OK, readers. These come from someone who has zero training as a teacher. But they are what I have picked up and learned (often the hard way) from giving catechesis myself. It is hard to find catechists who tick all the boxes – are good teachers, know the faith well, can manage a room full of children or teenagers – so therefore we often have to teach and learn these skills on the job. Please add any of your own tips in the comments!
1. Don’t forget you’re in charge! 😉 I know this sounds obvious – but I’ve known plenty of catechists who don’t like to assert themselves too much. I think it’s maybe a mixture of lack of confidence, not wanting to be unpopular with the kids, and perhaps also a misguided sense that Christians are ‘nice’ and a little bit timid and shouldn’t be too strict. However, we all know that young people feel secure and cared for when there are clear boundaries, and this means a catechist does need to ‘impose themselves’ a little bit on the class.
2. Have a clear, crisp beginning: If you just kind of drift into the catechesis, chances are young people won’t be engaged or won’t be clear about what’s expected of them. Routines are good: if they know what they need to do as soon as they arrive, chances are they’ll get in the habit of doing it.
3. Children fulfil the expectations you have of them: So make sure they’re clear right from the start. For older children, get them to make the ground rules themselves and remind them of them every now and again when needed. Be clear about what the consequences are and carry them through. Conversely, you can enforce a sense of low expectation simply by allowing bad behaviour: if children get away with getting up from their seat whenever they feel like it, this will start becoming the norm. Before you know it, chaos will rule!
4. Walk around as you speak: Don’t stand stationary. Moving around keeps your children on their toes a little and keeps them engaged. Don’t give them a chance to switch off.
5. Don’t start speaking until there is silence: Sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve seen catechists try to keep speaking, battling against an undercurrent of noise. Again, if young people realise they can get away with even the slightest hint of this, soon this will become normal. The worst thing is having to shout to make yourself heard. Don’t do it to your voice!
6. Keep a quick pace: This is more important than we can imagine. Catechists want to cover lots of points, and before they know it the young people are bored, disengaged, doodling on anything they can find. Keep things snappy! Switch activities often. Use a wide variety of teaching and learning methods. Don’t give anyone time to be bored.
7. If things get out of hand, don’t panic: Stay calm. You can’t be in control of the situation unless you’re calm. If you are someone who rarely shouts, then they will know they’ve overstepped the mark if you need to speak sternly. And it’s important you do! Just because “it’s not school”, doesn’t mean that we have to overlook bad behaviour. So, move somebody away from their friends if they are disruptive. Speak to a child one-to-one if they are rude. Do everything out of love for the children you are forming.
8. Get to know each of your young people personally: Learn their names, if you can, as soon after the first session as possible, and use them. Speak with them socially in addition to giving catechesis. When I first started giving Confirmation catechesis, the session began with a social time. The catechists would chat in one room, and the candidates would chat in the other. I felt this was bad practice, we needed to mix with them! Be interested in their lives. Show that you care about what’s going on with them. You will find that they will soon come and talk to you freely. Especially with challenging children, ensure that the contact you have with them is mostly positive, not negative.
9. Ensure opportunities for everyone to participate: Even quiet children. It’s important, for the Application stage of the catechesis, that we hear their responses, that they feel comfortable to ask questions. I remember one girl in a Confirmation class one year mentioned almost right at the end of the programme that she wasn’t sure God even existed! Something had gone wrong there – the Application part of the catechesis hadn’t worked for this girl. With quiet kids, silly games are a great way of breaking the ice, and getting people to open up a little. Recently, I played a game with a group of teenagers: they were in two teams, and each child had a sour sweet – sourest I could find – eyewateringly sour. They had to eat the sweet quickly as they could before the next person in their team could begin theirs. It’s fun to watch, it gets them to laugh, what more could you want?!
10. Pray for and know your young people: It’s obvious, but how much do we remember this? Let’s resolve to pray for each of our young people – by name – every week or every month (depending how many you have!) For catechists of small groups, it is easier to pray very specifically for each child and their needs.
When we know the children we’re catechising, we know when they’re tired and not absorbing anymore, we know when they are a bit flat and need a game to get going, we know when there is confusion or discouragement which would benefit from an open chat with the whole group. If we simply plough ahead with the catechesis we have planned, we’re not being the best catechists we can be.