Lesson Go Poorly? It’ll Be OK!

It Happens to Everyone

This is my 22nd year teaching, I’ve been teaching for more than half my life, and I’ve been teaching ESL for more than 15 years. Why am I giving you my resume? Because last week I taught a lesson that was a disaster. It truly can happen to anyone–and it does.

What Happened

It happened in my advanced grammar and writing class. We were reviewing noun clauses and things were going fine. I presented a mini-lesson about noun clauses and they all had the typical “I don’t get this at all” glazed look in their eyes. I reassured them and we did a couple of guided practice exercises in their books, giving everyone more confidence. It was time for the independent practice, a game, and that’s when I first noticed the problem.

As I finished explaining the directions and started handing out the materials, I knew the students were confused and it was going to be a rough start. I expedited passing things out and started moving from group to group, trying to help them get started. The students worked together and tried as best they could to create sentences with noun clauses using the pictures and/or words in the game, but it just wasn’t working. After about 5-10 minutes had passed, I got everyone’s attention and asked, “Who hates this game?” Every hand in the room shot up.

What I Did

I told everyone to put the pieces away and bring me the games. I put the game back in my bag and reassured my students the problem was the game–not them. I reminded them of how well they’d done with the book work and promised the questions on their exam (only a week away) would be similar to those in their book, nothing like the game. The students, confidence restored, happily moved on with me to the next part of our lesson. When I arrived home that evening, I didn’t put the game away. Rather, I left it in my office–not because I was mentally berating myself, but as a reminder to think through why it failed and how I might be able to fix it. I won’t spend one minute being upset the game failed, I “wasted” time/effort/materials creating it, or thinking I’m a bad teacher. What I will do is spend time trying to figure out why and correct it for next time. If I can’t figure out both of those things I simply won’t use that game again, I’ll throw it away.

Tips for When Your Lesson Flops

As I said, bad lessons happen to all of us. It’s part of teaching. The good news is it’ll be OK. A few things to keep in mind the next time a lesson goes pear-shaped and your tempted to think you are the worst teacher to ever stand in front of students.

Stay calm and do your best. Your students will take their cues from you–if you get upset, they’ll get upset; if you remain calm, they’ll remain calm. Give the plan your best effort, but don’t be afraid to pull the plug when necessary. Just be sure, whatever happens (you muddle through to the end or quit early and move on), to make it clear to the students that they are not the problem. It’s acceptable, even encouraged, to tell the students that you made a mistake (if you did) or that you don’t know exactly what’s wrong either (if you don’t). The words, “I’m sorry” and “I don’t know” need to be said by teachers to students a lot more often, in my opinion.

Don’t waste time on mental self-flogging. I would be willing bet my life savings that you did not wake up the morning of the poor lesson and think, “I wonder how I can fail as a teacher today…I know!” and then proceed to intentionally teach a bad lesson. Nor do I believe for a second that you intentionally planned a bad lesson. You no doubt did the best you could do with the time and materials available to you. You may have even put a lot of time and effort into the planning of this lesson/activity and it still failed. The bottom line is this: your lesson did not fail because you sabotaged it. Rather than spending mental energy berating yourself, turn your focus to figuring out why the lesson failed. Do you need a more in depth pre-lesson? Was the format wrong? Should the components be reordered? Do the directions need to be tweaked? The first step to preventing a repeat performance is identifying the problem. If you can’t identify the problem, or if the identified problem is not a fixable one (given your particular circumstances), then put the idea in the “Been There, Done That” category and move on.

Consider your plans moving forward. Do you need to reenforce, review, or reteach the material? Sometimes, as was the case for my failed game, nothing needs to be done in the immediate context. The material was a review, the students understood the concept being taught, and they demonstrated they could apply it in other activities. My plan moving forward consisted of either tweaking the existing game or finding a new activity for the next time I teach this lesson. Other times you will need to revisit the material to help the students master the content or regain their confidence. What this consists of, and how you do it, will depend on you, your students, and the specific situation you are in.

But It Was My Observation!

There are few things worse than having a lesson fail while your administrator is watching, but it is survivable. I speak from experience. I’ll spare you the details, but I will say that one of the best evaluations I ever received was after one of the worst lessons I ever taught.

If your observation lesson fails, remember the most important part of the observation isn’t the time the administrator is in your classroom. The most important part is the meeting you have later. Administrators used to be teachers, they know lessons fail sometimes (and usually at the worst times). What they want to know is how you handle it when a lesson doesn’t go as planned. This is when reflection becomes very important.

Go to your post-observation meeting prepared. These meetings almost always start with some version of, “How do you think the lesson went?” Be honest! If the lesson flopped, say something such as, “I don’t think it went well at all, but I have been thinking about why and would love to share my thoughts on it.” Share with your administrator what did go well and specifically what didn’t go well. Tell him/her why you think something did or didn’t work. Explain what you will keep and/or do differently next time you teach the lesson. And, perhaps most importantly, share how you adjusted (or didn’t adjust) your plan going forward and why. This is the conversation that matters.

We all teach less than perfect lessons from time to time. It happened to me last week and it’ll happen to you too. It’s not the “bad” lessons that define us as teachers, it’s what we do in response to the lesson that really matters. So the next time a lesson doesn’t go as planned, remember to stay calm, reflect, and then do what needs to be done to either review/reteach or move forward with the learning. It’ll all be OK in the end. I promise. Happy teaching, everyone.