How can a teacher motivate students to attend Sunday school, participate in class, learn verses, and bring friends? Is a pencil, a dollar, or a chocolate bar sufficient?
In Matthew 25:14-30, the Lord Jesus told of a man who traveled to a far country. Before leaving, he left his money with three servants. Each one received a different amount according to his ability. When he returned, he held the servants accountable for how they managed the money. Two received approval and rewards; the other was condemned for his performance. Although this is a clear illustration of faithfulness among Jews when Messiah comes to reign, it contains excellent principles that apply to believers in view of the judgment seat of Christ. In this article, we will apply the principles of motivation found in the parable to Sunday school work.
The relationship between the master and his servants influenced their desire to participate and produce. They were “his own servants”; he was with them and he claimed them. He obviously developed the relationship so they learned his personality and expectations.
The need to connect with students cannot be overstated. Making time to hear what is going on in their lives, remembering their birthdays, sending them cards when they are sick, visiting them regularly in the home, and calling when they miss are opportunities to develop your relationship.
In the parable, the master also demonstrated his care by trusting his servants with responsibility. Love and care is expressed in the language of trust. Entrusting your students with little tasks is a great technique to draw them in. Giving limited responsibilities can even help students with behavior problems. When children are participants rather than spectators, a sense of need motivates them to respond.
The servants could also read the care of the master when he had compassion and understood their differences. He gave “to every man according to his several ability.” Learning your students name (the first class), their preferences, difficulties, personalities, etc., shows a care for students. When the Lord Jesus saw a multitude, the Bible says He was “moved with compassion toward them” (Mark 6:34). Do you have compassion for your students when you see their unique features and limitations?
What about the student whose parents view Sunday school as free babysitting and never help their child learn a verse? Could you call him on the phone Tuesday and Friday each week to help him learn his verse? This simple act recognizes his needs and may win his heart and perhaps his parents as well.
The anticipation of the words, “Well done!” was enough to make the servants invest time and energy into their responsibilities. In our day, an honest compliment can hardly even be bought in many homes. When a student completes a task, regardless of how small, compliment him. When your class as a whole performs well, tell them in specific terms what you appreciate. When they answer a question, stop and realize that a little praise and encouragement might go a lot further than a temporary injection of sugar.
The servants received clear communication from their master and knew exactly what was expected of them. The greatest motivation for students in any class is the quality of education they receive. Strive to improve your teaching so students want to attend, learn, and bring others. When you communicate the truth of God in an accurate, relevant, and interesting way, students will respond.
Five times over, the Spirit of God records how the Hebrew children would ask, “What mean ye by this?” (Exo 12:26; 13:14; Deut 6:20; Josh 4:6, 21). Their children were to be drawn into learning in such a way that they would ask questions. The Lord Jesus, the master evangelist, asked and received questions from every individual that received blessing from Him in the Gospel of John. Therefore, structure your lesson so you ask questions and generate questions in your students.
Also, having variety in technique and illustration is important. Remember, the fast-paced media conditions students’ minds. To expect them to sit for a half hour while you preach from eternity to eternity in a monotone voice is unrealistic. When students learn to expect the unexpected in your class, their curiosity is ignited and it motivates them to attend and to show interest in your lessons.
There are two extreme approaches to interaction. Some foster such competition that children fight over who gets points for bringing new students and occasionally children come to tears over contests. The other extreme is the avoidance of competition altogether because it is unfair that some children win and others do not.
It is interesting in the parable that there is a sense of competition where each servant competes to do the best he can. Students need to be taught how to handle defeat and the success of others. Competition is an excellent tool under controlled circumstances to produce effort and involvement in students.
For example, a teacher could reward students who attend a certain number of classes with a trip to an ice cream shop. Another example would be to set up a point system for attendance, bringing friends, bringing a Bible, and saying verses. Every student who gets a certain number will go to the local zoo with all the teachers. But what of those who don’t qualify? Use it positively and talk to them about motivation and plan with them for the next series of children’s meetings how they could win as well.
A classroom without accountability will soon turn into a war zone. Students must be held responsible for their actions and participation. In the parable, the master compensates his servants after complimenting them by making each one a “ruler over many things.”
The first lesson is that increased responsibility brings greater motivation. When students achieve, you can compensate them by giving them another task and setting even higher expectations. Students often enjoy a challenge and a high standard is a vote of confidence from the teacher. Especially in verse memorization, make your students work!
Another important principle is the need to recognize effort. Both faithful servants received the same compliment and compensation even though their tasks were different. The servants were judged based on effort (200% profit). Likewise, students should be compensated for effort. Expect a student who already knows Isaiah 53 to say it flawlessly. Give the new student two verses and expect him to say them well. Both receive the same reward for different tasks because of similar effort.
The master also allowed them to “enter into the joy of thy Lord.” They were given the privilege of spending time with their master. Many who work with children struggle over rewards. Some use prize tables, treasure chests, or “shekel systems” to motivate students. These means can be effective. Perhaps even more effective is the compensation of time with the teacher outside of class. Rewarding students with a trip to an ice cream shop, the park, the zoo, or some other activity provides opportunity to give a student attention. In addition, it is a great excuse to visit the family three for four times before and after the outing.
One servant received negative consequences for his lack of response to the master and he was cast into outer darkness. The fear of negative consequences can also be a motivator for students. Don’t fall into the trap of avoiding discipline for improper behavior. Although students may test you on this, as the third servant did the master, be fair and consistent in both rewards and reprimands. Consistency in compensation produces predictability for a child. Students may complain a bit, but deep down, they love knowing that the rules are firm and fair.