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5 Tricks to Save a Derailed Lesson Plan

5 Tricks to Save a Derailed Lesson Plan

Embrace change when your lesson plans go sideways.

I'll never forget preparing my very first lesson plan on nutrition as a student teacher in a third-grade classroom. I had worked so hard planning a variety of fun and engaging activities for my students, but five minutes into the lesson, a student got sick. Then, just a few minutes later, the fire alarm went off.

We've all been there before. Lesson plans can get derailed for many reasons, and it's the way you react to the situation that makes all the difference. Here are five ways to save your lesson when things go awry.

1. Work Through It

The day my nutrition unit was interrupted by a fire drill, I asked around to learn what other teachers did to recapture the students' attention. I learned that many teachers in my school placed clipboards next to the door with pencils and worksheets already clipped in. During a fire drill, students would know to grab a clipboard and head outside. Not only does this help your students continue learning, but it will also keep them quiet as they wait outdoors.

2. Refocus Students

One simple interruption can completely derail a lesson plan quickly—especially when younger students get distracted easily.

The best trick I learned to save your lesson is to have students do a quick "Think-Pair-Share" about the topic they're learning. Instead of wasting a lesson, it just takes on another form. In a Think-Pair-Share activity, students turn to a classmate next to them and share something they're learning. It's an easy activity to help refocus students and get your lesson back on track, and it only takes a minute or two.

Further reading: 3 Student Success Stories to Reaffirm Your Love of Teaching

3. Plan Ahead

My biggest challenge as a teacher has been under-planning the time it would take to complete a lesson, or how long it would take for students to get through individual work. I wasn't necessarily doing anything wrong, but some of my best lessons weren't lasting as long as I intended them to. Luckily, I came up with simple way to fill in that extra time.

I decided to create a "Top 10 Tasks" bulletin board, where I directed either my early finishers or all of my students if a lesson finished early. The board consisted of a list of tasks that students had to complete in order. For example, they would have to finish their homework, write in their journal, read a chapter in a book, complete a task card, and so on. By planning ahead for this possibility, I never had to think on the fly when a lesson or student finished early.

4. Have a Backup Plan

There are going to be plenty of times when your lesson just doesn't go as planned. Sometimes it's just out of your hands—like the time I planned an entire lesson on my smartboard, and it stopped working 10 minutes into the lesson.

To make sure I was never in that situation again, I vowed to always have a backup plan. Whether the plan is to have students complete their top 10 tasks or work on another activity related to the lesson while I think of what to do next, I always make sure to have something in my back pocket to keep students productive.

Further reading: Managing Your Creative Lesson Plans

5. Take a Breather

I'm a reactionary person by nature. When things aren't going well, you can see it in my face. But I learned quickly that I had to stop and take a moment to breathe if I wanted to save a derailed lesson. If the students see that you're not in control of the situation, the class will end in chaos. Whether your lesson was interrupted or finished early, always remember to take a moment to breathe and calmly think about what you want to do next.

To save a derailed lesson plan, you need to plan ahead for every possible unexpected scenario. The more you plan, the better the outcome will be. And in the end, remember not to overreact, and just breathe. If you keep these five tricks in mind, you'll be able to get through anything that comes your way.