In my Methods: Systems course I had great debates with my classmates about the importance of planning for classes. Some of the teachers I admire the most argued for walking into a classroom armed with nothing but knowledge, experience, and a focus on student needs, but as a career changer new to teaching ESOL, I’ll err on the side of over-planning for my classroom.
In my personal life, my approach to planning is the care-free opposite of detail-oriented, whether it’s a vacation, a party, or a trip to the grocery store. But in my professional life I “grew up” as an event planner at an organization that exchanges high school students around the world. It’s important to have a detailed plan when you are responsible for the comings and goings of five hundred teenagers and a staff of a hundred volunteers. When I was preparing for my first big event in Washington, DC, I was told that I wouldn’t have time during the event to do anything but keep the show going, so I needed to make rock-solid plans in advance. I spent all of my time during the event helping making sure we all stayed on schedule.
There was no time or spare energy during an event to dream up what was coming next, you had to know everything in advance so you could adjust in the moment. By the last day, the event was running itself…which was exactly what I needed when I went to Dulles airport with 100 Indonesia kids returning home, and realized I only had tickets to get them as far as Kuala Lumpur. While everyone else acted on our plan for the airport, I could quietly get them last-minute tickets to Jakarta without alarming anyone! Even the most precise plan sometimes overlooks something critical, I guess.
Event planning undoubtedly influenced my approach to classroom teaching. I like to plan a lesson in great detail-including timings, purpose, key points, what the students are doing at each point and what I am doing at each point. Underneath it all, I’m still a free spirit, but having the plan frees me up to change it or abandon it when things are not going as I had hoped. I can drop everything and be responsive to my students. On the days when everything does go smoothly I have a well-written record of what happened in that lesson and I can make a few notes about how I would improve it. This is good for my reflective practice and my development in my new field.
For someone like me, relatively inexperienced in teaching ESOL, making the lesson plan is an important part of the teaching process. It’s a time to visualize everything that will happen and double-check to see that every learning activity has a sound instructional purpose. As I gain more teaching experience, I imagine that I’ll be able to spend less time planning in part because I’ll have a catalog of my own lesson plans, but also because I’ll know more about what works and what doesn’t. The classmates who argued most strongly for teachers to free themselves up from making detailed plans are mostly veteran teachers with the street-cred to make that argument. For the time being, I’ll stick to the plan.
Here are a few of the best practices I have developed for my own planning approach:
- Never reinvent the wheel! There are countless lesson plans, activities, and exercises available online that you can tailor to your students’ needs. Early on in your careers, you should spend your energy internalizing someone else’s approach and trying it out with your students, rather than trying to figure out how to teach a concept “from scratch.”
- Plan as far into the future as possible. If you are clear about your course goals, you can probably plan for the entire course. You will make adjustments along the way, but the more detailed you are from the get-go, the more energy you will have later in the course to make strategic choices.
- Collaborate with other teachers. You can put a lot of pressure on yourself to be the sole source of creativity and knowledge when you plan alone. Working with other teachers can be energizing and inspiring – it can also save you a ton of work!
Marilyn Stotts is in her final semester of the MA TESOL program at the New School and plans to teach abroad this fall. She has worked in education for over ten years as a teacher, an event planner, a program manager, and a diversity trainer.