To paraphrase Robert Burns, "the best-laid plans of mice and men do often go awry" – a statement that applies to lessons, too, no matter how well we plan them.
Conversely, sometimes it’s a lack of planning that leads to disaster, but either way, we’ve all been there at some point in our careers.
Here are three ideas that seemed great at the time that didn’t quite go to plan – and what I learned from the experiences.
When lesson plans go wrong
1. The time I tied up a student, sort of
It all sounded so good on paper (scrawled on the back of an envelope, to be precise).
I was teaching First World War poetry with a Year 10 class and the next poem was Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, a bleak exploration of the thoughts and feelings of a young veteran whose injuries confine him to a wheelchair and the outskirts of society.
To illustrate his loss of independence and alienation, I decided it would be a good idea to tie up one brave student per group while the rest acted out some of the actions in the poem.
Each group was given a length of twine and proceeded to lace up the volunteer’s ankles. Then followed the active part: everyone else leapt around while the tied-up pupil watched and, I hoped, experienced some of the helplessness of the young man in the poem.
But one student got more than he bargained for when the twine cut into his ankles and inflicted a rather nasty laceration that took several days to heal.
Lessons learned: Thoroughly audit every aspect of active lessons and review any resources you’re going to use. Lessons that depart from the norm often require extra time to get right, as I discovered to my cost. Also: students are remarkably resilient.
2. A technology disaster above all others
This time, it wasn’t a lack of planning that did for me, but a genuine dose of bad luck. The speakers in my room, always mercurial, had nevertheless been functioning fine the previous day.
So I was entitled to feel cautiously confident that the lesson I’d planned around comparing two directors’ interpretations of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet would go to plan.
First of all, students would watch Zeffirelli’s classic portrayal of the moment Romeo sneaks into the Capulet mansion to see Juliet, and identify similarities and differences with Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic young Leonardo DiCaprio.
A large part of what I wanted my students to appreciate was the delivery of the scene’s famous lines, and a large part of the questionnaire I’d prepared focused on how differently the two actors interpreted them.
I hadn’t attempted anything like this with the class before, but I thought it might just work.
All I had to do was plug in the cable so they could watch the scenes... which steadfastly, stubbornly refused to work.
No amount of fiddling could convince it to connect to the speakers, which along with the class, seemed to regard me with a mixture of pity and amusement.
After several minutes of faffing, I was forced to concede defeat. Without sound, the activity I’d prepared was pointless.
Unable to think of a way to salvage the lesson, in the end, I resorted to simply reading the scene as a class, which the students did with surprisingly good humour instead of complaining as I’d feared.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t quite the interactive experience I’d hoped for, and I couldn’t help feeling disappointed, both with myself and the intransigent speakers that refused to play along.
Lessons learned: First of all, there are some things beyond your control – and it’s usually technology. Second, students will more often than not sympathise with your plight and thirdly, there’s nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned, text-based lesson.
3. Group work nightmare
Group work, we’re told, helps to foster a range of soft skills such as collaboration, turn-taking and patience. It can also foster teacher meltdowns if not planned and executed properly.
One popular technique is what I call the jigsaw: students are placed in a home group, then assigned a number, for example, from one to four. Students regroup according to their number and become experts on a topic or text, for example, a specific stanza or chunk of text.
They then return to their home group and take it in turns to relay what they learned.
I didn’t know this class very well, but I was keen to try something new and thought they’d appreciate the change.
Getting them into their home groups was easy enough: the front desks turned around and joined forces with those behind them. So far, so good. The trouble began when I started assigning students to their expert groups.
Taking advantage of their unexpected freedom, several troublemakers decided to insult other students as they moved around the room, resulting in the kind of chaos that NQTs’ nightmares are made of.
No sooner had I extinguished one fire (not literally), another broke out and before long I was hopelessly out of control.
Fortunately, a senior teacher happened to be passing and, seeing the look on my face, stopped to intervene. "Group work with this class?" he asked incredulously when I explained what had got us there.
Lessons learned: It’s important, even vital, to depart from the routine occasionally. However, some activities are best suited to students you know well and whose class dynamic you understand. In addition, I should have made my expectations around group work crystal clear from the start, rather than trying to pick up the pieces when it was too late.
Despite these horror stories – and I am sure all teachers have a few – I think it is important to occasionally push yourself out of your comfort zone.
When it works it can help to unlock whole new lesson ideas that have a real impact with students – and even if it doesn’t, you'll learn a thing or two at least...
Rosalind Scourti is an English teacher at Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok. She has previously taught in Spain and the UK