New Teachers

How to Prepare for Unexpected Lesson Challenges

Tip for new teachers from a veteran: It’s wise to prepare backup strategies to support student learning for times when their original plans fall through.

April 14, 2022
Rawpixel Ltd / Alamy

When the wasp enters the room, when the brand-new assessment that the district has purchased fails to load on the laptops, when the substitute list has been expended—there are multitudes of challenges that wait for teachers (and their students) each day in the classroom.

One of the “heartbeat” statements in my education training in 2007 that still resonate to this day is the truth that good thinking leads to good practices. Teachers aren’t limited to the trajectory of curriculum or the next line of a script. Rather, teachers are the scientists and artists who deal with the changing demands of the classroom.

How do we plan in an unpredictable world? Teachers face social and emotional needs, curricular demands, curricular changes, policy transitions, leadership transitions, and the self-doubt that comes with a performative and very public profession. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed. Here are some ideas for getting back on track when something goes awry in the classroom.

The Value of a Plan B (and C)

On a rainy day in April 2007, the scheduled field trip was supposed to fill the day. Little did I know that I would need to come up with an on-the-spot lesson plan when we were rained out of our travels. Since then, my emphasis has been that lesson plans should end in “if time allows” and, when possible, include multiple possibilities or brainstormed ideas in collaboration with colleagues.

I love a chart on the wall that lists ideas for early finishers, and I love the craft that can be pulled out in a moment to continue the conversation about content in a new light. Simple graphic organizers, ready-made question stems, and more can be drawn upon in a moment without waiting in line at the copier. I once saw a stack of pages in the copier tray that were blank, other than the word “Notes” printed at the top. That could have been an opportunity for students to create their own notes pages instead.

Besides, the copier only worked half the time anyway (if your school is like mine was).

Go-to Strategies for the Moment

While a teacher doesn’t need a MacGyver kit of escape supplies, one or two ideas for a fast go-to can be helpful. I’ve already mentioned easy-to-reproduce graphic organizers and found joy in the quickly drawn T-chart to explore a story or the plot diagram that could be traced on the wall. What about levels of questions or questioning the author as a means of building comprehension? Sticky note annotations? What about links to passages that can be shared? What about taking some brief time to write, including jotting a response to the text or a connection from life? This is to say nothing of the demand of trying to find time to conference. Freedom can be found on the other side of a panic-stricken moment to engage in some of the work that we’ve been meaning to get around to.

The beauty of teaching isn’t that we need a full candy store of complicated ideas with multiple copies, materials, and practice pages. Instead, a few go-to strategies to pull out of our back pockets can be a wonderful step. Rest assured, some of the seasoned teachers in the building probably have a few they can mention, as well.

The Value of ‘I Don’t Know’

Yes, I said it. Even with a PhD, there’s still so much to learn and so much grace we have to provide for ourselves. When all else fails, it’s important to give ourselves permission to find information when students bring unanticipated questions and needs. These moments in the classroom might feel like big fails, but they aren’t. When we’re engaged in the work of teaching, there are at least two ways that “I don’t know” plays out: the moments when we honestly should’ve done our homework, dug into the text, and known—and then there are the moments we don’t know or encounter a problem because we’re trying something new.

“I don’t know” in a moment of trying something or encountering a question that wasn’t anticipated isn’t a fail. It’s a beautiful moment of artistic crafting and human limitation. Besides, once you find the answer, you’ll be anticipating that question the next time around, or you’ll have worked through a problem that’s now clearly in sight. This was certainly the case for me in the past few years as I have looked for features to use in online teaching.

A final note: I offer a call for a bit of compassion for ourselves and our colleagues. Recently, I saw a tweet from one of my former students who was disparaging the way their teaching day went. I recognized a fellow perfectionist immediately and was moved with compassion for this former student and for myself as a young teacher. We never attain perfection, and the reality of the classroom demands that we give ourselves permission to play—to try, to fail, to try again.

The knowledge you have received from your training is a start, somethig to add onto as you learn and grow, and the same will always be true for me as I negotiate my need to be authentic and my desire to perform. Perfection may be impossible, but reflection is a useful step.

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