Thursday, August 12, 2010
I was fresh out of Bible college, in my first youth ministry, sitting on a couch teaching high school students. I had spent hours preparing this lesson, studying the Bible, and crafting great questions to get the students talking. As I sat there going through my lesson notes, there was only one thing wrong: no one was answering. I was beginning to wonder what I had done wrong. Maybe my questions were too difficult or unclear. Maybe the students didn’t like me. As I thought through my concerns, all I could hear from them was silence. So I just kept moving. I answered the questions myself or just moved on to the next one. And when it was all over, I left feeling like I just wasted an hour of their life.
Have you ever had that same feeling?
What I have learned since then is that it was not necessarily my questions that were at fault, it was the way I was teaching. I was not allowing the students time to process the questions and formulate an answer. I assumed that silence meant they were either not interested or clueless. The silence scared me as a teacher. This fear of silence was a manifestation of my lack of confidence. Maybe you have the same fear of silence, too. If you do, let me share with you some things I have learned over the years.
Silence can mean a few things:
1. There is a fear of being wrong.
Sometimes, the students are silent after a question because they do not want to get the question wrong. School is a place with right and wrong answers and this mentality carries over into the youth ministry. As the teacher, one of your goals is to create a safe environment, where the students trust that their thoughts are valuable.
2. There answer is too personal to share with the group.
There are some questions we ask that go straight to the heart of a student. These are questions that spark life application and change. These are the questions that really affect the students. These are also the questions that need not always be answered verbally. Are you expecting a student to tell everyone else in class something that might be too personal?
3. The students do not have an answer.
Remember that time you were at a seminar and the speaker asked a question and you could not think of an answer. It happens to our students, too. Every student does not enter the room having spent the last week preparing to discuss the topic of the day. Some students enter the room with a dozen other things on their mind, all of which are competing for their attention. These mental distractions can make it difficult to quickly come up with answer, so try to remember not to rush them.
4. They are processing the question.
After you ask a question, especially an open-ended question, you need to give the students a chance to process. As the teacher, you have had days to think about the questions. The students, on the other hand, have only had seconds. You cannot expect a student to immediately answer. So stop expecting it and allow them time to think.
How to handle silence:
1. Give the students time.
After you ask a question, allow the students a few minutes to formulate their answers. One of the worst things you can do is to continually talk while you wait. You might need to offer suggestions and helps, but do not immediately start with them.
2. Pick students to answer.
If you have some questions to ask that are based off of a Scripture you will be reading, let a few students know that you will be asking them a question after the Scripture is read. This “warning” should encourage them to pay more attention to what is being read.
3. Start with questions everyone needs to answer.
This is especially helpful one of the first times the group is together, but it will help anytime. At the beginning of class, ask a couple questions that need to be answered by everyone. Do not make them too difficult or too narrow. You want the students to start thinking and to feel more comfortable talking in the group.
Do you have any other suggestions for handling silence?