Lesson planning – Is it worth it?

Last year I decided to do a little experiment – I decided to plan all of my classes to a tee. Here are some things that I learnt by planning 492 lessons last year.

If you are employed at a private language academy in Spain, you will normally be asked to prepare lesson plans in advance and upload them to a common server. That’s not always a reality but this is what I had to do last year.

The beginning is usually difficult. I hate planning introduction classes! I feel nervous and awkward, as I know that I’m being judged by everyone in the room. Depending on the level I try to do something creative, a fun ice breaker or maybe a set of rules (that’s for teenagers). Whether you like it or not, the first two weeks are quite free and you can actually use this time to check some of the lesson plans you’ve been meaning to do for some time, develop some of your strategies or just experiment with different teaching styles.

Once the period of two weeks is over you get to use the book. That is a true blessing! I taught 15 hours a week and coming up with class ideas, challenging tasks and on top of that staying organized is not a piece of cake. The truth is…I kind of like using textbooks. I started teaching ESL without any prior experience so using a teacher’s book seemed unnatural. After last year I can’t imagine having it any other way. Some of the teacher’s books are so detailed that they cut your planning time to a minimum while still keeping your classes interesting and fun (I’m looking at you Oxford University Press! English File books are a game changer!). There are times that I don’t like some of activities and change them around, or remove them completely, but normally they are helpful.

So here are some things that I learnt this year when I planned EVERY SINGLE LESSON (normally with the help of teacher’s books but also some extra theme classes).

You look professional

I got good student evaluation at the end of the year. I was always 30 minutes earlier to organize my desk and print out everything that needed to be printed out. I planned my lessons down to a minute. However, it isn’t always easy to predict how will the lesson go, so just in case I had some fillers and online links ready to be clicked on. I did all the tasks myself and I knew exactly the questions that were going to pop out in class. I had all the CCQs, definitions, Spanish translations…Of course, some unexpected things happened here or there, but overall my image and reputation were solid throughout the year.

Limited spontaneity

The bad side of planning every single class was that I think I lost the ability to enter the class empty-handed. You see, when I first started teaching I did NOT plan anything. I was going with the flow, blindly following the book and now after gaining some perspective, at times looking like a moron. I didn’t even think about most common problems that may come up during the class and had to end up saying the good old I’ll get back to you on that one next time. Spoilers alert: I didn’t.

So naturally, there are good things that come with being organized (you predict problems and solve them immediately) but you also start sweating once you realize that this class is underplanned or things are taking an unexpected turn. There were moments that I made a quick call and abandoned the rest of my plan, just because I felt like my students needed something else at the moment and they wouldn’t have benefited from other tasks.

The three r’s

Even though they are used to talk about waste management, I think the analogy is appropriate. Once you have a set of nice lesson plans for a certain level or book, in the future you reduce the preparation time by recylcing your lesson plans and reusing some of the activities.

This year I completed three text books for YL. I organized my activities, planned extra worksheets and crafts. If I stay at the same academy, I’m good to go with those levels as all I need to do is read my lesson plans, reflect on some of the activities and either keep them as they are or use my extra time on improvment! I also did half of some general English and Cambridge exam preparation books that are popular and used in every academy. So I know for a fact that I’ll be using them anywhere I go.

Say goodbye to your free time

Most of the academies in Spain will not pay for your lesson preparation time. I spent a lot of my time on planning lessons for free! I can tell you that this led to frustration and to be completely honest with you, some of my plans suffered because of it. I think it is quite natural that we start a new academic year with hope and excitement which normally gradually decreases over time. This feeling drops even faster when you are expected to give a top-notch performance every single time and your students shouldn’t see how upset you are about your lost time. I developed a system that I planned some of my classes in the morning (I worked evenings only), so I would have more free time at the weekend. Those people who say that you only work part time as a teacher should put themselves in teacher’s shoes and see how this part time job is actually full time.

It gets better with time

Let’s end on a positive note. Even though it is quite challenging at first, once you develop your style, you discover some good resource websites and you get used to teacher’s books, you will realize that your planning time gets shorter. You’ll also see how repetitive some tasks are and since you did everything yourself, you will know where to find what you need.

Overall, I do like planning. I know that next year my planning time will get reduced as I will get to teach same levels as last year! That gives me some hope for sure. I also learnt a lot this year: I revised grammar, vocab and pronunciation for all levels. I know how and where to find interesting resources. Most importantly, I know how to plan an interesting and creative lesson plan from scratch!

So tell me, how do you feel about detailed lesson planning? What’s your style and how do you prepare yourself before classes?

Laugh it off!

Learning a new language often comes with making mistakes. Some mistakes are natural and relate to first language or mispronunciation. However, every now and then our students make mistakes that can make you laugh uncontrollably. What do you do then?

Certain class situations can make you laugh out loud. I guess that’s just one of the perks of being an ESL teacher. Of course, depending on the level of your students, their age and the country you teach in, you can either allow yourself to let loose and have some fun, or you must control yourself and keep the lesson going.

Being an ESL teacher in Spain allows you to have some fun in the classroom. Spanish culture is quite relaxed, and your students will often try to tell some jokes or anecdotes, so you may as well just go with the flow. I’d like to dedicate my post to all the students whose mispronunciation and misunderstanding made my day and will make me remember them forever. So this one is for you guys!

Kitchen vs. Chicken

I guess you already know where I’m going with this one. It’s possibly one of the most common mistakes that happen in the classroom! From the top of my head, I can recall five separate situations in five different groups when one of my students said I love eating kitchen for lunch or She prepares dinner in her chicken. The first time I heard this mistake I laughed a little bit, but now I’m immune to it. However, this error always brings a lot of laughter amongst the students, so it’ll always remain my number one.

Translating words from Spanish to English

Yes! Sometimes it can work. Students often notice the pattern and try to change Spanish words into English ones because they are usually correct. For example, invención = inventionnacionalidad = nationalitypalpable = palpable, the list goes on. Imagine the shock on my student’s face when he came up to my desk at the beginning of the lesson to say, Hey Joanna! Javier isn’t coming today because he’s constipated. It was at the very beginning of my ESL career when my Spanish was very VERY basic. I looked at my student and responded with Okay. Thanks. That’s a bit TMI, but I appreciate your honesty. At this point, we were both looking at each other with a lot of confusion. After describing Javier’s problem and realizing that he’s under the weather and his bathroom situation is fine, we both learnt something important that day: constipado ≠ constipated (estar constipado = have a cold).

Guess the meaning!

I don’t like spoonfeeding my students. I want them to work for it and guess the meaning from context! It happened in one of the B1 exam prep lessons. My students finished working on reading for gist, and before moving to the exam task, I wanted to go through some vocabulary. Normally, students are great at understanding the meaning from context, but there are times when I like to isolate certain words and elicit definitions. I pointed to one of the sentences The street was filled with pedestrians and asked Who are pedestrians? Jackpot! As suspected they knew that pedestrians are people, but what kind of people? So I decided to describe this word You know, pedestrians are people who walk outside. I could see one of my students have a lightbulb moment Oh, oh! Like pederastas! I remember stopping for a second and saying Erm…no. Pederastas can be pedestrians too, but that’s not it. After this, I lost it. My student’s face turned red, and I just decided to give the Spanish word pedestrian = peatón. Don’t worry, she laughed it off, and I am more than sure that she’ll remember this word forever.

Repeat after me ‘fish, sit’

This happened quite recently in one of my adult general English classes. I was modelling and drilling the pronunciation of /ɪ/. It was going well, but one of my students kept saying feesh /iː/. I quickly tried to remember any other word with /ɪ/ that she was familiar with. We did imperatives and she did well before, so I wrote down sit. Then I decided to model pronunciation myself and let her repeat after me. I said, Ok, listen. Fish – Sit, Fish – Sit, Fish – Sit! She looked at me with determination and said Fish – Shit! Her eyes opened wide, and she covered her mouth, then she started laughing. I started laughing too. I created this situation unintentionally. I must say one thing though, she nailed that /ɪ/!

They are too young to know…

The last mistake I’d like to describe happened in one of my VYL classes. I had three brave five-year-olds who loved repeating after me. I pulled out my flashcards with farm animals and asked them to listen to me, point to the animal and say the name. Where is a duck? Here it is! Good job! Now, where is a cow? Right there! Awesome! Okay, can you see a horse? They all knew where it was, but as they were repeating one of them kept saying hore – no ‘s’. I thought to myself that I shouldn’t ignore this mistake and drill the pronunciation of horse as it may bring some problems in the future. I tried everything – saying ‘ssssss’ like a snake (horssssse), triple pronunciation, shouting, whispering, singing…and nothing! He knows how to say ‘s’ on its own, it’s just this word that seemed to be complicated. For now, I left it as it is. I guess I know what I need to work on next year…

Here are some of my favourite ESL mistakes. Some of them are universal, and some of them you can only hear in a Spanish speaking country. Tell me about your funny classroom situations and how they are affected by the country you teach in!