Tips for Teaching Online

Are you teaching Sunday School classes online, perhaps over Zoom or another video conferencing software? Many of us are embarking on Zoom classes for the first time, so here are some thoughts to help you get started.

Take a deep breath, and remember that our goals have not changed. The material has not changed. The students are the same, and you’re the same. The difference is this mode of communication, which has strengths as well as weaknesses.

Let’s first remember our goal in our classroom, and then we’ll take a practical look at how religious education might look online.

What is our goal as Sunday school teachers?

We should keep in mind that our purpose here is not quite like the purpose of an academic program in a secular school. We do want our students to understand the faith and its beautiful intricacies, the hows and whys of Holy Tradition. But we also recognize that if a student leaves us knowing all the information (having memorized long lists of sins and sacraments, rules, heresies and Ecumenical Councils) but has no love for Christ, this person is not a Christian. Our goal is not just about informing the student’s intellect.

“Just as the thought of fire does not warm the body, so faith without love does not actualize the light of spiritual knowledge in the soul.”
— St. Maximos the Confessor

As usual, Christianity calls for the opposite of worldly thinking — this is a school that aims to feed the heart first, and then the intellect. We are here primarily to plant the seeds of faith, and we do so in loving relationship through passing on the beauty of Orthodoxy and the gospel.

Though I speak with the tongues of
men and of angels, but have not love,
I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
— 1 Corinthians 13:1

We can love our students on Zoom too — but we may have to be more intentional about communicating that love.

  • PRAY for your students, as this will grow love.
  • ASK everyone how they are, going around the zoom room one at a time. Respond with interest, and remember what they say, and then follow up next time. (So if one of the kids says his cousin is sick, ask about his cousin next week.) Show real warmth and interest in their lives, so that they understand that you care about them.
  • LISTEN to their comments, questions and responses
  • RESPOND thoughtfully and respectfully. Make sure that they can feel that they are loved and appreciated in your virtual classroom. This should be a safe and warm space.
  • SERVE the students rather than your own ego and plans. If the kids have a concern or are caught up on some part of your lesson, or if they are preoccupied with a religious or moral question outside of the lesson’s scope, remember that you can abandon your lesson plan and simply allow the session to be a deep conversation on a topic they need to discuss. Be open to the Holy Spirit’s action in your classroom, and remember that your lesson plan is a guideline, but it’s not Law.

We know what we want to accomplish, but how do we do it?

What are the Zoom Features I Should Be Using?

Start here: read Y2AM’s list of Best Practices for Zooming with our Youth.

Check out Zoom’s tips and tricks for teachers.

When you’re setting up your Zoom classroom, make sure you’re using a password and don’t let your links be too public — people really do burst in on classrooms to interrupt things with inappropriate images and other obnoxiousness.

Zoom’s Shared Screen feature is fantastic for classrooms. You can have multiple windows open on your computer desktop ready to go, and then easily choose them one at a time to display to the whole class.

  • Display a photo of an icon or the words to your opening/closing prayers. (You could have a Word or PowerPoint document open and waiting.)
  • Consider YouTube videos! Search your topic on YouTube (include the word “Orthodox” to focus on Orthodox sources). You’ll find beautiful videos of Orthodox hymns, documentaries, etc.
  • In particular, think about some of Y2AM‘s great resources, like Be the Bee! They are producing new videos you could show on shared screen along with lesson plans to facilitate discussion!

You can convene as one big class, and then split into small groups, called Breakout Rooms. You can even define the small groups in advance, so that you can activate them with just a click.

Use Zoom’s Polling feature to collect feedback from students — or to play a pop quiz game!

Make another adult your Co-Host so that they can handle technical and crowd control issues, while you focus on teaching.

How does one teach Sunday school on Zoom?

There really aren’t a lot of experts in this field, since we’re all pretty much just starting out, but here are some ideas. If you have more, please enter them in the comments section!

TIME TO TALK: If possible, open your Zoom room 15 minutes early and invite students to come early, so that you all have time to chat. (And of course, if they’re early, then you can start on time.)

WARM UP: Especially when we’re not in person, we need to do a little extra work to make sure that we’re all in the same sort of mental space. Everyone is coming to class from different places (some homes might have been chaotic, others peaceful — some kids might have just been arguing vehemently, while others were sleeping 5 minutes ago). Get your group to coalesce with an ice breaker! Here are some ideas for starting class. The basic idea is to ‘go around the circle’ (or down the list of participants!) asking each person to say something.

  • Tell us your name and favorite ice cream flavor (or favorite movie, favorite season, least favorite hobby, etc.)
  • We are all home so much — let’s share ideas for entertainment. Tell us your name, and what tv show, youtube channel, game or book you’ve been enjoying.
  • I Spy! Have everyone use Gallery View on Zoom, so that they see a grid with everyone’s video feed at once. Find something conspicuous (a blue hat, or a movie poster) in the background of one person’s square, and see if people can guess it!
  • Show and Tell: each person describes an object in their Zoom space: what do you love or hate about it?
  • Would You Rather? This works well on Zoom! Ask the kids a question like, “Would you rather be able to breathe underwater of fly?” They can answer and also explain their answer if they want to elaborate. You’ll find question ideas online!
  • Two Truths & A Lie: each person tells us two things about themselves that are true, and one thing that isn’t — and we all have to guess which one is the lie.

OPENING PRAYERS: Do your usual class prayers, and take advantage of Zoom’s Shared Screen feature to put up an icon for everyone to see.

USE MULTIMEDIA: Take advantage of Zoom’s shared screen feature. If you’re going to be talking for a long time, create a slide show of relevant images in PowerPoint and display those on shared screen to make it more interesting. If you can find a great video to share with the class, play it on shared screen and follow up with a conversation about it!

ACTIVELY MODERATE CONVERSATIONS: It may take a few sessions to get comfortable with facilitating class discussions on Zoom, but it’s actually pretty great once you get used to it. Have your students use the “raised hand” feature so that you know who wants to talk, and then call on them by name. Zoom has a mute feature, so if someone is unruly or loud, you can just mute them. Imagine if we had that in our in-person classrooms.

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS: Especially in your early sessions, know that you might not cover as much ground as you would have covered in person. That’s ok. There’s a learning curve, and the really important thing is that we showed up, we continued to nurture our community and relationships, and we did our best. In time, you’ll find your class covering more and more ground.

Can we still do Craft Projects?

Yes, you can — but there are a few things to consider:

Be sensitive to the fact that not all households are stocked with the same craft supplies. Some families have a lot of glitter and paint, and some don’t. If you can send each student an art supply kit with everything they’ll need, you’ll ensure that everyone has the same supplies and is ready to go.

Consider posting drawings or written instructions on the shared screen, so that students can easily understand what you’re expecting them to do.

Keep crafts simple, until you have a good feel for how this will work over Zoom for your group.

Get Families Involved

The very best gift we could give to promote a child’s spiritual formation is involved and faithful parents, and at-home Sunday school opens up some opportunities there. Think about ways to invite the parents into your lessons. Encourage families to process with crosses for the Elevation of the Cross, or to use prayers learned in your classroom for family prayer times. Let your class be a blessing to your students and their families!


This post is cross-published on my Raising Saints blog as well.