How to Avoid the Tyranny of the Lesson Plan: Planning Less to Teach Better

woman holding marker

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

My journey to becoming a certified high school English teacher occurred during the early 1980s. My methods course work was solidly grounded in an era obsessed with behavioral objectives and highly detailed lesson plans.

This approach to preparing to teach centered content acquisition and the authority of the teacher. In many respects, I was trained to teach as if students didn’t even exist in the process.

I immediately entered an M.Ed. program since I graduated in December and would not find a full-time teaching position until the coming fall. Those courses further entrenched mastery learning, although I also had my first glimpse into a much broader array of educational philosophies that included reading John Dewey, Maxine Greene, and others I would eventually recognize as my own critical perspective.

Many years later, after those nearly overwhelming first years of teaching when all that philosophy and theory has to be put into some sort of practice, I was well on my way to being a student-centered and critical teacher when I had a student teacher. She was a very short black woman who taught from a script—every single lesson she taught.

I immediately thought of my initial training to teach as well as this student teacher as I was reading Christine Tulley’s How to Avoid Overprepping for Your Classes.

First, after my 18 years teaching high school, I have been working in teacher education for 17 years while also helping with providing university professors attaining and improving their writing pedagogy. In both cases, I have witnessed what Tulley confronts:

I recently consulted with a Ph.D. student who was logging long nights and weekends in her office. I knew she was trying to revise her dissertation into a book and complete a book proposal, but I soon learned that she was also using the late nights to get ready for class and “keep up” with course planning. With classes and committee work scheduled during the day, she never had time to write.

When I do classroom observations, for example, my teacher candidates feel compelled to perform, believing that “teaching” is about the lesson plan and teacher behavior (again, as if students are not present).

But it is Tulley’s next point that really sparked my memory of my student teacher from many years ago:

I often see this pattern of overpreparing among the early-career faculty members whom I mentor. Many have unwittingly fallen into what Armando Bengochea terms “the teaching trap.” Bengochea notes that such overprepping is a real problem for faculty members who suffer from impostor syndrome or use course preparation as a procrastination strategy because it sounds legitimate. They often engage in extensive lecture preparation, working to fill all available class time as a protection mechanism. The result is they have to do a time-consuming deep dive into content each week to develop lengthy lecture slides or handouts. Perhaps not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of faculty of color, non-native speakers, women and other marginalized populations prepare too much for the classes they teach.

Even though I now work at a selective university with students often benefitting from a great deal of privilege, my teacher candidates are often young women, several of whom struggle against being small in stature or “looking young.”

Tulley has prodded me to understand better why I have struggled for years to help my teacher candidates understand, and practice, a key distinction I make about teaching: Teaching is not about meticulous and detailed lesson plans but about being prepared every day you enter a classroom.

In some significant ways, I am here once again addressing that teachers need both pedagogy and expertise. The urge to hyper-plan—my student teacher who scripted every lesson—is often a self-defense mechanism, but it is one that is counter to our goals as educators.

I want here to examine briefly how to avoid the tyranny of lesson plans while also building on and pushing against Tulley’s alternative to “overprepping”:

Pattern teaching is a solution I regularly offer to faculty members who seek parameters on preparing for courses efficiently and effectively. The premise is simple and not revolutionary: develop a regular pattern or structure to the class. Often instructors create such a pattern (the first 15 minutes are used to review homework, group work is always done on Wednesdays and so on) for their students’ benefit. But pattern teaching can also influence how content is delivered, making it a useful strategy for streamline course preparation.

One nuance I would offer to Tulley’s ideas is that teachers should distinguish between planning (what we should decrease) and being prepared (an ongoing state of gaining both more effective pedagogy and greater expertise).

While I am not opposed to “pattern teaching,” I have adopted a different language cultivated in my years teaching for the Spartanburg Writing Project. We used the metaphor of writing teachers building and expanding their “teaching toolbox.”

That toolbox would be available so that daily teaching did not need to be scripted or meticulously planned. Teaching in a frame structure (for example, the writing or reading workshop guided by elements similar to Tulley’s patterns) allowed the teacher to pick and choose among the tools to apply as needed in the flow, spontaneously, of teaching.

Finally, here let me offer a few different ways of thinking about being prepared to teach daily instead of planning:

  • Create a syllabus/daily schedule and each lesson plan as tentative frames, not “that which you must execute.” The key here is that when any teacher spends an inordinate amount of time planning schedules and lesson plans, they feel compelled to follow through on that plan regardless of how it works, or doesn’t, in practice. Syllabi, daily schedules, and daily lesson plans should provide some organization and structure, but they are not exhaustive or fixed.
  • Rethink what counts as preparing to teach. Preparing to teach includes a teacher’s time spent being a student themselves, reading, researching, thinking, discussing with other teachers, etc. While Tulley recognizes many young professors lament so much time planning as a distraction from doing scholarship, I would argue all teachers at every level are preparing to teach by being scholarly; the two must not be in conflict, in other words.
  • Consider first and foremost what students will be doing in daily lesson plans. As I have noted above, too often teaching and planning to teach remain focused on teacher behaviors. The key, I think, to avoiding the tyranny of the lesson plan is to recognize that the essence of learning is student behavior, students being actively engaged in behaviors the teacher fosters and negotiates, but does not orchestrate.
  • Seek ways to build self-confidence by always being a student of how to teach and the content of courses being taught. Teaching is a state of constant learning and growing. That process occurs outside the classroom, but also in the classroom every day. Our teaching goal is to become adept at improv, not playing a role.
  • Resist the allure of being a martyr. Teaching has an unhealthy culture that includes who can make the best case about their martyrdom—lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or posting on Facebook about hours and hours spent planning and grading. There is clearly something compelling about this, but I believe it is ultimately not personally or professionally healthy.

I certainly understand why beginning teachers at all levels are drawn to over-planning, even scripting daily lessons. But I also recognize that this urge has more to do with matters not related to teaching and learning.

The lesson plan outlined down to the exact minute and governed by the teacher may leave no space for problems or look effective and efficient to anyone watching the play work out. What is sacrificed, I am certain, is student engagement and that teacher’s emotional reserves. This is not sustainable.

Teaching is a daily intimidating adventure, one that requires we find the confidence to enter each lesson with the board empty.

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