Task Cards: Five Alternative Uses

I’m not sure when I first learned about task cards, it was sometime after college, but I am a big fan. They are a great way to save paper, add variety, and even assess student learning without it feeling like a test or a quiz. There are a variety of ways to use task cards and I’ve tried many of them. Sometimes I’ll

hang/place task cards around the room, give students recording sheets and clipboards, and have them wander the room and complete the tasks as they find them (also known as student scoot). Sometimes I’ll give each student a card, have them complete the card, and pass it to the next student (also known as card scoot). I’ve also placed task cards and recording sheets in centers and allowed students to complete them there. Since my students typically sit in groups, I’ll often give each group a set of cards and allow them to chat as they grab cards, complete them, toss them back in the pile, and grab another card. All of these methods are great, but sometimes you just want to do something a little different. Back in July I shared with you alternative uses for sort cards. Today, I’d like to share with you five alternative uses for task cards. In no particular order, here are some of the more unique ways my students and I have used task cards.

Bounce It In

To play this game, you’ll need a set of task cards, ten plastic drinking cups, and a ping pong ball for each group. On the inside lip of each cup write a number 1-10 with a marker. Each group should set their cups up like bowling pins, with the number 1 cup in front and a line of numbers 7-10 in back. Set the task cards face down in a pile on the opposite end of the table from the cups. Students take turns turning over a task card and completing the task. Correctly completing the task is worth five points and the chance to bounce the ball into the cups. If the ball lands in a cup, the number on the cup becomes bonus points for that student. The student with the most points at the end is the winner.

Jenga–Two Ways

About a year ago, I shared with you an out-of-the-box idea for using Jenga to practice building sentences. In response to that post, another teacher told me how she uses Jenga with task cards in her class. She numbers the Jenga blocks 1-24 (or however many task cards you usually have in a given set).

Students then play Jenga as normal, but when they push/pull out a block, they attempt to complete the corresponding task before placing the block on the top of the stack. If successful, the student earns two points. Students continue to remove and replace pieces, completing tasks and earning points. If the tower falls before the time is up, that student receives negative five points, and the game is restarted. The student with the most points at the end of the playing time is the winner.

The second creative use of Jenga is a game I like to call Tower Building. Divide students into teams (2-4 per team) and issue each team a set of Jenga or other building blocks. Team members take turns choosing a task card and attempting to complete it. If successful, the student gains two points for his/her team and the opportunity to add a block to the team’s tower. If a tower falls over, the team must restart their build. At the end of the game, the team with the highest tower earns ten additional points. The team with the most blocks in their tower earns ten additional points. The team with the most points (correct tasks plus any bonuses) wins the competition.

Grid Conquest

Two weeks ago I shared with you about Grid Conquest, a fun game inspired by Blokus. This is a great way to use task cards! The game board and some dry erase markers are the only supplies you need in addition to your task cards. The game board is a free download from below the picture in this post and I’m willing to bet you have more than a couple dry erase markers

in your classroom already. You can get all the details in the original post, but the short version is this: student takes and completes a task card, successful students color in a square on the board that is adjacent to a square he/she has already claimed. When all the task cards have been completed, or no students can claim any more squares, students add up the numbers in their claimed squares to determine their final scores. The student with the highest score wins.

Four In A Row

It’s been nearly two years since I first introduced my Context Clues Four In a Row game, and it’s a concept I’ve used to practice quite a few skills since. Four in a Row is also an excellent alternative use for task cards because once again all you need is your task cards, the game board (free download below the picture), and some dry erase markers. Played like

Connect Four, students must successfully complete a task card before making a mark on the game board. The first student to make four marks in a row is the winner.

Baseball Review

This particular idea takes a bit of work on the teacher’s part, but it’s a great way to review a lot of material. Take all of the sort/task cards from the time period you want to review (preparation for summative semester/year exams is a great time for this) and divide them by difficulty into four piles. The

easiest pile becomes your single questions, the most difficult pile your homerun questions, and the two in between are double and triple questions. Designate “bases” in your classroom (place to stand or desk to sit in) and divide your class into two teams. Team one sends a player up to bat who then tells you what type of question he/she would like to answer. If correct, the student moves to the appropriate base. If incorrect, the team receives a strike and the next player comes up to bat. Once a player is on base, he/she advances the appropriate number of bases as each subsequent player gets questions correct. Play continues until the team receives three strikes and then the other team is up to bat. If a particular type of question (single, double, triple, homerun) runs out, you can choose to either shuffle and restart them or state that no more questions of that type may be attempted (forcing students to try more difficult questions). This could also be an excellent icebreaker alternative for the first day/week of school. You could make your own questions with the previous grade’s standards, or ask the previous grade’s teacher for copies of their task cards and/or homework activities.

Now you know some of the more creative uses for task cards I’ve tried out in my classroom. I can assure you there have been other uses attempted that weren’t quite as successful, but it’s only by trying things that we can discover new favorite activities. What are some out-of-the-box uses for task cards you’ve found? Happy teaching, everyone!

Solutions for Early Finishers

“I’m done!”

How many times have you already heard those words this year? And how many times were they quickly followed by, “What can I do now?”

Students finishing work and not knowing what to do next (even though you’ve given them about 100 options 1,000 times) is always a problem. I’ve always had routines and procedures that I taught and practiced over and over again. One year I even made this sign that I would just point to whenever my middle schoolers said anything similar. However, it never seems to be quite enough to fully end the problem of students calling out and then wondering what to do next. While I have yet to find the magic solution to preventing the question from being asked, I do have several activities that my students enjoyed participating in when they had a few free minutes.

Lego Area

As I mention in my post, Out of the Blue Classroom Favorites, the Lego table is one of the more popular areas in my classroom. It’s a small table with a couple of chairs, a pail of Legos and some baseboards. Sometimes I include a book with the picture directions for building various things (free download from More Preposition Fun post), but students generally ignore this. If students have free time, they may sit at the table (no more than two students at any given time) and build whatever they wish. It’s not unusual for them to simply cover the baseplates with Legos, building nothing in particular, but it seems to be relaxing for them.

Puzzle Area

Also mentioned in Out of the Blue Classroom Favorites, the puzzle table is similar to the Lego area. It is a small table with a couple of chairs and a jig saw puzzle spread out on it. Students sit at the table (again, no more than two at a time) and work on the puzzle as they have time and desire. Once a puzzle has been completed, we take a picture of it to hang on the wall behind the table, and begin a new one. Not only is it a fun activity for students to participate in during down time, it helps build our classroom community as well. Since all students are working on the puzzle together, it belongs to the entire class and everyone feels a sense of accomplishment when it’s finished.

Free Reading Area

Again, not a fancy area, but a popular one. As I describe in my Alternative Seating post, my reading corner consisted of an area rug,  a body pillow with a fun colored cover, and some arm pillows. The only rule about the reading area was one has to be either reading or working quietly on schoolwork. The number of students allowed to use it at any given time depended on how much space I had available to dedicate to it that year.

Card/Board Games

In our digital world, many students don’t have as much time to play traditional card/board games. Some of my students have never played a card or board game in their lives. I kept a shelf of classic games that ranged from two to four players and students were allowed to take them to their desks or a quiet corner of the classroom (our short table with chair cushions was always a popular spot) to play when they finished early or we had special days such as Fun Friday. Some of the most popular options from my collection were Uno, Go Fish, Sorry!, Connect Four, and Battleship.

Skillology Choice Boards

Featured in Top Free Teachers Pay Teachers Downloads of 2021, English Skillology Choice Boards were a way for my students to earn extra credit during their free time. I have four levels (beginner, low intermediate, high intermediate, advanced) and students could use class Chromebooks to access their boards from their desks. All of my boards are free, use the links above to get all of the details and your own copies.

Note Folding / Origami

When I was in high school, back in the dark ages, no one had cell phones. The passing of notes was our main form of communication. It wasn’t enough to simply write a note, fold it in half or quarters, and give it to someone, though. No, it had to be folded in an elaborate fashion. After we did a notetaking activity where students created what I always knew as a cootie-catcher (apparently some called them fortune tellers), my students were amazed at my paper folding skills. Later, when we had some free time, I showed them a few other ways of folding paper I remembered, and they loved it. The whole thing became another free time “center” in our classroom. I printed out instructions for various ways of folding notes, and students would write to one another and then attempt to follow them. They had a blast, and the best part was they were getting a lot of good writing and reading practice in the process. Eventually, I bought a few origami instructional books for students who wanted to try some more elaborate paper folding creations.

Fun Sheets / Art Center

The final option that became fairly standard in my classrooms was a fun sheets / art center. It was simply a shelf with copies of various activity sheets and some basic art supplies. I copied sudoku puzzles, crosswords, wordsearches, and a variety of coloring pages that I downloaded for free from the internet. I organized them in manilla folders (with an example stapled to the front) and mail organizers. Next to the papers I had bins with crayons, colored pencils, markers, scissors, white copy paper, colored copy paper, and wallpaper (see Out of the Blue Favorite Classroom “Supplies”). Students could take what they wanted and complete the pages or create original art projects.

Conclusion

Some of these options, such as the reading corner, were always available in my classroom. Others, such as the origami area, came and went throughout the year(s). A lot of it was determined by how much space I had and access to supplies. I would love to tell you that having these various options/centers solved the “I’m done! Now what?” problem in my classroom, but that would be a lie. It did reduce it, though, and most of the time that was good enough for me. Happy teaching, everyone!

Help! I’m Being Observed!

Some of us have been in school for awhile, for others its only been a couple of weeks, but whenever you started, it’s almost that time of year again: observation time. I’ll admit that this time used to strike fear into my normally confident teacher heart. I’ll even admit to still having twinges after more than two decades of teaching, but I don’t worry nearly as much as in the past.

My Advice

Don’t put on a dog and pony show. Don’t try to come up with an over-the-top, can’t-be-beat lesson. Simply teach whatever you would have taught, in the way you would have taught it, if there were no observation. In a nutshell, pretend the administrator/evaluator isn’t even in the room.

My Rational

First, it’ll make your life easier. Teachers have far too much to do already. I don’t know about you, but I simply don’t have the time or energy to come up with an elaborate lesson for no reason other than someone’s going to be watching. Do I sometimes teach what might be classified as elaborate lessons? Yes, but I plan them well in advance, prepare the students ahead of time, and schedule them when they’ll make the greatest impact in student learning.

Second, I barely have time to teach as it is and don’t need one more thing disrupting our learning schedule. Between state testing, fire drills, assemblies, field trips, snow days, and the myriad of other interruptions to our learning schedule, the last thing I need is one more thing delaying or changing our lessons.

Third, students of all ages are highly routine dependent. If you haven’t already figured this out, you haven’t been teaching long. Change one thing in the routine and it’s quite possible your students will react as though the world has suddenly started orbiting in the opposite direction. This is more of an issue for younger students than older, but even in the upper grades you’ll have students that do not deal well with change (and those that will suddenly call out, “Why aren’t we doing it how we normally do?” or something similar). A change in routine or procedure, or the introduction of a new activity, can also result in confusion. Students may not be reacting badly to the change, and may not want to make your life more difficult, but doing anything for the first time makes it more likely for things to go less than smoothly. Sticking to the familiar greatly lowers your chances of disaster.

Fourth, your administrator is likely already familiar with how you teach. Few administrators shut themselves up in the office all day. Most administrators can be found all over the school dealing with problems, talking to students, helping a teacher, and just generally being present. As they move about the building they observe what is going on in each room they pass. Long before an administrator enters a classroom for an observation, he/she already has a sense of whether or not the teacher is a good teacher. He/she also already has a sense of what type of classroom environment he/she will be entering. So even if you put together that perfect lesson, nothing goes wrong, and no students call you out, it’s highly probable your administrator will know things weren’t “normal.”

Conclusion

Bottom line: trust yourself and your abilities as a teacher. When it’s your turn to be observed, just do what you do best–educate! Things are much more likely to go well for everyone if you simply stick to your normal plans and routines. If they don’t go as perfectly as you’d hoped, it’ll be OK, your administrator will understand (he/she has taught a bad lesson or two in the past, too).

Morning Bell Work

One of my education professors used to stress the importance of keeping students focused in relation to classroom management. She used to say, “If you don’t have a program running, put on a commercial or the students will air their own show and it’s guaranteed to be a drama.” I very quickly learned she was absolutely correct, and the time of the day students were most likely to get off track was the beginning of class.

It doesn’t matter which subject or grade I am teaching, it doesn’t matter if it is first or third period, the first few minutes of class are always some of the busiest and most chaotic. The best way I’ve found to deal with this, and to prevent my students from starting with drama straight away, is to have a very regimented program for them to follow. This was never more true than the year I taught a self-contained middle school class for beginning English language learners. Teaching middle and high school is rough when class starts badly, but at least it’s generally limited to 40-55 minutes and then you get a reset. On the other hand, elementary teachers know how hard it can be to get through a full day of school when things start off on the wrong foot. By the time I taught the self-contained middle school class, I had been away from the elementary model for well over a decade and had forgotten some of the more important routines. I’d become lazy about things such as bell ringers and some classroom procedures. It only took a week or so to remember why they were so important and I quickly hit the reset button, developed a whole new set of routines and procedures, and spent a week teaching them to my students. The one that I spent the most time on was our morning routine, bell work being the cornerstone of it.

I settled on a standard list of tasks students needed to accomplish every day. Students could choose the order in which they did them, but all needed to be completed by a specific time, usually about thirty minutes after the start of school. The next thirty minutes we spent going over various parts of the work, as I’ll describe below. Since I was teaching all subjects, I used this time as an opportunity to practice foundational skills (most of my students had large gaps in their education) and vocabulary. Our standard list consisted of:

  • Math Fact Practice: I used the free version of XtraMath for this. Students had to complete their daily practice, which the site personalized to them based on their initial assessment and previous work. As students progressed through the various fact families and skills (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), we tracked their progress and they earned rewards such as extra screen time, alternative seating choice, and homework passes. I could access their progress and participation reports at any time online, making my job a lot easier.
  • Math Vocabulary Practice: This was a journal I’d printed and students kept in their math folders. Each week had a single vocabulary word as the focus. Each day the students would complete a single problem related to the target word. The vast majority of the problems were word problems, which gave further review of math vocabulary, and much needed practice with word problems in general. I started out using the seventh grade version, but the gaps in my students’ education were too great to complete the problems independently. I quickly switched to the third grade version, allowing them to do the work independently and fill in some of the gaps we weren’t able to address during our regular grade level math lessons. During our thirty minute work review session, one student would be responsible for going over the day’s problem. This meant that if a student made a mistake, or didn’t understand the problem, he/she had the chance to correct it, or copy it, from the board. As students were discussing the answer, I observed to be sure students weren’t consistently doing nothing and simply copying the answer every day. Every Friday I’d collect the journals and do a quick spot check to be sure they’d completed that week’s work.
  • Language/Grammar Practice: This was a half sheet of paper I’d place on their desks before they arrived each morning. I made a full week’s worth of copies each Friday, usually from an Evan-Moor Daily Language Review book. One student (different from the math vocabulary student) would be responsible for going over the answers to each day’s review sheet. That student was also responsible for collecting the papers and placing them in our “I’m finished” box for me to do a quick check later. Once again, I observed and walked around the room making spot checks to be sure students were making and effort to complete the sheet and not simply waiting to copy the answers from the board.
  • Reading Practice: This was another sheet I placed on their desks each day before they arrived, and again I generally copied it from an Evan-Moor book, this time Non-Fiction Reading Practice. Occasionally I’d use a different text from NewsELA or CommonLit, something specifically related to what we were learning in science or social studies, but not always. Once again, a different student was assigned each day to go over the answers to the comprehension section and collect the papers for me to look over later while I made spot checks of student work.
  • Writing Prompt: Even though it almost never changed, I always listed the daily morning tasks to be accomplished on the board. The one part of this list that changed daily was the writing prompt. Students had their own personalized journals (notebook paper folded in half and stapled inside wallpaper covers) in which they wrote their responses. Each Friday I collected their journals and looked over their entries, giving quick feedback on specific grammar, punctuation, or other writing conventions we’d been discussing in our ELA lessons.
  • Academic Vocabulary: On Monday students would receive their graphic organizer for the week and I’d put up the first word’s card. Each day I’d add a new card to our vocabulary clipboards (half page clipboards located next to our word wall). Students were responsible for copying the definition from the display card, reading my example sentence, and writing one of their own. During our work review time, I’d randomly call on several students to share their sentences and we’d discuss the day’s word, adding its card to our word wall. Each Monday, at the end of our review time, students would complete the vocabulary quiz for the previous week’s words.

This routine ensured students knew exactly what to do upon arrival to my classroom each day and got our days off to a positive start with an immediate focus on learning. An hour of each day (30 minutes to work, 30 minutes to go over the daily checks) seems like a lot of time to “lose” on morning/bell work, but it was far from wasted. Students reviewed a lot of important skills, worked to fill in gaps in their academic knowledge, and practiced leading a group and speaking skills. I had the opportunity to take care of things such as attendance, get in some student conferencing, and answer a lot of questions about various subjects. During work time, I also made sure to meet with each student who would be going over the answer(s) to either the math vocabulary problem, language/grammar practice, or reading practice. This ensured he/she was confident in his/her answers, and would give the correct answer(s) to the rest of the class. Being the person in charge of of going over a particular item was a highly sought after thing, and students would often argue over who got to take someone’s place if he/she was absent. My principal was always impressed at how smoothly things went and how confident my students were in front of a group, despite their low proficiency with English.

When I don’t teach a self-contained class, I still start with some type of bell work. Almost all of my classes do the academic vocabulary work, and the others vary based on class focus. Some classes focus more on writing, others on reading, and still others on grammar. No matter what the focus, even the shorter time (usually 10-20 minutes) yields the same benefits. I would highly encourage any teacher, no matter the subject or grade level, to consider what type of “assignment” would make a good start to your class. Happy teaching, everyone!

Advice for Novice Teachers

When I started teaching in 2000, I was told I’d be considered a novice teacher for the first three years. Personally, I think it was more like five years before I started to feel like I had some idea of what I was doing. Every year about this time I see posts from novice teachers (first year, second year, third year…) asking for advice on every aspect of teaching, many simply asking, “What advice do you wish someone had given you?” Since this is a much bigger question than can be answered in a social media comment, I’d like to try and answer it today.

Breathe and take one day at a time

Teaching is a very overwhelming job and it feels as though everything needs to be finished yesterday. It is easy to get caught up in the rush and chaos. The truth of the matter is that it will all be fine in the end and very few things actually require immediate answers, responses, or actions. Figure out what needs to be done, prioritize the list, start at the top, and do the best you can. Everything that truly needs to get done will (and the things that don’t get done will likely have very little impact on your classroom).

My Teaching Aphorism

An aphorism is a short saying that gives advice or sums up a larger principle. My teaching aphorism is, “Do what you can for who you can when you can.” Remember that list of things to do I just mentioned? Here’s another hard truth: you will never finish it. There will always be something else to do and someone else to help. And a further hard truth: you can’t do it all and you can’t help everyone. So, “do what you can for who you can when you can,” and let the rest go. It is not your job to solve all the problems of the world, the school, your class, or even the student standing in front of you. Deal with what is yours to deal with (things directly related to your classroom), familiarize yourself with resources available at your school and in the community, refer students as needed to those who can help with specific problems, and then let it go. Much easier said than done, but absolutely necessary if you’re going to make the long haul.

“I don’t know” is not a forbidden phrase

I know I started my teaching career before Google was popular (it’d only been in existence for two years), but this piece of advice still holds true–even in our “Google it!” world. Students will ask questions you do not know the answers to, even questions for which you probably should know the answers. Do not panic when (notice I said when–not if) it happens. Just admit that you don’t know and, depending on the question, either promise to find out and get back to the student, challenge him/her to find the answer and get back to you, or simply move on. Google it later if your curiosity won’t let it go, but don’t waste valuable class time on distractions that don’t advance student learning. No one knows everything and it’s good for students to see an adult who is honest and willing to admit when he/she doesn’t.

It’s OK to say, “No.”

There is no law against using the word no. There’s also no law requiring you to always explain why you said, “no” (or any other answer). When possible and reasonable, I do explain why I am giving a particular answer to a question, but there are times when it is not possible or reasonable and I need students to simply accept my answer at face value. Students are much more willing to do this because they know I do not lie to them, I will admit when I don’t know something (see above), and I’ll also admit when I’m wrong (see below).

Learn to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry.”

When (again, not if) you make a mistake or do something wrong, admit it. It does not diminish your credibility or cause students to respect you less, rather it does the opposite. It also provides them a model to follow for when they make mistakes. Students need to see that adults can be wrong sometimes, too, and that we can admit it and apologize. You are human and you will make mistakes. The question is, can you admit it when you do?

Ask for help

Just as apologizing is not a sign weakness, asking for help is also a sign of strength. You are a novice teacher, everyone in the building knows it, and no one in the building expects you to know what you are doing (at least not all of the time). Find some more experienced teachers and pepper them with questions. You are not a burden, we are happy to help. I will say this though, it is nice when you do this in a considerate manner. Ask, either verbally or in an email, “Do you have some time to answer a few questions for me?” I would be shocked if your colleague said, “No.” And, quite frankly, if he/she does refuse to help, you didn’t want that person’s help anyway. Oh, and by the way, we experienced teachers do this too–I just texted a teacher friend last week to ask her a question about something in which she is more experienced than I am. One other side note on this–experienced teachers are just as busy as you are, sometimes even more so (they’ve had time to build families and are expected to join even more committees). It’s not that we’re too busy or unwilling to offer help, it’s generally just that we don’t always know that you need or want help. Take the initiative and ask us, 99.99% of us will be more than willing to do whatever we can for you.

“Boring” lessons are OK

Just as it takes a long time to build up your classroom supplies, it takes a long time to build up a repertoire of big, exciting lessons. There is nothing wrong with sticking close to the text and building up your supplemental activities and projects slowly. I recommend choosing one unit per subject per year to focus on. Work on building in an exciting lesson, a big project, or other highly engaging piece for that one unit. If you are teaching an upper grade and only have one or two preps, you can focus on a different unit every semester or marking period. That said, don’t be upset or scared when a lesson goes badly or flops completely, it happens to all of us. Just consider what you can do differently next time and give it another try.

Organize now

Though I don’t recommend purchasing a lot of materials during your first couple years, you will start to build up a collection of teaching resources. Please learn from my mistake and get yourself an organizational system now. You can read my previous post about this subject for all the of the details, but long story short–it will save you time, energy, and money (you won’t end up rebuying or remaking things you can’t find). Here’s a quick hint before you read the details: organize materials by subject/skill, not month/unit/curriculum. The curriculum will change (meaning the unit and month will change) and then you’ll have to reorganize everything.

Keep gathering ideas

It is likely your professors encouraged you to gather ideas for the grades/subjects you would be teaching in the future, it may have even been an assignment. Don’t stop gathering ideas (and if you never started, start now). Gather ideas for every subject/grade you are certified in +/-2 (above and below grade level students). While administration general tries to avoid involuntary transfers, sometimes it is necessary and the ones who generally are forced to change are the newer teachers (seniority does come with some privileges). You also never know when life circumstances may cause you to move to a new school/district and you may find yourself teaching a new grade/subject. These ideas (I highly encourage you to do this digitally and organize them) will be an invaluable resource for you and your colleagues as you develop those exciting lessons/projects we just talked about.

Function over feng shui

When it comes to setting up and decorating your new classroom, prioritize function over beauty. I’ve linked to posts about classroom set up and classroom decorations with a lot more detail, but in short: if it doesn’t contribute to the education of students, and/or make your job easier, it’s either in the wrong place or doesn’t need to be there. Does that mean your classroom has to be a boring utilitarian space? No. What it means is you don’t need to spend hours of your limited and precious time, or any of your insufficient and scarce funds, fretting over making everything Pinterest perfect. Just as there’s nothing wrong with having “boring” lessons, there’s nothing wrong with a “dull” classroom.

Stay in control of you

You are the teacher, you are the adult, you are the one who has to stay in control. The minute you lose emotional control and start yelling (or worse, panicking), you lose. The result will be one, and likely more than one, of several things: the students will take over control of your classroom, your classroom will end up being ruled by fear (not respect), and your classroom will no longer be an emotionally safe environment for students. Students depend on their teachers to set the emotional tone of a classroom and ensure they are safe. If you are not in control, you cannot ensure the students will be safe, and the emotional tone of the classroom becomes negative. You must stay in control of your emotions and responses at all times, even if it means saying something such as, “I need to take a few minutes and think about this. Please take your seat and we’ll discuss it shortly.” And when you do lose it (because at some point you will–you’re human), apologize and try to make it right (see above).

Tough Love

There’s a reason there are two words in this term. You need both and they need to be in balance. If you have all or too much tough, the students will rebel and your classroom will become a battlefield. The other possibility is you will maintain control of your classroom but it will be by fear and not respect. If you have all or too much love, the students will run your classroom and it will be chaos. Finding the balance isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a student is make them unhappy. I won’t promise they will thank you for it later in person, but they will be grateful you did.

Be their teacher

You are their teacher. You are not their friend, parent, counselor, doctor…you are their teacher. And their teacher is what they need you to be. Remember what I said earlier, you can’t be all things all the time, you have to do what you were put in place to do and that is teach. There are other people who are in students’ lives to fill the other roles (and if someone is lacking, refer them to the appropriate person/service), you are the only teacher (or teacher of a particular subject) those students have. Do what they need you to do–teach.

It’s not your job to be liked

It’s OK not to be liked, in fact it is very probable (I’d even go so far as to say guaranteed) that you won’t be liked by everyone. Do we want to be liked? Yes. Is it nice to be liked? Yes. Will most students like you? Yes. But, at the end of the day, if it’s a choice between being liked and being a student’s teacher, choose being their teacher. It’s your job to teach, not to be liked.

Look for opportunities to say, “Yes”

Yes, it is OK to say no, and sometimes you will need to say no. In fact, you’ll likely say no far more often than you want. Look for the opportunities to say yes and then do it. It may mean something doesn’t go exactly how you want it to, or a project doesn’t look exactly how you planned, but if the student’s request is reasonable, try to say yes.

Persevere

Your first few years of teaching will be the hardest few years of your career, possibly even your life. I still remember how hard I worked those first few years, how often I felt as though I’d never survive, and how badly I wanted to quit. It will get better, I promise you. So many teachers quit after one or two years–often just before things are likely to start getting easier. I would say I was about three years in before I started feeling better, and about five years in before I started to believe I could actually do the job. After that, things have continually gotten better each year and I can say I love teaching more now then ever before. Hang in there, find a good teacher bestie (you can read a little about mine in this post), and know it’s not always going to be this difficult.

Wow! That was a lot! If you’ve read this far I can guarantee one thing—you have the makings to become a great teacher, and likely are already a pretty good one. Only someone who truly cares about his/her students and has a deep desire to be the best they can be would stick with me this long. Thank you. Now go out there and do your best, you’ve got this! Happy teaching, everyone.

Advice for Future Educators

I am part of several different teacher groups on Facebook and there are certain types of posts I see every year:

And the list goes on. These are all good questions, but there is one question that always impresses me just a little bit more than the others:

I’m a first/second year education major. What advice do you have for me now, at the beginning of my studies, to help me get the most out of my teacher preparation program?

I love that these future educators are going above and beyond to ensure they get the most out of their preparation time. Education majors are not for the faint of heart, they are a lot of work, and when someone is looking to go the extra mile, and already understands that not everything can be conveyed in a program, that tells me he/she will make a good teacher. Since such a great question deserves a much better answer than a quickly tapped out comment on social media, here are five pieces of advice I would give to future educators.

Work Hard and Learn A Lot Now

If you are the type of student to be asking for advice early, I’m sure you are the type of person who will work hard and learn all you can. That being said, I know how tempting it is to cut a corner here or take the occasional shortcut there. As I acknowledged earlier, education majors are difficult. It’s been a few (ok, more than a few) years since I was an elementary education major, but I still remember staring at a little blurb of an assignment in a syllabus and thinking, “What in the world am I supposed to do?” Let me encourage you to struggle with the assignment and keep working until you figure it out. Please don’t post something on social media, or Google until you find someone else’s solution, and copy or tweak it for your own assignment. Even if you change the response or credit your source so you aren’t committing plagiarism, you won’t learn nearly as much as if you had persevered on your own. Does that mean you can’t ask for help? No, of course not. My classmates and I spent many an hour sitting in library study rooms and dorm lounges kicking around ideas, searching teacher magazines, calling up practicing teachers we knew to pick their brains, and working together to figure things out. The key here was we were truly collaborating, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of various ideas, and expanding our knowledge. Besides helping me to better understand the various theories and methodologies we were learning in class, these discussions helped me understand that no two teachers are alike and that’s OK. I saw how method X worked really well for teacher A, but not as well for teacher B. I learned that the same idea could be applied in different ways by different people and yield positive results each time. I also learned that it’s ok to try something and fail, that my colleagues would be there to help me work through what happened and improve the plan for next time. In short, resist the urge to cut corners or take shortcuts, it will only cost you in the long run.

Plan and Save NOW for Student Teaching

Do most careers have paid internships? Yes. Is it fair that education majors have to pay, rather than be paid, to do their internships? No. Is there anything we can do to change this? No. My advice to you is this: accept reality and move on. You’ll only waste time and raise your blood pressure if you sit and stew over it. More practically, my advice to you is to use the time you have. It always amazes me when I see panicked posts from education majors about to start student teaching and they have no idea how they’re going to support themselves or pay for it. You have at least three years of preparation before student teaching, you know student teaching is a full time unpaid internship, start preparing now. If at all possible, build up your savings so you won’t have to work another job during student teaching. It’s a lot of work and mentally/emotionally draining. I know this isn’t practical for everyone, so if you have to work while student teaching, start positioning yourself with your employer so you can work evenings and weekends only. You aren’t going to be able to student teach part time, and you aren’t going to be able to change the school schedule, so you’re going to have to adapt your lifestyle to the student teaching schedule. The sooner your start thinking about and planning for this the better.

A related sub-piece of advice: do not take a position that allows you to combine your student teaching with your first year of teaching. It seems like the perfect solution: get paid, have a guaranteed job when you’re done, extra experience… very tempting, I get it, but I do truly believe it’s a mistake. Student teaching is an extremally valuable experience and gives you the opportunity to learn things and be mentored in a way that cannot be replaced, no matter what the administration promises you. Are there those who will disagree with me, say they skipped student teaching and would recommend it? Yes, there are. Are there those who skipped student teaching and would agree with me because they regret it? Yes, there are. Ultimately it’s going to be a personal decision, but I truly do believe not doing student teaching will end up costing you in the long run.

Avoid and Ignore Negative People

Every profession has its complainers and education is no exception. I told you I’m part of several teacher groups on Facebook, and there are a lot of negative posts in all of the groups. I love teaching, I’ve been doing it for nearly two decades now, and sometimes all of the negativity gets me down. Protect yourself and your future by surrounding yourself with positive people, not complainers. I’m not telling you to put on rose-colored glasses and only hang out with Pollyannas, there are most definitely some harsh realities about the world of education you need to be aware of, rather I’m saying find the optimistic realists. Find those people who acknowledge the truth about education and the problems within it but take positive action to change the things they can and choose to accept the things they can’t. Sitting around complaining improves nothing, and many things are beyond our influence (such as unpaid student teaching), so rather than focusing on what we don’t like and can’t do anything about, focus on what is good and within our power to change.

Build Your Wardrobe, Not Your Classroom

One of the more common posts I see is in regards to student teachers and new teachers not having anything to wear. After four years of high school and three or more years as a college student, one’s wardrobe tends to be more comfort casual than business casual. My advice: start building your professional wardrobe now. Rather than asking family and friends to buy you classroom supplies, decorations, and/or library books, ask them to buy you clothes and shoes for your teacher wardrobe. As I point out in my post about new teacher classroom supplies, you have no way of knowing what the school will supply, other teachers will give you, or even what you’ll truly want/need in the way of classroom supplies. Also, in a very unpopular opinion these days, you don’t need a Pinterest-perfect themed classroom with a fully stocked library. It is perfectly acceptable to have a “boring” room and utilize the school’s library. What you will need, and can be assured no one at the school will provide for you, is a teacher wardrobe. Start building that now, making sure you have enough professional clothes to go at least two weeks in every season of the year (there will be weeks when laundry just will not happen), and avoiding things that require dry cleaning (you’ll be on a teacher’s salary). Since you don’t know what the dress code of the school you end up in will be, and it’s not unusual to move around your first few years of teaching, I recommend business casual as your minimum level of formality. Schools with less formal (or no) dress codes never have an issue with teachers who choose to dress more professionally, but the opposite does not hold true. I give some specific things to consider regarding clothing in my post about interviewing, and while you’ll likely be less casual in your classroom than for an interview, the general principles still apply. You’ll be standing, moving, and working all day and you don’t want to have to think about your clothing. More professional than less is always the safer choice.

Soapbox moment and unpopular opinion warning…I see a lot of people advocating for teachers to be allowed to dress very casually or however they choose. While I agree that one’s clothing does not make one a better or worse teacher, I do think we should dress in a professionally appropriate manner for our grade and subject area (gym teachers should not be allowed to wear sloppy sweats with holes in them but a dress or suit/tie would not be appropriate either). We are client-facing professionals and we should dress like it. Our society does not treat teachers with the same level of respect they do other professionals (or much respect at all) and this needs to change. One way we can help with this is to present ourselves as the professionals we are by the way we dress. While looks/dress shouldn’t influence what we think about, or how we treat, other people, the sad reality is that they do. So let’s help ourselves, or at least get out of our own way, by dressing for the societal position we want.

Digitally Gather Ideas

As a resource junkie I know that saying, “focus on your wardrobe, not your classroom,” is easier said than done and not nearly as much fun. There are a million fun, cute, and exciting resources and ideas out there and you want them all–I do, too! Please, learn from my mistakes and resist buying them. Instead, focus on building your digital idea files. You know what you will be certified in when you graduate. Start gathering as many ideas as you can for every subject and grade level you’ll be certified in, plus/minus two (high and low achieving students). Save files, links, photos, videos, and any other digital records you can. Organize them in folders by subject/skill and just keep adding to them. (Specifics on how I do this can be found in my Digital Materials Organization post.) This is a free way you can start preparing now and you will be very thankful for it! If you do this, when you sit down to plan out a lesson you will have a wealth of ideas and resources you can use to supplement, extend, deepen, and reteach the material. When planning lessons, the supplementary things are the generally the hardest part. The vast majority of the time the curriculum will help you with the basics and give you a place to start, but it’s the extras that really drive a lesson home and help it stick in students’ brains. Give yourself a leg up in this area and gather ideas now. Will you end up with some that you never use? Yes, but that’s the beauty of doing this digitally–it takes up no physical space and is easy to move.

There are so many more things I could say, but they will have to wait for another day. Again, the fact that you are reading posts like this one tells me you are going to be a good teacher. Keep working, keep learning, and I look forward to seeing you in the room next door to mine some day soon. Happy teaching, everyone!

Master’s Degree Now or Later?

One of the most frequent questions I see discussed on social media is, “When should I start a master’s degree?” It’s often phrased as, “Should I start my master’s right away or should I teach for a few years?” It’s a good question, and ultimately the decision is a personal one, but I’d like to give you my perspective. Spoiler alert: I think you should wait a few years.

The most frequent argument I hear for getting your degree early is that you’ll make more money sooner. This is true, most schools set up their pay scale so those with advanced degrees are paid a higher wage. The question is, how much higher a wage? The argument I hear most often for waiting to get a degree is that it’s easier to find a job without one because the school can pay you less. This also has a certain amount of truth to it, but how much truth is unknown. I myself have been applied for, and gotten, three different jobs after gaining an advanced degree (two of the jobs were with two master’s degrees on my resume). While I agree these are factors to consider, I don’t think they are the only, or necessarily most important, ones.

The purpose of a master’s degree, in my opinion, is to set you up for the end of your career. If you want to go into administration, you’ll need a Master’s of Educational Leadership. If you want to be a specialist or interventionalist, you’ll need a corresponding degree. If you want to stay in the classroom, you will want a Master’s of Teaching for your grade/subject area. I think you get the idea.

The problem with deciding what you want to do at the end of your career is that you don’t know who you are as a teacher yet. Thus far you’ve experienced education almost entirely from the viewpoint of a student. The view from the other side of the classroom is very different and there is a lot that goes on in a school that students never even notice (even student teachers just get a small glimpse of it). It takes a few years to get to know yourself as a teacher and start to see/experience different aspects of the education world.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I graduated with my BS in elementary education, there was one thing I was sure I’d never do: teach English language learners. TESOL was just getting started as a focus for schools in most of the USA, and they’d talked about it in some of my classes, but it wasn’t something anyone really pushed. I listened and decided it wasn’t for me. Then I started teaching for a non-profit that had an English language school and said, “You have a teaching certificate. You can run the school for us.” I decided that if I was going to do this, I should do it right, and took the classes necessary to become certified in TESOL. Shortly after that, I enrolled full time in a Master’s of Education in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program. It’s been 14 years since I finished that degree; I am still teaching ESL and still enjoying it. In fact, I can’t imagine not teaching language learners! Had I immediately gotten my master’s after graduation I would likely have gotten a general Master’s of Elementary Education, or become a reading specialist. There’s nothing wrong with either degree, I know many great teachers who have one or the other, but neither would have been the right one for me and my career would likely look very different today.

Another argument for waiting to get your master’s degree is finances. Taking a few years to teach gives you the chance to start paying off any student loans you may have taken out for your bachelor’s degree. Rather than continuing to add to your debt, take the opportunity to gain some experience and pay it down a little. There are even loan forgiveness programs for qualifying teachers, but they all require you to teach full time.

Besides dealing with any student loan debt, getting started with your teaching career can help you pay for your master’s degree in different ways. Many colleges and universities offer scholarships for returning students and students who are advancing their careers through further education. The school you work for may also offer some type of tuition reimbursement program. The first school I worked for upon returning to the USA had such a program and it paid for almost half of my second master’s degree (curriculum and instruction, if you were wondering). Sometimes, if a school really needs people with a particular certification, they will pay for the entire degree (though this is fairly rare and usually for very specific specialty fields).

Besides getting to know yourself as a teacher and finances, there’s application to be considered as well. I don’t mean the application to the program, I mean the application of your learning. Both of my master’s degrees required me to complete assignments, projects, and research that could only be done in a classroom with real students. There were also a lot of readings and class discussions that were much more meaningful to me because of my classroom experience.

You learn a lot in your teacher preparation program, and student teaching is invaluable experience, but nothing can compare to having your own classroom and learning on the job. I’m sure you’ve seen the memes and funny videos about the college classes they should have offered. They are funny for a reason–there’s a lot of truth in there! Some things just can’t be taught in a classroom, or experienced in a student teaching internship. Having a few years of teaching under your belt will give you a whole new perspective on the theories being taught and how various concepts/approaches might look in the classroom.

Finally, though certainly not least, your first few years of teaching will likely be the hardest of your career. I speak from experience when I say that being a full time teacher and a full time student is HARD! To some degree it is easier now with remote learning (yes, I did both of my master’s degrees in the dark ages before on-line learning was popular), but don’t underestimate how much time a degree will take, even in a remote format.

You also don’t want to underestimate how much time and energy those first few years of teaching will take. While I will be the first to tell you that it’s ok to stick close to the curriculum and not do a lot of the extras your first year or two, it still takes a lot of time to make even the most basic of lesson plans and prepare for each new day of learning. I was only able to survive teaching and taking classes because I was teaching the same curriculum I’d used for a few years already and I only had to update and tweak my lesson plans, not start from scratch. I’d also already worked the kinks out of my classroom management strategy and classroom routines/procedures for every aspect of the school year. Teaching is never an eight to three, or even eight to four, job, but it does get easier and less time consuming as you gain more experience.

Whether you decide to pursue that master’s immediately or wait a year (or two, or three…), I can tell you this–it will be a valuable experience for you. Even though I never became a curriculum director or designer, as I thought I might when pursuing the second degree, I use both of my master’s degrees every day. I learned a lot pursuing both degrees and they’ve made me a better teacher. I’m sure you’ll find the same to be true for you as well. Happy teaching, everyone!

Phrasal Verb Reference

For native speakers, phrasal verbs are so common and “easy” we don’t even realize we use them (or even that they exist). While the structure and grammar of phrasal verbs is relatively easy to teach and grasp, the meaning and usage of them is not. There are just so many of them that do not mean what you would expect by simply considering the meaning of the verb and particle alone! My students are always asking for more practice with them, and I try to oblige, but games were just not enough, and I was starting to struggle to even create some of them.

I do have various references I point my students towards for looking up phrasal verbs and their definitions, (One of the ones we use the most is the Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary for learners of English.), but even this wasn’t enough. Sometimes students wanted to be able to quickly check if a word pairing was a phrasal verb or not. I also found myself wishing I had a chart that listed all of the phrasal verbs by both verb and particle. I tried searching for one but never found exactly what I what I needed. Finally, I gave up and decided to create my own.

I used all of those reference lists I’ve been pointing my students to over the years, and especially the Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary for learners of English, to create an Excel spreadsheet. I listed the verbs down the first column and the particles across the top row. If a verb and particle can be combined to form a phrasal verb, I put an X in the intersecting cell. The first tab of the spreadsheet is a complete list with all 1,135 included verbs. Following that is a tab for each letter of the alphabet so students can quickly look up a specific verb. Does the chart include every phrasal verb in the English language? No, but it does contain quite a few!

I learned a lot of interesting things while making the chart. For example, did you know that up is the most common particle? I found at least 388 verbs that pair with it! (Out is a relatively close second with 356 verbs.) Or that come and go are the most common verbs? Come pairs with 30 particles and go with 32!

The Phrasal Verb Chart is a nice digital reference for my students (it converts well to Google Sheets, if you are a Google school), and it’s been very helpful for me as well. It is yours to use as well, just click the download button above to get your own copy of the Excel version. I did password protect each of the tabs to prevent my students from accidentally making changes to it. The password is ESL2022#. If you need to unprotect a sheet, simply right click on the desired tab and click “Unprotect Sheet.” Type in the password and click OK. To reinstate the protections, right click on the tab again, click “Protect Sheet,” enter your desired password, click OK, reenter the password, and click OK. I hope it’s as helpful for you and your students as it’s been for me and mine. Happy teaching, everyone!


Interested in some of those games I’ve developed to practice phrasal verbs? Here are the links:

Or you can get all five phrasal verb games in a single bundle and at a 20% discount! The bundle includes the PowerPoint version of Jeopardy.

Interview Advice

It’s interview season for teachers, and that means I am seeing A LOT of posts on social media asking for advice. I am not an HR person, nor am I an expert on the subject, but I have been on my fair share of interviews (and always been offered the job), and I’ve also been the person conducting the interview, so I do have some thoughts to share on the subject.

Be Yourself

An interview is about the school representative getting to know you and you getting to know them. That can’t happen if you aren’t being yourself. Are you a bubbly, outgoing, exuberant person? Be that. Are you a quieter, more introverted, subdued person? Be that. Do not try to be something your not, you’re only setting yourself up for failure if you try. If you’re successful, and the interviewer buys it, you may end up in a position you’re not actually suited for (or they may end up not happy with you and show it in your evaluations). If you’re not successful, and the interviewer sees through your act, it’s pretty much a guarantee you won’t get an offer.

Be Honest & Direct

Yes, an interview is all about selling yourself and your abilities, but don’t exaggerate or lie. Speak as positively as possible about your strengths/weaknesses, education, and experience, but don’t try to make yourself into something you’re not. Give direct answers to direct questions. Rambling and obfuscating can indicate a lack of focus or suggest that you’re trying to distract the interviewer from the fact you don’t know what you are talking about.

What if I don’t know the answer?!?

If you don’t know what a term means, ask. You can say something such as, “I think I’ve heard that term before, but I’m nervous and can’t remember. Could you tell me what you mean by…” And if you have no idea how to answer a question, just admit it. You could say something such as, “I’m really not sure how to answer that as I’ve never experienced it before. I think I might…” Or your could ask them to restate the question by saying something such as, “I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re asking, could you restate the question?”

The Portfolio

I hear a lot of people talking about portfolios and the best way to make and present them. They talked about them when I was in college 20+ years ago as well. I’ve been on interviews for, and by hired by, tutoring companies, non-profit education institutions, private schools, a charter school, public schools, and community colleges. Do you know how many times I was asked about a portfolio, or had someone look at one I’d made? Zero. Everyone has a different opinion on this subject, but for what it’s worth mine is to not waste your time.

What To Take

While I don’t recommend taking a portfolio to your interview, I do recommend taking extra copies of your resume (especially if it’s a job fair–then take a lot of extra copies). In a scheduled interview you’re unlikely to need it, they’ll already have it printed and in front of them, but it’s always good to have. I also recommend taking a notebook and pen. This allows you to take notes (especially important at a job fair) and also gives you something to do with your hands (holding a notebook is better than wringing them when nervous).

The Demo Lesson

Personally, I think a demo lesson is next to useless. It’s nothing like reality: it’s too short, the students (if there are any present) are always well behaved and prepped ahead of time, and anyone can prepare and teach one good lesson. But some schools require them and you may be asked to teach one. Please, please, please, do not simply “steal” something from someone else. Actually develop your own lesson and materials. If you do use something created by someone else (reading, worksheet, game, etc.), be sure to give credit to the original author in some way that will be obvious to the interview team. The last thing you want is to have them discover later that you did not credit your source.

What to Wear

In general, you want to be professional. Think about what you would wear to present to the school board or for parent-teacher conferences. Will you dress more casually in your classroom? Probably. But you’ll also be dealing with children/teenagers and wearing it all day long. Those things are not the case with an interview, so dress up a bit.

Men, I’ll start with you because, let’s be honest, your clothing is much easier to deal with. In my opinion, there’s not much to decide: wear a suit and tie, or at the very least dress pants with a button down shirt and tie. Even my software architect husband, who works in an office where most people wear t-shirts and jeans every day, wears a suit to interviews. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but invest in a decent suit, shirt, and tie combination in a basic color. Oh, and buy yourself a pair of shoes that aren’t sport shoes–tennis shoes/sneakers do not belong in an interview, even if they are brown or black.

Women, we have a lot more options, and a lot more things to consider, when getting dressed. Here are my specific tips/considerations:

  • Sleeves- Your top should cover your shoulder, at least a cap sleeve is preferable. At minimum, be sure your top completely covers any undergarment straps, even when you move.
  • Pants- Wear dress pants. Choose a pair that has a flattering fit and cut, but not one that is overly tight. They should not show any of your midriff or back, even when standing, sitting, and moving.
  • Skirt/Dress- Again, choose a flattering fit/cut, but not one that’s overly tight or that shows your midriff or back. Also consider the length of the skirt. What shows when you are standing? How about when you sit? Remember, many styles ride up when you sit.
  • Neckline- This too should be flattering but not overly revealing. At the very least, all parts of your bra should remain covered when you move and bend. Consider what someone who is taller than you can see when standing close to you (i.e.: shaking hands). Also consider what can be seen when you bend over (i.e.: shake hands across a table, place your purse on the floor).
  • Shoes- As with the men, do not wear anything that could be worn to play a sport. If you choose to wear sandals, make them dress sandals–not something you’d wear to the beach. And a side tip for job fairs: wear flats. You’re likely to be standing a lot and your feet will thank you later.

My advice is to give your outfit choice(s) the mirror test. Get dressed in everything you think you want to wear (including undergarments and shoes). Position a full length mirror so you have some room to move around. Start out standing in front of the mirror. Examine yourself from head to toe from all angles: front, side, and back. What can you see and not see? Now partially bend at the waist (as if you were leaning across a table to shake hands or take a piece of paper being handed to you). Check all angles again and see what you can see. Now fully bend at the waist (as if picking something off the floor) and check all angles again. Finally, bend at the knees (as if picking something off the floor) and check all angles one last time.

Next, get a chair and place it in front of the mirror. Sit down in the chair and see what is visible. Cross your legs, uncross your legs, tuck your feet under the chair…try out as many positions as you can think of (you’re likely to be nervous and moving around a bit). Check all of them to see what your outfit looks like from all angels. Now do the two different bends: reaching across a table and picking something up off the floor. What can you see? This may seem extreme or overly cautious, but you don’t want to unintentionally embarrass yourself, and clothing malfunctions are something you don’t need to be worrying about during the interview.

Bottom line on what to wear: you want to be comfortable and look your best, but you also don’t want anything about your looks to distract from your abilities as an educator. Find an outfit that looks great on you but allows your skills and personality to take center stage, not your appearance.

Final Thoughts

Interviewing will always be stressful, but being prepared can help you feel more confident. You’ve no doubt worked very hard to get where you are and have earned the right to be sitting in that room, so be confident in yourself and your background. If you get the offer, great! Consider it carefully and decide to take it or turn it down. If you don’t get an offer, that’s OK too. Remember, it’s better for everyone (you included) to find a good fit between the person and the position; the right job will come along at the right time. Best of luck to you and happy teaching, everyone!

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.