With two years of EFL teaching, and a TEFL certificate, under my belt, I feel like I am finally moving from “amateur” to “novice” in my ranking as a teacher. One of the things about developing new skills is that you will occasionally have huge insights that put a whole bunch of different experiences and lessons into context. Something will click and then everything will make a lot more sense than it did before.
The insight I’ve had most recently – and the one I want to share with you today – is the importance of really good lesson planning. I have a lot to say on the subject of lesson planning – probably several posts’ worth – but I think the first priority is convincing you, the reader, that planning a lesson is not only worth doing, but worth doing well.
First of all, a planned lesson is just better. Not all planned lessons are fabulous and not all unplanned lessons are a disaster, but even a bad lesson will be less bad planned, and even a great lesson can be greater with a plan. If you are good at teaching unplanned lessons, you will be even better at teaching with a plan.
There are several reasons why a planned lesson is better. One of them is that having a lesson plan helps you maintain focus. With a classroom full of children, with their short attention spans and their natural desire to disrupt anything and everything, it is very easy for a lesson to be sidetracked or derailed completely, and the best way for you, the teacher, to steer the lesson back on course is if you happened to have brought your map along with you. Sorry about mixing the train and car metaphors there.
Kids also notice when a teacher doesn’t really know what to do. If you show one sign of weakness, they will pounce. A primary school lesson is a battle of wills, and if you blink you lose. A lesson plan is your best weapon in that battle. Kids respond extraordinarily well to structure and regularity, and planning out your lessons gives them that structure. Kids respond to dead air in a lesson – to moments of uncertainty – by creating chaos. If you flounder at all in thinking about what to do, the kids will fill that time by escaping from the mentality of the lesson and into the mentality of play – from which it is often impossible to recover.
A lesson plan keeps you on track and keeps the kids on track, but it also helps outside the context of the lesson itself. Lesson planning lets you track progress and problems. With planned lessons, you have actual paperwork of everything you’ve taught, so you can refer back to it later. If kids aren’t learning a particular point, you know which lesson plan to amend, which helps you learn from your own mistakes and missteps. If kids learn something really well, you can look at that lesson and figure out what about it really worked. You can start to learn to be a better teacher overall and for each particular class, and you don’t have to do it via memory.
Lesson plans let you show off what you’ve taught. They’re good for your teaching portfolio, they make great blog posts, they’re great for showing other teachers, your director, other TLGVs, your parents, etc. what you do with your time. If you have a really great one, you can share it and others can benefit. People will think you are magically organized.
But perhaps even more important than showing off to others is showing off to yourself. Lesson plans give you not just a sense of accomplishment, but something tangible that reflects that accomplishment. A lesson plan from a lesson that went really well is like a personal award certificate. And since lesson planning helps you keep track of what works and what doesn’t work, your lesson plans will get better and better, feeding into and renewing that sense of success and accomplishment.
Research shows that these kinds of small accomplishments “can increase your motivation, your productivity, and your work engagement and satisfaction“. So many teachers struggle with motivation – with not having real feedback from the kids or the tests, it’s incredibly hard for us to know how we are doing – but creating lesson plans and then assessing how the lesson went – not just the doing, but the documentation – are surprisingly powerful motivators.
Each lesson plan sets a discrete, achievable goal – teaching the “target language” for the lesson – that you can aim for during the “presentation” phases and judge the success of during the “production” phases of the lesson. This fits in perfectly with the framework of creating discrete tasks, tracking accomplishments, and celebrating small wins outlined in the article above.
I can tell you from experience that planning a lesson, having it go well, and then feeling like I’ve learned something in addition to teaching something is the biggest source of my happiness and motivation as a teacher. When I don’t plan lessons that motivation drains away very, very quickly. Yes, there’s a certain nebulous satisfaction from having students greet you enthusiastically in the halls, or from sensing a general overall improvement in English – but that stuff is so subjective and hard to quantify that it doesn’t do much for you in the long months of the spring semester when you’re wondering why you ever decided to teach in the first place. If you need that daily boost – and I think we all do – planning and assessing your lessons is the way to go.
And then, at the end of the year, instead of asking yourself if you’ve made a difference, you can point to a big, giant stack of papers – your year’s lessons – that show exactly the difference you’ve made.
Plan your lessons. It will do wonders for your students, and it will do wonders for you – both in and out of the classroom.
Next Up: Lesson Planning 101