I’m willing to bet that if you’ve ever been a teacher for more than, say…a week, then you’ve seen a lesson plan fail spectacularly.

One of my personal favorite lesson plan failures involves my apparent inability to count two-digit numbers: I tried to put the kids in groups of 3 to do a reading activity, but I counted wrong (like…really wrong), and I ended up with two giant groups. So, I redid it. And this time, I ended up with groups of 5. Seriously, what is wrong with me? I gave up and let one of my kids sort it out for me, but by then we’d definitely wasted 15 minutes of class time just trying to get in groups. And then the kids forgot the instructions (can you blame them?), so it was essentially total chaos.

How do you cope when a lesson plan fails?

In my example, I should have owned up to my weakness. I’m not great at putting folks in groups for some reason (which is why I make my coworkers do it for me now); I should have just permanently assigned a student that task. Kids love having responsibilities like that, it opens the door to conversations about imperfection, and it helps further develop a positive classroom culture.

First, identify the problem

1. Is it a strategy problem?

Do you have the right strategy for learning the content and skills? I’m obsessed with this thing called a Text Rendering, and I use it all the time. Recently in planning a professional development session, I (totally unsurprisingly) included a Text Rendering activity. My co-worker Lance took a look at the plan and suggested I try a different strategy, as he thought the Text Rendering just wouldn’t work right. He was correct; I was quick to jump to my favorite go-to, even when it wouldn’t have been a good fit.

We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: you need to make sure you have enough tools in your tool belt. We recommend Teach Like a Champion, Teaching Reading in the Content Areas, Making Thinking Visible, and Deeper Reading. (You might be thinking to yourself, “But I’m not an English teacher, Liz!” Don’t worry…these books have amazing ideas for all contents, I promise.)

If it’s just a strategy problem, no big deal. Just try a different one.

2. Is it an instruction problem?

Instructions always make sense in our own heads, but rarely do they translate well to an outside audience, let alone a class of 30 kids. I have seen many classrooms play out like this:

  1. The teacher stands at the front and shares the multi-step instructions with the kids
  2. The kids go to get started on the work
  3. The kids forget what they’re supposed to do
  4. The teacher cuts off all the work/discussion and shares the multi-step instructions again
  5. Repeat ad infinitum.

One simple fix for this: put all the instructions in the hands of the kids. You can write them on the board, or (even easier!) have them posted on your class website, so you can not only project them on a screen, but also have everyone with a device access them.

3. Is it a content problem?

A content problem occurs when you don’t select the right content for your kids.

As a former English teacher, I can vouch that we are notorious for picking texts that we love, and that we think the kids will love. Many of us are willing to die on that hill. For me, it was The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare). I mean, it was the focus of two years of my graduate work; I had lines from it in my wedding vows. How could my class not love this?! I made a stage for my class. I bought costumes. I wrote detailed lesson plans with the most engaging activities you could imagine.

It bombed. It’s just not a great text for high school kids. So I gave up. Halfway through it, I realized we were all miserable and nobody was learning anything.

If you find yourself in that position, it’s okay to give up. I’d highly recommend being open with the kids about the decision, and encouraging them to discuss with you why they didn’t think it worked.

Here’s another one for you. I remember being in a Postmodern Literature class at App State. We were assigned a wide variety of texts to read and discuss. The Monday we came into class to discuss Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, all of us were irritated. Nobody in the class had liked the book. We shared our thoughts with him when class started, and provided a litany of examples of why we didn’t think the book deserved our discussion. Instead of forcing us to trudge through a two-week-long discussion of a book we all loathed, our professor quickly shifted gears and gave up on the book. He took our opinion to heart, assigned an entirely different text, and dismissed class.

This particular example of lesson plan failure taught me that a teacher’s ability to hear their students and be flexible in their planning is a great step toward developing a tight-knit classroom culture.

While it may sound defeatist, sometimes giving up is a great solution, particularly if the content just isn’t working well.

4. Is it a classroom management problem?

If the content and the strategies are working for your kids, but for some reason, class time seems to get wasted with endless distractions and kids off task, maybe you need a new classroom management strategy.

One of my personal favorites is the refocus strategy, which works great all the way up through high school. I used the following questions on my refocus form:

  1. Why are you filling out this form right now?
  2. What is it that you want?
  3. What are you doing to get what you want?

One of the best parts of the refocus form is that you then have a running record (in the students’ own words!) of what’s happening in your classroom. Once I started this, I rarely had to contact parents, and when I did, I had a little stack of forms where the student was explaining his own classroom behavior.

Always have a back-up plan.

Even if you’ve planned everything down to the last minute, you have an awesome strategy, and it all seems perfect…things go wrong. So make sure you always have a back-up plan.

When a lesson plan tanks, many teachers resort to giving the kids free time, free reading, or a semi-relevant movie. But when you let the kids give up on the class (even if you just think they “need a break”), you’re telling them that the content isn’t valuable, and the time spent in your class is expendable.

You can give kids a break without sacrificing learning; they don’t need to be doing intense work at all times. To prove it, we’ve curated this list of low-lift, high engagement strategies that work as perfect plans in case of a lesson plan failure emergency.

Share your story, or check out our other posts on lesson plans and planning.

Every teacher has had a lesson plan fail in the classroom. Leave us a comment and share what you did, or how you adjusted or changed your lesson planning practice.

And feel free to check out our other posts (so far) in this series!