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On my mind: Stick with the plan or go with the flow?

This month’s Teacher Training blog entry has been contributed by guest blogger Johanna Szőke.

Jo graphic 300x210 On my mind: Stick with the plan or go with the flow?Are you one of those teachers who feel the need to spend half their lives planning lessons and then feel compelled to follow them through to the last letter? Do you feel frustrated about letting go for a minute and then being unable to find your way back to the plan? Have you ever felt upset about leaving the classroom with tasks that you couldn’t cover?

I, quite frankly, have never been the meticulous planner type. Not now when I teach more than 25 hours a week and not back then when I was still new to the world of TEFL. And here’s why.

I remember having a conversation with a recent CELTA graduate this year, while I was doing my extensive DELTA course, about how they could build a better rapport with a group they were teaching. They had also fallen a little behind the course plan, so on one occasion they tried to deliver a snappy, fast-paced lesson with lots to cover. But in the middle of the lesson one of their students started telling an anecdote and everybody seemed to be interested. The teacher started to panic that if they didn’t stop the student they would lose precious time that should be used for an activity they had spent hours planning. I remembered a similar situation in my career and could recall all the questions that were racing in my mind at the time:

  • What if I can’t do this activity in this lesson?
  • Should I let my students completely take over and become a serious obstacle to the course?
  • Which is worse: abandoning my lesson plan or putting an end to the anecdote?

In the end this is what I did. I let the student continue his anecdote. What was the outcome? Although I did sacrifice one of my crucial activities, I could witness my students communicate genuinely in English. I’m not doing CELTA lessons anymore which have to stand on their own and represent a perfect whole. Since now I have continuity, I also have the freedom to decide whether or not I want to postpone an activity to another lesson because my students seem to be having a nice conversation.

In order to have a warm atmosphere in the classroom and good rapport with our students, we should worry less about the plans we had crafted for hours during the weekend and should start focusing more on our students and their stories.

Having said that, some planning is still crucial for a successful lesson. But I tend to think of it as coming up with a set of objectives. So here is the planning I do like to do for each lesson:

  • Where do I want to go with this lesson?
  • What will my students have practiced and gained by the end of the lesson?
  • What kind of activities do I want to use to support my objectives?
  • In what other ways can I use the general topic of the lesson to support those objectives?

All in all, if I have a rough itinerary from point A to point B, I have done enough planning to avoid getting caught up in a never ending conversation about a completely unrelated topic but I haven’t done too much, which enables me to go with the flow, let alternative routes emerge and guide me in a different, however still related direction. If I see that a topic lights up my students’ imagination, I will try to alter my plans and incorporate the new topic in a way that my objectives are still achieved.

So, in the end this is what I suggested to that CELTA graduate. Because essentially what do we consider our main goal when we teach a lesson: is it to carry out the perfect plan? Or do we want to get our students motivated, engaged and interested in the language they are learning, and to encourage them to communicate freely? Sometimes we need to put the plans aside for a minute and just go with the flow.

Johanna Szőke

3 Comments on “On my mind: Stick with the plan or go with the flow?”

  • Marek Kiczkowiak January 11th, 2014 1:15 PM

    I totally agree with your approach to planning Johanna. Like you, I’ve never been a big planner, and I much more prefer to go with the flow of the lesson. Rigid lesson plans have always seemed limiting to me.
    However, as you say, it’s important to know exactly where you want to get by the end of the lesson, or what specifically you want your students to be better at. Some rough outline of the steps that will take your students there is also needed, but often the best way forward is responding to what’s happening in the class, being flexible with your activities, modifying the procedure, without forgetting about the overarching aim of the lesson, though.
    Some good ideas on planning (which are in a way similar to what you mention in the post) can be found here: http://www.teachthemenglish.com/2013/12/2-practical-approaches-to-lesson-planning/

  • Johanna Szőke January 13th, 2014 8:39 PM

    Thank you Marek for your comment and sorry for taking so long to get back to you!
    I checked the website you mentioned and I also agree with the points it lists. By doing this less rigid way of planning, you become more reactive to your students, which they will appreciate, and still reach the overarching aim, as you said.

  • Waheed July 2nd, 2015 1:46 AM

    Johanna Szoke, I compelely agree with you because when ever I am asked this question in interview I have answered that I am flexible and do not stick with plan

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