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An Interview with Kelly Hamwi: Directing a Large Church School

The 2019-2020 school year marks Kelly’s fourth year serving as the Church School Director at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral. The parish currently has 270 children registered, with 12 individual classes from K4 (4-year olds) up to Grade 12. Due to a limited number of classrooms, the older grades are combined: one for grades 9/10 and the other for grades 11/12. On average, half of the registrants attend in any given week. Classes begin once the children have received communion during Sunday morning Liturgy. They run for approximately 45 minutes until 12:15pm. For the most part, there are two teachers, and in some cases, three teachers for each of the classes.


Which curricula is used for Sunday classes?

We use both the Antiochian and Greek Orthodox curriculum up to Grade 8. There is no formal set curriculum for grades 9 and up. Teachers are given the flexibility to teach the material that is most pertinent for the older students. This includes studies of the lives of the saints, feast days etc.

Did you have previous training/experience which prepared you for the Director role? If yes, please describe.

I served as a Church School teacher for 4 years before being called to the role of Director. As a teacher, I was able to see the challenges teachers face and the importance of training them to be able to best manage the classroom.

Are there books, resources, etc. that you would recommend to Directors for their own development / enrichment / training in the role of Director?

We provide training in September to kick-start the year (through the Department of Christian Education) both for the teachers and directors. This training is open to other parishes in the diocese.  Not only is it beneficial to learn from more experienced educators/pastors but it also allows interactive discussions with fellow Church school directors and teachers. 
Do you hold staff meetings? If so, how often and please describe the meetings.

Yes, we typically hold meetings once a month from September to May. Our meetings cover upcoming events, administrative updates, round-table discussions to address any challenges that teachers might be facing. In January we start off the New Year by designating a full brainstorming meeting to seek out new ideas to improve the Church School. We also bring in a guest speaker to come for at least one of our meetings just to spice things up a bit. During every meeting we are blessed to receive spiritual nutrition from our Pastor to inspire us.

Does St. Elias Sunday school participate in the Creative Arts Festival? If so, please describe how workshops, etc. are organized for students to create their entries.

Yes, we participate in the Creative Arts Festival - it is one of the highlights of our school year! This year we will be integrating a guest speaker who will go around and visit each class to discuss this year’s theme and get the students thinking. Materials are provided but teachers are free to integrate the festival theme however it works best for them. We hold a separate Saturday afternoon session with the teachers for all the students to come work on their artwork pieces as Sunday’s class can be quite restrictive in terms of time. 

What are some church school challenges/issues that you did not expect to encounter, and how have you addressed them?

Some of the unexpected challenges I encountered over the course of the past few years include (in no particular order): working with a staff of predominantly university-aged teachers with limited availability outside the classroom; managing the many interdependent initiatives that are not distinctly part of the day-to-day Church School activities (e.g., Bible Bowl training, St. Elias Church Camp, Food for Hungry Program, humanitarian initiatives to teach the kids to live their faith, organizing annual training for teachers and directors, hosting dinners during Lent and running emergency safety drills). Most of these challenges have been overcome by delegating different roles amongst the teachers (including the assistant Church School Director) but also engaging and recruiting parents to take on a more active role. I foresee different challenges ahead with a growing Church school in terms of classroom space, maintaining teachers and managing our needs with the third-party users of the classrooms.