“I don’t want to sacrifice my worship time in order to teach First-day school.”
I have said this, as have others in my Friends meeting (Red Cedar Meeting in Lansing, Michigan), because our worship and our children’s religious education program are scheduled concurrently. What if we could see this teaching as not an exclusion of worship but rather a form of worship?
I first began teaching in seventh grade, when I became too old to attend the elementary art classes my father ran in our barn each summer. I was his assistant for a year, before I started teaching my own classes. He mentored me in all aspects of teaching, including budgeting and lesson-planning. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in music education and then two more advanced degrees in music, teaching individuals and groups privately in public schools and colleges.
At the point I began attending Quaker meeting five years ago, I had taught for 31 years and was feeling fairly uninspired and burned-out. As my new spiritual life grew, however, I noticed changes in both my relationship to teaching and to students.
Sitting expectantly in silence and in community brings a certain vulnerability, openness, and wonder. It can open one’s soul to greater connection with others, and with the Divine. In me, and in many of us, it can facilitate the desire to bring the beauty of these experiences to our young people, so that they may experience the safety and love that can come from a meeting and worship experience.
There is something particularly beautiful about being a conduit between the love from Spirit and the tenderness of children, and in being a vessel that can open new connections between them. There are many ways to teach; some are not only nurturing for our children, but also spiritual and nurturing experiences for us, the teachers.
Teaching can be a form of stewardship. Stewardship can be seen as taking care of what has been given: nurturing it for the good of those around us and for those to come. Teaching, in this sense, can come out of love and care for the children of our meeting, or from the love of and commitment to the meeting itself. Each teacher might ask, how do I participate in these important tasks of raising our children with good Quaker values, helping them find the joy in worship, and in turn ensuring the future of our meeting and Quakerism?
Teaching can also be a spiritual discipline. In the days and weeks prior to teaching, I often go into worship holding the children in the Light. I can hold the whole group—as anonymous or familiar faces—or each individual child. This helps me to center and focus on them, their well-being, and it also helps me to open myself to that of God in each of them. Sometimes, I find myself holding a child in mind who I sensed needed extra Light, or another who seemed extra wiggly or resistant the week before. Sometimes holding the whole class in the Light allows for a unique sense of the group and a leading toward what might be an effective plan for the week.
Planning for First-day school can be done by going into worship. Visualize yourself sitting with the children you will work with, and focus on the face or being of each child; you may want to think of them individually, one by one. Be aware of the energies that come up around the group or individuals. If there is fear or tightness, try to let that soften in the Light; know that this process and any challenges it brings will be softened by the Light. It need not be perfect.
Imagine yourself bringing an idea or a topic to the children. This might be something that is close to your heart or that you are interested in. If you have a few ideas or words or topics, sit with them. What energies do these ideas bring? Which ideas seem exciting and interesting? Which are less exciting but important?
See yourself presenting to the children. Let yourself be open to their curiosity and knowledge about your topic. You might have a lesson that has a lot of structure and steps to it. That is fine. Hold it in the Light, and be open to detours as it is presented!
Teaching “in the Light” is not unlike performing in an orchestra: there are notes on the page that guide the group, but sometimes the process transcends what’s on the page as players connect with each other, the universe, the Divine!
Attending Quaker meeting has helped me to find what was missing in over 30 years of teaching. I used to subscribe so much to method, plan, and outcome—as I was taught in my collegiate career. Through my teaching in Quaker meeting, I’ve found that I’ve learned to let go of outcome a little bit more. Although there are goals for the lesson, I’ve lessened the weight of them and made more room for space.
Teaching can be opportunity for intergenerational connection. It is amazing to be aware of some of the things our children can teach us, particularly when given the space to do so! We recently had a worship sharing in our meeting to honor two high school students who were graduating. One spoke of how meaningful it was to grow up in an environment where adults genuinely listened to her.
Spiritual experiences in teaching can come in a number of ways; perhaps it is in a felt sense of something very powerful arising. Some of our teachers prefer to let Spirit guide them on the day of class—without any formal planning ahead. This gives them the opportunity to be deeply attuned to their sense of the needs of the children, and how Spirit may be present for all in each moment. Other times, a planned lesson may take a totally different turn and have a surprising outcome.
You might say, “But I’m afraid I don’t have anything to offer our young children!” Speak about what you see, what you value, what excites you about being a Quaker. In my days of directing the education programs for a symphony, I loved going into classrooms to observe our volunteers (most of them non-musicians) prepare kids to attend a symphony concert. They all put their own unique twist on the lessons we provided—talking about how all the violinists’ bows went the same direction, or how the conductor’s movements communicated things to the orchestra, and other such things that we as musicians often take for granted. The children were engrossed! It is the sharing of your unique experience—what is important to you—that can open eyes, ears, minds, and hearts, and ignite some of the same enthusiasm in others.
When I first came to Friends meeting and became involved in the education programs, I was surprised that worship was not a part of each and every First Day experience. I assumed Quakers had learned how to sit in worship by participating for years in First-day school! I was also surprised to witness so many young people groaning and resisting when we did decide to take them into the adult worship for a Sunday or to worship for even a few minutes. I again referred to my past life as a symphony director of education where I witnessed that children could indeed find appreciation for classical music, partly through skilled presentation and partly because familiarity enhances appreciation.
We have a dynamic religious education committee at Red Cedar Meeting, and we’ve tried to present worship in a variety of samplings to our young people to help them connect to Spirit in ways that speak to them. We’ve gathered in a circle around small ethnic rhythm instruments, using sound as a way of giving ministry when led, and surrounding each ministry with silence. We’ve spoken about holding people in the Light, and have drawn pictures of what that might mean, and we’ve spoken of an experience of the Light that we have had or might like to have. We did several weeks of lessons on mandalas. The elementary children who became skilled at drawing them helped lead an intergenerational worship session where three large group mandalas formed line-by-line as participants rose from the silence to add an element to the design. There were 19 people, from ages 3 to 90, and there was complete and gathered silence for 45 minutes. Even the littlest ones were engrossed. A teacher of our three- to five-year-olds led the little ones in making shaker jars with water, glitter, and color that visually represented thoughts settling. (Many adults have asked if they, too, could use the jars in meeting!)
We’ve built six worship Sundays into our yearly religious education schedule to help our young people become more familiar with worship. Three of those Sundays involve discussion and preparation with the children before joining adults in meeting, and then debriefing after meeting. The other three Sundays are intergenerational worship activities that bring members of all ages together for side-by-side creative and worship experiences as mentioned previously. We try to provide a mixture of new activities to keep the worship experience interesting, to find various ways to connect children with meeting and Spirit, and to familiarize our young people with traditional meeting for worship. Helping our young people to find appreciation for worship and stillness seems to be a Quaker-wide challenge worthy of revisiting and recreating.
Teaching can be a vessel to Spirit. I believe that opening to the divine inside creates space: space for love and connection with the Divine and with others. This is space that can otherwise be cramped by time, deadlines, struggle, or oppressive residue from other experiences—past or present. Opening to the Divine reminds us of mutual relationship, which is so important in the teaching relationship. It’s important to have structure and boundaries in our teaching; that is a part of the love that we can give. But there also must be openness to the other.
In this openness of heart, we connect not only with the other, but with our own curiosity, willingness, and openness. This is where creation takes place. In openness we can become more aware of innocence, creativity, and possibility—and what better way to connect with children!