On Mary 5, 2010, a California high school assistant principal sent five students home for wearing t-shirts bearing an emblem of the American flag because they provoked the school's Hispanic population of students by wearing the shirts on the Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo..
I liked a Fox News commentator's take on the fiasco. Mary Katherine Ham noted on the "O'Reilly Factor" that this would have been a prime opportunity for teachers and administrators to teach the lessons of tolerance. Tolerance and diversity are big buzz words on high school and college campuses so why couldn't teachers sit students down and explain that while they respect the students' zeal and exuberance in displaying their cultural heritage, this is a time to respect, tolerate and celebrate other people's uniqueness and differences as well. Ham was expressing the concept of "the teachable moment."
Quite often on this forum, I have supported the philosophy that everything we do in the classroom needs to be directed toward the goals we have for that day. Snacks, bulletin boards, the music you play, the coloring pages you distribute should all focus on your specific content for that day. If you are teaching a story about Joseph forgiving his brothers,, you don't pass out coloring pages of baby Moses or let the kids watch a Veggie Tales video about Jonah and the whale. The lesson you present is like a well coordinated wrapped package, a tastefully decorated room or the perfect accessorized outfit; everything fits the lesson schematic. Children's ministry workers don't have the luxury of time for a mix n-match approach to Bible learning.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Some days, your kids may not be ready to hear about forgiveness. Because of what is happening in their lives, they may need to be reassured of the love of God or the need to stand firm against the temptations of the world they encounter "out there." You may need to drop your well laid plans to grab a teachable moment.
Jesus did this quite often. An argument among his disciples precipitated a lesson on humility (Mk 9:33-41). The disruption of mothers bringing their children to be blessed by Jesus turned into a moment to teach about faith and attitudes toward the Kingdom of God (Mk 10:13-16). A hungry group of disciples too impatient to wait for lunch turned into a lesson for the Pharisees about the true meaning of Sabbath rest (Mt 12:1-8).
Plan your lesson so that each part fits into the whole, yet have the flexibility to pause your lesson plans to grab those teachable moments. A tornado warning could be the perfect time to teach about God's power as shown through creation and how that same power can protect us from harm. A disruptive student may be an opportunity to teach about forbearance, grace and forgiveness. A class conflict, such as the California Cinco de Mayo misunderstanding, can be a time to teach about how we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, each unique yet each special to God. Spilled paint may be the perfect moment to teach about grace by holding a child close and saying calmly. "It's ok. Let's clean up this mess together."
You won't need to deviate much from your plans. Sometimes all it takes is one or two wise sentences, a quoted reminder from the Bible or a simple hug of forgiveness from you. As a preacher at my home church when I was a teenager said to me, "Use every opportunity to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord." That includes even the disruptive moments.