What to Do If You're Not Sure What to Do
We've all been there. If you haven't hit it yet, it's likely you will eventually. There comes a time in every teacher's life when you just don't know what you're going to do next.
My second year of teaching, I remember being SHOCKED and HORRIFIED when my colleague down the hall sighed over coffee, "I don't know what we're doing today." I'd been trained in the proud tradition of "Fail to plan, plan to fail," and "overplan rather than underplan - never let them catch you without something new to do!" The concept of not having a plan was simply anathema, as far as I was concerned. And lazy, too.
Now I know better.
It's not that having a plan isn't good. Plans are great! It's just that, sometimes, well-laid plans aren't practical or possible:
-> Circumstances change. (COVID19?)
-> The plan you did have falls through.
-> You get word unexpectedly that something terrible has happened.
-> You're up all night sick or dealing with an emergency or helping a friend and now you don't have the materials (or energy) you'd need to pull off the scheduled lesson plan.
-> A kid brings an entire ant hill in his backpack and you spend the first twenty minutes of class dealing with that ecological disaster and now there's 15 minutes of instructional time left and how are you supposed to pivot from that?!?
Slow down and simplify
The reality is that teachers are humans who work with other humans and sometimes stuff goes sideways. That's ok. The trick is avoiding panic. Especially as you gain experience in the classroom, you'll ride out more of these "unplanned" storms than you could ever have predicted. Eventually, you'll even have a set of go to fail-safes on deck at all times.
*NOTE: These are NOT emergency sub plans. These are fail-safe back ups that you, and maybe only you, can accomplish with your kids at the drop of a hat. No sub in the world could run these backed-up back-ups like you can. For example, a lot of my favorites involve poetry by Emily Dickinson. And Hangman. Never underestimate the power of simple children's games to get you through tough days.
In the beginning, though, you might not have a tool belt full of emergency tricks to use. You might just have five minutes, your brain, and something to write with.
Good news! That's all you need.
When your back is up against the wall of "I don't know what we're going to do," slow down. Take a few deep breaths. Then, picture your learners. What mental and emotional state are they likely to be in? Why? What about you?
Jot some notes on your paper/computer/stone tablet.
"They are ____. I am ____." An extra bit of journalling might help you process, if there's time.
Next, consider where you and your learners need to end up at the end of whatever you're last-minute planning. This can be an emotional resolution, a piece of knowledge learned, a skill gained, or a combination. "They need to ____. I need ____."
Look back at your notes and simplify, simplify, simplify. If you're in a situation where you're having to change things up at the last minute, it probably isn't an "ideal learning scenario," anyway. Remember that something is better than nothing and tomorrow is on its way. The important thing now is to take care of yourself and the kids.
Done simplifying? Congrats! That's your "learning target" or "begin with the end in mind" or whatever. That's where you're going. Now you just need 1 way to get there.
Pick one. Or three if you must.. but no more!
Yep! I said "you just need 1 way to get there." Because here's the deal: resource overwhelm is REAL.
I can't even tell you how many times I've brainstormed (or worse, Googled) ways to teach something and been washed away by the sheer number of options. Yikes!! Free teaching resources are sometimes the only thing there's more than enough of. Save yourself precious minutes and more than a little brain space by whispering, "One. I only need one."
One thing, done well, will beat five things every time. Repetition gets a bad rap, but sometimes the best thing you can do for students is, "Try again." A little creativity spices things up, as well. One activity is easily thirty minutes of hands-on action if you try it three different ways.
Of course, if you're figuring out what to do for an entire week's worth of classes, one thing isn't going to cut it. I suggest a maximum of three things. With three different activities or strategies, a dash of creativity, and some healthy but not overbearing repetition, you should pretty easily be able to fill a week with learning and laughter. (*Note: introducing and then reflecting on activities with students helps, too! Always ask, "What does this look like?" or "What do you expect to happen / see / learn?" Follow up with, "How did that feel? Why? What did you learn?")
Three words: Minimum Viable Product
"MVP" isn't just for sports. Teacher productivity guru Angela Watson introduced the term to me in one of her (excellent) podcasts. A Minimum Viable Product is one that makes you think, "Well, that's pretty close. Let's see if it works." It's a "good enough" or "best we've got right now" first attempt that businesses use when they're testing products before a big launch. For us teachers, it's also a beautiful gift. Our "minimum viable product" of a plan means that in the face of uncertainty, we have permission to say, "Let's just see how this goes." Something is better than nothing. If you have even the barest scrap of an idea, try it. Be honest with your students, as is age-appropriate and reasonable, about what's going on, and then give it a go. My best friend likes to say, "I promise you're not going to hurt the kids."
Above all, remember this:
The tour guide, not the map, makes the visit worthy. You're an amazing teacher. You're a wonderful human being. When you let that light shine, even imperfect plans flourish.
Until next time,
P.S. Many thanks to @teaching.with.ms.s on Instagram for inspiring this post
When you don't know what to do, think about the bare minimum of what must be accomplished. What has to happen? Then, pick one thing that might work and try it. Rest, review, repeat.