Preparing a Lesson vs Preparing Yourself (#Teach2Teach Question 1)

This is a response to #Teach2Teach Question 1 from Garrett, about balancing “teaching” and “planning” (full question below). Special thanks to Amy Lenord and Karen Tharrington for starting the #Teach2Teach movement and to those who have responded to their call!

Here is Garrett’s question:

“How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?  Now that I am getting ready to perform all this work, I am beginning to wonder how anyone manages it at all.”

So far, I have had the pleasure of reading Amy Lenord’s response, Colleen Hayes’s response, and Allison Wienhold’s response. I agree with their excellent advice and recommend that you go read it!  Rather than repeat much of what they have said, I’d like to encourage an approach that goes hand in hand with their recommendations.

I have found it helpful to distinguish between two important components of planning/preparation: preparing a lesson or course and preparing myself to teach. The former is about planning a certain kind of class, agenda, or curriculum. The latter is about becoming a certain kind of person.

Lots of kinds of people are great teachers. It’s not about having a certain personality, being introverted or extroverted, or being old or young. But great teachers have certain things in common. Here are four “They knows” and four “They cans” that are true of most great teachers:

Great teachers know
  • their students.
  • their subjects.
  • themselves.
  • each other.
Great teachers can
  • think on their feet.
  • use a wide range of resources and tools.
  • make good decisions about what activities and resources are worthwhile and what ones aren’t.
  • incorporate experience and research into their future teaching.

Each of these deserves its own post. For now, I’ll just highlight some connections to the planning-vs-teaching question:

Very few of the four knows and four cans are achieved by “planning.” Do you need to plan? Of course. But the more you develop these knows and cans, the less time you’ll need to spend on it, and the less you’ll worry about it. Also, growing in the four knows and the four cans will always help you be a better teacher, whereas spending a bunch of time planning a lesson often won’t. If, at any given moment, you have to choose between planning a specific lesson and doing something that will help you grow in the knows or cans, go with the knows and cans.

In the last few years, during which I’ve been teaching six different courses at a time, I’ve spent very little time on explicit lesson planning—maybe 10-15 minutes per 75-minute block. This is not because I just do whatever canned lesson is on the schedule or because I recycle old lessons. It’s because (a) I work a lot on the knows and cans, and (b) I have some practices in place that reduce planning time:

Quick hits—some other ways I cut down on planning/prep time
  • I frequently use the same basic content in different ways every class of the day or the same basic activity with different content every class of the day.
  • I keep a master list of go-to activities for each communicative mode and each of the 5 Cs that I can draw on at any time with fresh content.
  • I use lots of non-targeted Comprehensible Input.
  • If I come across a low-prep, high-payoff idea on Twitter or a listserv, I use it.
  • I start almost every class simply making conversation with my students in the target language (e.g., with Personalized Question and Answer [PQA]) and see where it leads. Often whatever this leads to is better than what I had planned and I can use what I had planned another time.
  • I don’t assign much homework or any graded task that I won’t feel like grading.
  • My students and I create assessments together in class by talking about how they think they can best demonstrate and continue their growth.
  • I take pictures of the board, chair arrangements, or other things that will help me remember what happened in a given class.
  • If I have a TA, I use him or her as much as possible.
  • I don’t do detailed prep more than one class in advance. It’s too likely that I’ll end up wanting to do something different and the prep time will have been wasted. Reasons I would want to do something different include a certain class session going differently than expected, something current in a student’s life or the world in general lending itself to class, or simply my coming across or thinking of something better in the meantime.
  • I don’t plan lessons at night. I used to (a lot), but then I couldn’t sleep. If I thought I’d come up with a killer lesson, I would be too excited to sleep; if I thought I hadn’t, I would keep trying to improve it while tossing and turning. This wasn’t good for anyone.
  • If I think an activity would take a ton of time to prep, I usually just don’t do it, no matter how cool it seems. The odds that students will acquire language that much better with the prep-heavy activity than with another activity just aren’t that high. I’m all about LOW PREP lessons.

A final note: A good teacher is prepared to teach. This means having an idea about what will happen in class, but often it also means being able to respond to whatever starts happening and being willing and able to do something different than one planned, all in service of the students and their language acquisition, and this comes from being a certain kind of person with certain go-to practices.

Hope this helps! Feedback and follow-up questions are, as always, welcome.

To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my recorded webinar It’s All about the Questions!

See also Rising Above School Politics (#Teach2Teach Question 2) and “I don’t know how to teach” (#Teach2Teach Question 3).

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  1. Justin, I just love this post. Forwarded to my department members and then some!

    I wonder if I might ask you to comment on the Almighty Objective as it relates to planning. I often find that the forming of an objective (as my county requires) makes me feel trapped. But, the verbiage of the county would have us believe that teaching a lesson without a pre-destined objective that shapes every moment of your time makes you a Bad Teacher.

    What think you?

    • Good Teacher Dawn, thanks for stopping by!

      First, some information-gathering:

      Are you referring to objectives such as those in the document “Baltimore County Public Schools Office of World Languages Course of Study” ( Most of these seem sufficiently general (e.g., “Students will interpret simple text written in the target language,” “Students will engage in conversations to exchange information about themselves”) to allow for a lot of freedom from class to class and teacher to teacher. Are you required to post and/or report objectives more specific than those in the document?

      Do you know why the county wrote its own objectives instead of using the ACTFL Global Statements / Can Do Benchmarks?

      Do students undergo common assessments that are tied to the Objectives?

  2. Justin,

    What are some of those go-to activities on the master list that you talk about? I have often thought that I wanted to keep a document of go-to activities for each communicative mode. Maybe we can start creating said document.

  3. I’d love to create a list with you of this ” master list of go-to activities for each communicative mode and each of the 5 Cs.” I assume the modes include interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational. I’d love to create a document with these activities on them. First just a list of names of activities and then descriptions. Could you give some examples of these go-to activities?

  4. In principle, yes.
    But as is the case with everyone who offers suggestions for teachers, it seems to be based in the suggestor’s own world – a world where it’s okay to use “untargeted” input, where there is no pacing guide or textbook that must be served, where there is no administrator hovering over one’s shoulder demanding written lesson plans and evaluating the degree of compliance with the contents.

    We need to be conscious that teachers teach in all different sorts of circumstances, and for many not everything on this list is even vaguely possible.

    One overarching way to reduce prep time is to give up the myth that there is any substantive difference between the “Three Modes” at the K-12 levels of language. Language is language at these levels. Most teachers do not teach a diglossic language with a formal written register (one with syntax that is truly different from the spoken language, as in newspaper Chinese). So simply not worrying about these modes, how to design “activities” that “address” each of them, and so on, will save lots of time and psychic wear and tear.

    With regard to the Almighty Objective mentioned in a comment above — write your objectives after you write your lesson, if the objective is not really an objective anyway but rather something to fill in someone’s blank. I have yet to have anyone answer my stock question of “Please could you show me any research that shows students learn or acquire better when there is a set objective stated as opposed to when there is not?”

    • Good points all around, Terry! I think people will be able to recognize and decide, based on their own situations, which of the practices mentioned in this post will actually work for them. Either way, the distinction between planning the components of a particular day’s lesson and engaging in training or habits that contribute to one’s becoming a better teacher overall is worth emphasizing. This is especially true given the number of teachers who enter the profession either under-trained in method(s) or not very proficient in the language(s) they teach.

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