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Teaching Strategies

Having an Off Day: A Letter to New Teachers

If your lesson fails, have a backup, ask yourself why it happened, devise a better plan for the next day, and don't assume you're a bad teacher!

Last spring, I was a terrible teacher. The kids didn't learn anything that day. My intent had been to present an interesting/engaging lesson on the wonders of theme in literature. I thought I had planned everything out, but I was wrong -- the lesson bombed. Five minutes in, I knew the kids weren't getting it. They started doodling on their notepads or staring off into space. At ten minutes, the discipline issues started to kick in. Some kids were bored. Some didn't understand what I was talking about. Some just didn't care to learn that day. After 20 minutes, I threw in the towel. I knew that I needed to regroup and wouldn't have a better plan until the next day. The students got out their free choice books and started reading for the remainder of the hour.

Learning From Lesson Failure

In my first year of teaching, a day like this would have derailed my confidence and felt like an epic failure. Even before I started teaching, I voraciously read blogs, books, and magazine articles about teaching. I would highlight, bookmark, and annotate anything I could get my hands on. I was in awe of the amazing things that teachers were able to accomplish. Their students seemed incredible. Each and every one of those students seemed engaged in the lesson. I would watch videos of teachers presenting to rooms full of kids in rapt silence or thoughtful discussion. While those articles are great resources and present the inspiring potential of a classroom, they left me with the misguided notion that every day would be like that. Every lesson that I designed would be amazing, and the students would applaud my teaching prowess.

Well, that simply isn't the case. Even the most phenomenal, talented teachers have off days. We all have those moments when something goes wrong or the lesson doesn't always click the way you want it to. That does not make you a bad teacher. A bad teacher looks at those moments as a failure and walks away. The great teachers are the ones who use those experiences and learn from them. In that spirit, here are some things to think about when a lesson goes wrong:

1. Before the lesson goes wrong, always have a backup plan. I teach language arts, so my students always have free reading books with them. Another great backup is to have several engaging articles printed and ready to hand out in case of emergency. At the beginning of each unit, I try to find a couple of great articles that will engage the students if I need a last-minute lesson idea. One of my all-time favorites for lessons with a paper component is the creation of an origami rock. In the event of failure, I'll have them use their paper to create an origami rock (I walk them through random folds until they have a rock) and then have them shoot it into the trash can. After that, we move on to something else.

2. Ask yourself: "Why did that lesson fail?" Lessons fail for countless reasons including:

  • Something else going on in the school was a distraction.
  • My instructions were confusing.
  • The content was too difficult.
  • The content was too easy.
  • The lesson was boring.
  • The kids needed a break in the middle and I failed to give it to them.
  • It was a full moon.

Once you pinpoint why the lesson failed, you can move on to step three.

3. Come up with a plan for the next day. You can start by asking yourself:

  • What do I need to change for the students to understand the content?
  • Does there need to be more scaffolding?
  • Do I need to keep the students engaged by adding movement to the lesson?
  • Is this lesson worth doing, or could I cover the same content a different way?

Reflection and Recovery

In my case, my lesson failed for two reasons. The first reason was difficulty. Theme is a challenging concept for sixth-grade students to grasp. I tried to have them jump right into it, and they struggled. They didn't have the background or scaffolding to understand what I was teaching. The second reason was the lack of visuals. I'm not sure why I thought it was a good idea, but I was lecturing on theme without providing any visuals. It worked for a few of my auditory learners, but everyone else was lost.

That night, I went home and redesigned the lesson. I watched some YouTube videos on theme and decided to begin the lesson by analyzing theme in the movie Frozen. That intro discussion helped my students engage in the lesson immediately and gave me some visuals to help them internalize the ideas of theme.

Having a bad lesson doesn't make you a bad teacher.  We all have off days.  It's what you do afterwards that makes the difference. For those of you who aren't new teachers, how do you handle your off days? Please tell us about it in the comments section of this post.

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Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

It's all about figuring out when it's you, and when it's them. One kid acting up doesn't mean that you've done something wrong--he might have had a rough day at home. But when the whole class is acting up, you know you've got to change. For years, I took notes at the end of every day on what I would change or tweak or improve about each class that day. Then, the next year, I incorporated those ideas, but also kept tweaking more.

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