On the third floor of the school, we enter the chapel located next to the classrooms. Its doors are always open. Under the large icon of Jesus Christ hangs a lampion. Next to the icon are a cross and a gospel volume. We enter inside. We are accompanied by Nun Galina (Shpakova), the director of the Sunday school.
Nun Galina explains:
Our chapel is small. The school's patron saints are the Holy Martyrs Faith, Hope, Love and their mother Sofia. You see their icon right in front of you. Next to it is another icon, of Euphrosyne of Polotsk. There is also an icon of the Holy royal martyrs. The chapel is open so the children or teachers can walk in at any time to spend time one on one with God and keep a conversation with Him. It is too small for celebrating the liturgy. Twenty years ago, many local residents objected to the building of the Convent. They were afraid that there might be too many people and too much traffic. So we had the idea of establishing a Sunday school to bring parents and children to God together. Some children liked the school so much that they would come in as they were playing outside and stay here for the activities and classes.
At first, we were gathering in converted utility rooms and in the monastic cells that were still unoccupied. We needed our own space badly. Today, the area is completely built up. Back then, it was all forest. So we would go into this forest together with the children, hang an icon on a tree branch and pray to God so we could have a school here. The children's prayers are pure and sincere. God heard them, and they completed this large school building very soon. Immediately, we thought of naming the school in honour of the martyr girls. We hoped that the lives of these saints would inspire our students. We start each academic year with a lesson for the parents and children. We tell them about our patron saints and their martyrdom for Christ. We find that children find it very easy to relate to this because of their age.
By the time we are ready to leave the chapel room, the classes in the school have finished. The space outside the chapel livens up as groups of cheerful students walk out into the corridor. Eight years ago, the Sunday school began to share the space with the Convent's general school. The classes of the Sunday school meet on Sundays, and of the general school on weekdays. Icons and children's drawings adorn the walls of the corridor. We continue our interview amid the laughter and noise of the children.
In your view, how do children become interested in coming to Sunday school?
I can refer to my childhood. I, too, was very interested. Seeing a church and a cross makes children curious. I am friends with two local girls. They are very lively. When I met them, they were playing around with their hair loose. So I asked them: "Would you like to try wearing some braids"? They agreed, and I did their hair into braids and fixed them with laces. They had no crosses. We gave them crosses and showed them how to cross themselves. They were very happy. They now repeat the short player every morning and evening: “Lord have mercy on me!" Many of the children lack warmth and affection in their families, so they are attracted here. I expect that these two girls might join us quite soon.
What do the lessons at the school look like?
From the beginning, we scheduled our classes in a way that would make it possible for the children to come to the Divine Liturgy. Our circumstances today are almost ideal. But it was not always like this. We have had our share of difficulties.
We are located on the outskirts of the city, and coming here can take a lot of time. So people who mostly come for extended periods. Our first-class period is a liturgy for children, taking place at the Church of Saint John of Shanghai. It starts at 9. The children read out the notes, look after the candle trays and assist in the altar. Having the children around is always a blessing, which attracts adult worshippers, too. The priest says a short sermon, and the children leave for their next period after Communion.
The second period is the meal. During the meal, we read out the lives of the saints. Scripture knowledge is next.
Each lesson period lasts 45 minutes. There are 15 children and two teachers per class. We are lenient on the children and do not expect them to study for very long. We start with a prayer, then introduce the new topic. It takes no more than 15 - 20 minutes altogether. Afterwards, the children's attention span becomes shorter, so we have a five-minute physical break before we go over to practice and revision. We do not ask the children to write or take any notes. We have some wonderful teachers, and they prepare very effective and engaging worksheets. At the top of the worksheet is a depiction of the cross with an inscription underneath saying “God bless!" For example, a worksheet on the topic "The Church" will have a short children's rhyme on the church, a colouring image, a crossword puzzle and some pictures showing what may and may not be done at the church. One, for example, shows two boys finding, another someone putting up a candle, or crossing oneself, or playing football. The children are asked to mark the right answer. They find the activity very engaging, and they get to learn something valuable.
The fourth lesson period is art practice. We offer activities such as theatrical play, singing, table tennis, wrestling, Christmas theatre, or some exciting maths practice. We let the children try as many as they like and make their choice. We have no goal of making experts or expert artists out of them, but we do not rule out this possibility. Most of all, we would like to give them a fun alternative to spending all this time on their computer. Some vacancies for our activity leaders are still unfilled. Right now, we are looking for a tennis coach. But we are not experiencing any significant staff shortages.
What is your minimum age of admission?
We used to admit children starting from age 7. Many parents, however, would like to bring their children to our school at an earlier age. Some hope that we will make saints out of them. Their expectations are misguided, of course. What is most important is for the parents to live in the Lord. While the children are in class, we engage the parents. We offer talks and meetings over tea with people of interest. We aim to maintain some unity of the spirit between the parents and their children. Some parents who are not churchgoing will bring their children to our school. They differ from the rest of the children noticeably, but we do not treat them any differently. Our attitude to all children is always the same. We have excellent teachers who are doing their best and approach every child with great love.
For how many years do the children study at the school?
At first, they could study for three years. But very few were willing to leave, so we extended the study period by another year. We have adopted a five-year cycle starting from this year.
We also run a nursery group for children aged 5 - 6 years. A kindergarten teacher is running it. She is very good at keeping discipline in the class, and the children listen. We have also launched a group for even younger children aged 2 - 5 years. They attend together with their parents and participate in activities organised for them in the gym. There is plenty of space there, and everyone has a lot of fun. Nobody is left behind, and everyone feels engaged.
We are also running two groups for older children - one for adolescents, and the other for the older teens. Many of our nuns and priests have once been enrolled in them. Today, however, putting an older group together is increasingly an uphill struggle.
Why are young people leaving the church?
I think this is an inevitable part of growing up for most children. Before they reach adolescence, children come to church with their parents, and they listen to them. At adolescence, they enter a period of mental and hormonal change. They begin to claim their independence and autonomy. They insist on coming to church without their parents or not at all. At this stage, the outcomes of the past parental approaches become critical. Parents who stay connected with their children, and who show perseverance and insistence are usually more successful in having their children stay at church than those who do not. The children who stay on will eventually bring to church their own children. Far more often, parents are too afraid of putting too much pressure, and their children leave the church altogether. One has to understand that we cannot compete with worldly life, which appears more spicy, colourful and exciting to the young mind.
So how can parents find the golden middle to avoid putting too much pressure and at the same time not to lose control of the situation altogether?
I think love and prayer are the only answer. It also takes a lot of patience and tact. Sometimes, it helps to ask the child to go to church for his mother's sake. But sensitivity is always the key. There is no need to insist on praying together with the child all the time. However, one should encourage the child to say the morning and evening prayers, in their own words, and to pray before school. They need to keep their individual conversations with God.
Are all of your staff trained teachers?
I do not think that this is essential in all cases. Trained teachers are sometimes too focused on sticking to the prescribed content and curriculum at all costs. However, people who are not professional teachers may conduct themselves in a friendlier way and present the material in a more practical and hands-on manner. However, nearly all the lessons in our schools are conducted by professional teachers.
Do teachers ever have to raise their voice at the children?
I do not think so. All are very gentle. I observed a lesson with students in year one. The atmosphere was so warm and comfortable that I did not want to leave. Everyone was interested, engaged and also quiet and relaxed. When someone misbehaved, the teacher would just come up and put her hand on the child's shoulder. It was beautiful. All of our teachers are like that. They have the trust of the children as open, honest and sincere people who practise what they preach.
What are the tools available to the teacher to keep discipline in class?
If a child's behaviour is disruptive, we have three options to address that. First, we may ask a parent to sit in the lesson. One of our children had his mother sit in with him for four years. If this does not help, I get to talk to the child. We agree that every time he is given notice he must do a certain number of push-ups at home. If this fails, we ask our school's spiritual father, priest Rodion Alkhovik to come in. He is a great authority for the children. How are today's children different, and do you think that technology has much to do with it? Today's children are different from children twenty years ago. They are far more excitable and distracted. They have a lot more difficulty concentrating. They overwhelmed with technology, it permeates all their lives. At school, we ask all the children to deposit their phones in a designated box. They can get them back after the lesson is over.
Which traditions of the school are you proud of?
We also educate the patients of the care home for adults with disabilities. Our teachers pick them up from the institution every Sunday. The opportunity to see the world behind the institution's walls is very important for the patients. They all look forward to it. The walk to school is a procession of the cross. The patients say their prayers, praise God and cross themselves.
We stream them into groups according to ability. Some may be interested in the Gospel Studies class, while others can do nothing more than drawing a line. They also prepare and participate in the matinees for the Pascha and Christmas. The parents of the children from the Sunday school organise the celebration of their birthdays. They buy presents and present a show. The patients of the care home are of adult age, but they are still children at heart. They share their love without reservation and do it with all sincerity like no-one else could. Elder Nikolai Guryanov once said that we would be saved through them, and asked us to keep visiting the care home.
Our school year usually ends with a paschal matinee. We then go on a picnic to Lake Tsnyanskoye, which is just at the end of the street. We bring food and treats, we light a fire, eat sausage, play ball, talk or relax in the shade. This is usually our last lesson of the year. Then we arrange a school leaving party for our senior students. In turn, the students prepare and give a show, while their parents arrange some sweet treats. Also, a part of our tradition is a school trip. We usually visit places of worship or areas of natural beauty so the children can spend some time together. We have been to many places. For example, we have travelled to the grave of the new martyr Mikhail Novitsky near Kletsk and visited the Nesvizh Castle. We organise processions of the cross, walking all the way to the sites of worship. One of these was to venerate the relics of Sofia of Slutsk. We usually take a bus ride to the centre, and then walk along the river to the Cathedral to venerate the relics. In the same manner, we visited the site with the relics of Saint Valentina of Minsk. We always invite the patients of the care home to join us. We take them there by bus. We celebrate the Moleben and then go together to the zoo. This is a good occasion for our children to spend time with the patients of the care home. We want the children to know that they are living next to them, and they need their friendship and attention.
Recently, we have launched a new type of activity designed for children from troubled families who have been removed from their parents and have been placed in provisional care while it is being decided whether they would be reunited with their birth parents or placed in an institution. We are working on arranging visits from our children's parents to these provisional care facilities. The children there do not go to church, and it is an opportunity for our parents to talk to them about God, to do things together, like cooking or clay modelling. It is always rewarding for all to do something with their own hands and then to have tea together. - The children are hungry for warmth and affection, and the parents of our children are capable of filling this need, if only for some limited time.
Another lesson period is over, and the children are coming out of the classrooms. A girl in a blue dress has stayed behind in the chapel. Perhaps she has something to say to God, or maybe to one of the school's Patron Saints.
The school year in Belarus begins on the first of September. This date is an important one for our ministry, as St Elisabeth Convent has established the first and the only Christian school in Belarus, the Ichthys Christian Orthodox School.
Beyond passing on to the student a certain body of knowledge, the school sees as its aim to cultivate valuable personal skills and Christian virtues, such as friendship, compassion, love and mercy. The nursery and secondary school Ichthys based…