When Things Go Wrong: How to Turn a Disaster ESL Lesson into a Triumph

When Things Go Wrong
How to Turn a Disaster ESL Lesson into a Triumph

Tara Arntsen
by Tara Arntsen 44,720 views

It happens to even the best teachers: a well thought out, carefully planned lesson goes horribly wrong and you are stuck in the middle of class with confused, frustrated, and disengaged learners.

Students can react to material in different ways than you anticipated and new activities may take less time, be more challenging, or not work out quite the way you expected. Never continue following a lesson plan that is failing. This will only waste everyone’s time and students will not get the most out of their lesson with you. It is hard to think of new ideas and come up with an alternate plan during a lesson but this is the best course of action.

How To Turn A Disaster Lesson Into A Well-Deserved Victory

  1. What went wrong?

    Identify what went wrong so that you will not repeat the mistake with another class. This will also help you determine if it is the lesson or activity itself or the particular students you are working with that led to this issue in the first place. If students do not understand the material you are covering, rephrase your introduction with mini comprehension checks throughout. Ask students to explain to you what you are teaching and even translate it if necessary to ensure that everyone has a more thorough understanding of the lesson material. If an activity did not work out the way you planned or finished earlier than expected, you can stall a little by asking students to demonstrate their knowledge of the material while you decide what to do next. These are two very common occurrences especially for new teachers who assume that students clearly understand material after just a short introduction and are still learning about student behavior, lesson plans, and time management.

  2. 2

    Change course

    You are going to have to finish the class and maximize the class time you have with your learners so decide how to proceed. Often it takes only about five minutes to realize something is wrong, decide to change course, and transition into another activity. The longer you have been teaching, the more backup activities you will have stored in your memory so draw on your past experiences for inspiration. Thinking on your feet in front of an audience, regardless of its size, is stressful but remain calm and remember that whatever you choose also has to require no real preparation and only the materials you have in your classroom. By keeping this in mind you will automatically focus on simpler exercises. Once you have thought of another activity you can relate to the topic you have been talking about, segue into it as if it were a planned part of the lesson. You can say something like “OK, I think we have had enough of the board game for today, now I’d like you to ~.” An activity that was finished too soon or was uninteresting to students has effectively been pushed aside with this brief sentence and the class can move forward.

  3. 3

    End on a high note

    Finish the class with a short, fun activity that you know students enjoy. This can be a familiar warm up activity like ESL Shiritori or an exercise like Crisscross which can be adapted to any topic. Your lesson can then end on a positive note and this will be the most recent memory students have of your class when they walk out your door for the day. Students will forgive failed activities from time to time if you do not force them to suffer through them for long and come back strong after realizing your mistake.

By turning a disaster lesson around, you are saving yourself and helping your students.

This is a skill and as such requires a lot of time and experience to improve. One way to help you prepare for this unfortunate yet inevitable situation is to plan an extra activity for each lesson (this is where BusyTeacher.org is your best friend). This can be something short and should function as a review. It will be easier to transition if you already have a back up plan and you can simply expand on it or repeat it several times if you have more time that you expected. If you do not use the activity at the end of your class period, you can use it as a review in the next lesson. It is just that easy. Good luck!

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