Three practical tips for teaching (Part 2)

by Dr Jenn Phillips.

My SRE teaching career began rather inauspiciously. I was 21 years old, with no formal training apart from two lessons shadowing a primary school SRE teacher (this is before the now mandatory 10 hours of training for all Christian SRE teachers!). Then, with very little pomp and ceremony, I was rewarded with a class of 20 Year 1 students to share the Bible with for 30 minutes a week.

With very little confidence in my teaching skills, I clung to the SRE teaching manual like it was my lifeline – reading it verbatim to my students.

I’ll still never forget the day a young girl’s hand shot up in class. She was desperate to tell me something, I could tell from the speed at which her hand flung forth to the sky, and her wide open eyes bursting with revelation. I couldn’t wait to hear what she’d discovered, what connection she had just made:

“Mrs Phillips,” she said (as I wasn’t a Dr. yet at that point), “you’re boring!”.

So my first year of teaching indeed wasn’t my best! Thankfully, I’ve been on the improve ever since!

In my last article, I wrote about the why of improving as teachers. In this article, I’m going to share some of the what – some practical tips I have picked up along the way.
But first, a caveat: In my role as High School SRE advisor for the Sydney Anglican Diocese, I tend to train people with little to no formal teaching training. I know these tips are obvious to any seasoned veteran teacher – but I still find myself coming back to them time and time again, as there’s always ways I can be growing in these areas. I’ve found them helpful in my teaching practice, and in training others, and I hope they can help you, too.

Step 1: Lesson expectations and classroom routines.

What do these scenarios have in common?

It’s a mufti day and the students had a cake stall at recess before coming back to class. Or, you’re a casual teacher and it’s your first time in a new school with students you’ve never met before and the teacher you’re relieving hasn’t left you a lesson plan. Or, the students have been out at a cross-country run for most of the day before returning to school half an hour before the end of the day and suddenly you find yourself with 30 minutes to fill.

Do these sound like your personal nightmare? Mine too. These are all recipes for classroom chaos. The situation isn’t the cause though, it’s the lack of the familiar, the break from routine which creates such havoc.

It’s funny that we see the importance of classroom routine when we don’t have one!

We’re about to enter term 4 – perhaps some of your routines have lapsed, or have been forgotten by this stage in the year. What area of classroom routine can you be working on to make your life just that little bit easier next term? For me, it’s always reminding students to put their hands up and not call out – and holding them to a 100% compliance (even if that means having students “replay” giving the right answer in the right way when they’ve called out).

Step 2: Clear learning outcomes

I’m sure you’ve heard so much about John Hattie’s research that you can quote his “high impact strategies” in your sleep! And in my role, I’ve visited so many schools that have taken on board the concept of Learning Intentions and Success Criteria – with posters plastered around and prompters written on white boards to remind the students (and the teachers) to use them. But just like classroom routines, have you fallen out of the habit of articulating them to your students every lesson?

In SRE, instead of using a Learning intention (a “we will” statement) and Success criteria (an “I can now” statement), I’ve been encouraging teachers to use a Big Question and Answer. In some ways, it becomes like a mini catechism! We start the lesson with a question that cannot immediately be answered, will engage the students’ interest and will be answered by the end of the lesson.

For example, in a lesson about Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the question is “Who is the Bible all about?” I really like this one because the students will be intrigued and sometimes even ask “Don’t you think the question should be what?”. By the end of the lesson, they understand – the Bible is about a who and that who is Jesus.

One reason you may choose to formulate a “Big Question” for a lesson, is that it makes it easy to perform quick checks on learning from lesson to lesson. For example (to switch to my other teaching area for a moment), in a lesson on Hamlet, we might have looked at his famous “to be or not to be” speech one lesson. The big question was “What poetic techniques did Shakespeare use to communicate Hamlet’s inner-turmoil” – in the next lesson, you can remind the students of the question, and hope that it triggers some recollection of what you have covered (personification of “fortune”, repetition of “do die, to sleep”, the snake-like assonance in “insolence of office” etc).

Step 3: Transformative Learning

I would suggest that transformative learning is one that we as Christian educators would be aiming for with all that we do in the classroom. Whether we are able to do it overtly or not, as followers of Jesus, we long to see our students making wise decisions for their futures, or, as Proverbs 22:6 says: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Transformative learning is about encouraging students to apply the knowledge and skills from your lesson into action in their heads (knowledge), hearts (will) and hands (actions).

For the English teacher, any text can lend itself to transformative learning through the power of empathy. There are many studies that show that reading about people with lives different to ourselves increases empathy and compassion – think of stories like Nam Le’s “The Boat” (and its accompanying visual adaptation at as a prime example of connecting with the refugee experience, transforming students’ heads (misconceptions), hearts (compassion) and hands (perhaps taking up practical support for those in similar situations).

For a Maths and Science teacher, demonstrating the real-world, practical application of the theorem or chemical reaction will have demonstrated transform learning from the conceptual to the practical (I’ll still never forget the time my science teacher told me of his misspent youth performing experiments in his garage with sodium – it certainly cemented in my brain how explosive it is!).

As I mentioned in my first article, we are all on a journey of improvement as teachers. These are three tips that have helped me and the SRE teachers I train. I hope they are helpful for you as well as you seek to teach well and shine as lights for Christ in your schools.