absolute minimum). Be sure what you select will actually fill up your scheduled time- if it doesn’t, and you still want to use it, be prepared to spend a lot of time creating worksheets and study questions. You may not wish to, or be able to do this. Likewise, be sure you will have enough time to complete the lessons, given your schedule. Lessons often give an indication of how long they will normally take to teach.

Lastly, obviously, a big factor is what is available. Can you get other copies, or must you spend a fortune in zeroxing. Are the books still being printed so that you can order more, if needed. What is available for free, and what must be paid for. Keep in mind also, that if you get curriculum which is not consumable, it can be used year after year, thereby saving money down the road. All of these factors are something to consider seriously when selecting what your teachers will use. Above all however, make what you choose user-friendly- both for the teacher and the student!

Available Resources

It is necessary to evaluate available resources when you set up a church school, and periodically when you have one in operation. Look at the following areas each time:

What curriculums do you have on site? What age levels are they? How many copies do you have? Can you get more, and if so, where? (remember, unless something is out of copyright or you have permission, you should not xerox curriculum.)

Do you have Bibles (all the same version, please!)? Do you have an Atlas of the Bible or good Bible-land maps? Do you have a Concordance?

Do you have other supplemental materials for teachers?

Do you have materials for doing curriculum related crafts?

How about basic supplies- paper, pencils or pens, crayons, etc.?

Do you have an overhead or computer set up available?

Do you have a TV/DVD/VHS combo on site?

Do you have appropriate audio-visuals: DVDS, videos, computer programs, etc.

If you do not have some of these, consider:

· Posting a plea in your bulletin or newsletter telling people exactly what you need, and how much of it.
· Asking area businesses to donate- they may be able to use it as a tax write-off.
· Ask your boss at work if the company can donate any paper or office supplies.
· If you are a mission of the Antiochian Church, contact the Christian Ed. office to see what materials you can get for free. (Other jurisdictions may have similar availability.)

Also check the Antiochian Christian Ed website (see link to right) for other resources available.

Practical Steps

What needs to happen in order to run a church school in a smaller parish? The smaller church school has special problems and needs of its own, which large churches often do not have.

1. Classrooms: a smaller church may not actually have separate rooms for church school, and church school may have to be held in the parish hall, outbuildings, or, as a last resort, in the sanctuary. This means of course, that one must be very resourceful in deciding how that space can become “yours” for that hour or so.

2. Scheduling: lack of space or other issues may mean that your educational program may not work as well on Sunday morning. You may have to be extremely creative in order for church school to happen along with worship within a small limited space. Perhaps, you may need to consider doing your educational program at an alternate time or even day. Some parishes find that a full day held one or two Saturdays a month works well,

3. Budget: there may be no budget line for Christian Education in your parish, or at least a very slim one. Again, creativity is a must, and the church school director needs to think about who in the parish or community might donate supplies, perhaps what other parishes might have extra or older curriculum they are not using, and even what civic groups or commercial establishments might donate items. Often, people are more generous that one expects, if the needs are clearly stated. Be sure also, that you do get a line for your program in the next budget.

4. Special Programs: putting on programs or pageants can be difficult too for reason of space, but also because most scripts are written with the idea that there will be many children to find parts for. Consider other types of productions, perhaps one with no spoken parts, but only a narrator, whereby if there are not enough children for the parts, cardboard characters could fill in. Better yet, write your own! With a thin basic story line, it is relatively easy to create characters around it that will just accommodate the children you have. Parents after all, come largely to see their children in action, not really for the quality of the performance, although that is, of course, hoped for. Look to the link at the right for an Easy Christmas Pageant as an example.

5. Staffing: this can be a problem too. Because there are fewer parishoners, there is less choice when it comes to selecting teachers and staff. It is essential first of all to have a good church school director (preferably not the priest), and to have good teachers as well. Every volunteer will not make a good teacher or helper- this is why I suggest you use an actual application for prospective teachers- it makes it easier to exclude someone who you feel won’t be right for the program without hurting their feelings. Far better for you to search out people you think would be good, even if they haven’t volunteered. They may have been holding back out of shyness, or from some past negative experience- it is up to you to encourage them to try, assuring them you will give lots of assistance, training and mentoring until they are comfortable. The concept of team teaching sometimes works well with individuals like this, although I don’t generally encourage it, unless you are sure the “team” will really function like one.

6. Curriculum: this may be the biggest challenge of the small parish. First of all, there may be no budget for this. This is when you search the nooks and crannies of your church for old material, or reach out to other parishes in hopes they may have some extra or unused materials they would be willing to donate. There may also be help from the central church with this under certain circumstances. For example, if your church is a mission parish of the Antiochian Archdiocese, it can get church school materials for free for a period of time!

If you go with the old, donated curriculum option, there are pitfalls. One of your hand-outs lists a number of areas that one should touch upon once or more within a 3-5 year period. If you use a similar guideline, you will not find yourself teaching only New Testament for five years straight, or nothing but church history. This is also why it is important for teachers to have an actual curriculum, and not “wing it.” I was in a parish once where a teacher’s favorite topics were the Great Flood, and the End Times. Unfortunately, she did not take kindly to suggestions that she expand her topics, and therefore, her students (whom she had for a number of years) ended up with a very narrow view of Orthodoxy, and Christianity in general. By using such a guideline and sticking to it, it is possible to actually use a hodge-podge of different books, publishers and materials and still have good basic coverage of a variety of topics we want our children familiar with.
But, do not reject out of hand older materials. Although it will probably be less colorful than newer items, the important thing is that there is some meat there. What does it teach. The church school director can then step in and correct some of the inadequacies in activities, worksheets, projects, etc., which older curriculums seem to have less of. Today, these things are a must for keeping students’ attention.

Maintaining Standards

I want first of all to commend those out there again who have set up a church school, even when your numbers are modest. I think there is one danger in doing so however; we may feel we have to offer a more streamlined program: perhaps fewer activities, no field trips, or a shorter school year. Somehow it often does not seem “worth” the tremendous energy some of these things take. But, nothing is further from reality.

When you are few, it is more difficult to maintain a strong identity, a presence in the parish. Thus, I think those of us with smaller church schools must do even more to build a quality program, and to have as full a program as possible.

I have jotted down a few things regarding this, which will be found to the right, under "Ten Points for Successful Church Schools."

The Mustard Seed: Smaller Church School- Article

The Mustard Seed: Smaller Church School- Article

Smaller Church School- Article

Bigger, Not Better

Westerners, particularly Americans, often feel that bigger is better. Bigger cities, bigger wardrobes, bigger fast-food meals. Even those of us in the church often fall for this fallacy. We feel we need large numbers of converts and newcomers, larger parishes, and church schools which are bursting at the seams. This often seems to us to spell “success.” In many ways however, particularly in terms of the church school, bigger is not always better.

The reality of the American Church is that it is spread over thousands of square miles, with parishes often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. Most of our parishes and church schools are small, and we need to start looking for the positive aspects of this situation, of which there are many.

First of all, in a smaller parish, church school students get to be more integrated into parish life. Often their teachers may be the same people who are the lay leaders: parish council members, choir singers and readers. There just aren’t enough people for each to take on only one job. A larger percentage of the parish is involved in church school than in a bigger parish, and thus the people of the parish feel they have more invested personally, and are much more aware of what goes on in the church school, as well as having heightened interest. Because students are fewer, older parishioners may even have to step in and interact with the children, playing parts in plays or pageants, for example, which proves fun for all ages, and helps bond the generations together.

Secondly, as any teacher can tell you, small classes have great interpersonal advantages. The teacher develops a closer relationship with the students. She (or he) gets to know not only the children well, but their families as well. In addition, it is far easier to teach and give attention to four or five than it is to thirty. As well, it is far easier to be spontaneous: to be free to change the lesson around if it seems appropriate. The teacher does not need to worry about deviating from what another teacher of that grade is teaching. Lastly, but not unimportantly, discipline issues are usually non-existent or at least much less prevalent in the smaller environment. It is easier to be pro-active, and to be on top of potential problems. When the teacher knows the parents well, this usually eliminates many problems too, as the children soon discover that news of misbehavior (or successes!) will quickly reach their parents.

Having a smaller church school can actually provide a more enriching experience for the students. If the teacher wants to show her students the difference between Orthodox worship and Presbyterian worship for example, she can take her students to a Presbyterian church in her car or van to see for themselves! No complicated and costly scheduling and bus rentals. Transportation for field trips is a lot easier, and admission fees to be paid by the church school are less. The smaller enrollment also makes it easier to tailor-make outside experiences; places and experiences which are closed to large groups may be perfect for a smaller church school; for example, visiting in a nursing home.

In closing, let’s remember that there are many advantages to the smaller school. There are additional possibilities, and also, there are few activities in which the small church school cannot participate, perhaps with a little tailoring. Let’s remember also, that our little church schools are just as effective in educating our children and in exposing them to the Kingdom of Heaven!

Safe Orthodox Internet Sites

The following are either official church sites, or maintained by parishes, or by people known to me personally to be sound. Current as of 5/08.


Official Greek Archdiocese

Official OCA

Official Antiochian

Official Russian Orthodox

Official Russian Orthodox Outside of Russia

Official Carpatho-Russian

Official Serbian

Official Old Calendar Russian

Official Ukranian Orthodox

Official Romanian Orthodox

Official- Patriarchate site


St. Tikhon’s Seminary (OCA)

GOA Seminary- Holy Cross

OCA Alaskan Church and St. Herman’s Seminary

St. Vladimir’s Seminary (OCA)

DRE, Diocese of Pittsburg (GOA)


St. Paisius Monastery (Serb.)

Panagia Monastery (Greek)

Pan Orthodox site

Personal website

Listing of world monasteries

St. Anthony’s Monastery, AZ (Gr)

(others can be found under jurisdictional websites)


GOA Newspaper

Conciliar Press (Ant.)

E-mail for The Handmaiden magazine (women), Official Ant.

Orthodox teaching tapes- Ant. parish

Orthodox media- Ant.

Ancient Faith Radio

Arabic Orthodox Radio

Pan Orthodox social/moral commentary

Russian Church news


Orthodox beliefs- GOA- Canada

Orthodox Society- University of Surrey, UK, Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald

Orthodox Christian Fellowship site

Official- Ant. parish website

GOA parish priest

Orthodox Faith website

Official website

Pan Orthodox

GOA priest’s website


Orthodox music- Ant.

Russian liturgical music

Orthodox music to purchase

Music files from the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians.

On liturgical music- parish site


Orthodox Christian Center

Pan Orthodox College site

Parish info site

And many more out there! Just “consider the source!”
CSullivan 2008


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BA in education, MAR, in theology and religious studies, CPE, parish DRE, 30 years in teaching and Christian Education, workshop and curriculum design. Associate, Department of Christian Education, Antiochian Archdiocese