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Why Your Lesson Plans May Not Be Working

This post is an excerpt from my online course, The Ultimate New Teacher Summer Workshop.

The typical lesson plan template has a few basic things: learning objective, materials needed, opening, closing, and assessment. Following these templates, it’s no wonder that so many new teachers struggle through executing their first few lessons.

The truth is: experienced teachers know there is much more thinking than these sections that need to go into a lesson before teaching it. 

The problem with most templates?

Theys focus on what the teacher is doing: learning objectives, so you know what you’re teaching; materials, so you know what to bring; opening, so you know how you’re introducing the topic; closing, so you know how to wrap it up. None of these talk about what the students are doing, how they should do it, or why they should do it.

The problem?

If you don’t have those answers, students are left in the dark. You could have the most incredible lesson plan in the world, but if students don’t know their part, how can they hop on board? That’s the point where you turn into a one-person show.

Think about it. Have you ever had an incredible lesson set up–the kind you’d be delighted for an administrator to observe–and by about mid-class, it completely falls apart? Students are off-task, the quality of work is pitiful, and you’re spending the period running around putting out fires.

It may be because you forgot a critical component to a great lesson: you and your students are in this together, and it takes all of you working together to make a lesson rock.

Forgetting about this is probably the most common reason why potentially amazing lessons of new teachers I observe flop by mid-period. 

Let’s talk about what to do about it:

Want to know the secret to a smooth lesson execution? Focusing on visualizing what “awesome” wou

ld look like, and then planning how to communicate that to your students. You can’t really expect students to do know what the goal is if you don’t tell them, can you?

Here are 5 questions to ask yourself before every lesson to help you make that happen. Before every lesson, think through each of these and then create materials or plans to communicate them to students. 

The questions most #newteachers forget to ask themselves that cause lessons to flop. Each help you communicate the game plan to your students and enlist them in making the lesson and their learning ROCK. Pin this and print it out to help you remember to ask yourself these each time you plan. #lessonplanning

1. How do students know what they need to learn in this lesson?

This one may seem obvious, but if you’re anything like me, by the time you’re done making a lesson plan, you’ve gone through a couple iterations of what you want students to walk away with for this lesson. Not only that, but sometimes we get distracted from objectives after working through all the logistics of a plan or unit, and need to boil it back down for ourselves.

Why do students need to know this? Think about it. Imagine someone comes into the room and starts instructing you to do a series of steps but never tells you what they’re trying to teach you. It could be the simplest thing in the world, but if you don’t know what the point is, you’ll never understand why each step is necessary or when you’ve been successful.

Students are the same way. How can they have the best shot at learning what they need to if they don’t know what the end goal is?

2. How do students know what’s expected of their behavior?

It’s a tired cliche, but true: if you don’t provide guidelines for student behavior, they’ll invent their own.

Here’s a simple way to answer this question for yourself and your students:

Make a habit of including a slide about what students should be doing (i.e. “work with your partner on X,” “write their prediction,” etc.), and what that looks like (i.e. “you should be…seated in your seat, talking quietly with just their partner, eyes on your paper,” etc.).

I know this sounds like overkill, especially for high school, but I’m telling you, do it.

In fact, after going over the expectations before we start an activity, many times I’ll even model what it looks like. I’ll say something like,

So this is what I’ll see you doing [miming talking to the person next to me and writing on my paper]. Even though I might really, really want to talk to my bff Alicia across the room, I know this work is important so I’m going to get myself together during class and focus.”

Not only does this force you, as a new teacher, to think about what you want (remember doing the same thing in making procedures?), but it makes expectations and boundaries crystal clear in class for students.

Without expectations, disruptive or non-productive behavior has free-reign, and students know it. With expectations, the students that want to do well know exactly what to do, and if a student chooses not to follow the expectations, you have much better ground to start enforcing the expectations. Clear and fair. You can’t reinforce expectations if you don’t have them.


Want some help developing a stellar classroom management plan? Check out my Free New Teacher Summer To-Do List Guide:


3. How do students know what’s expected in their work?

The same thing goes for students’ work. What quality should they be aiming for? How will they know they’ve been successful in the skill? This is the ruler you’re giving students to measure number one. 

To communicate this, it’s helpful to provide students examples in the first part of your lesson–even if it’s just a snippet.  If possible, provide a way for students to see these during class, too.

Though not always possible, the more objective you can be with the expectations the better: i.e.“Include at least 3 quotes from the book.” or “Your analysis should be at least twice as long as your evidence.”

This makes the goal tangible for both you and students, and empowers students to monitor their own success (which means you’re freed up to help in other ways).

This also makes your formative assessment each day much, much easier. By defining a clear standard, it’s much easier for you to know if the class and individuals are missing the mark or exceeding expectations.

4. How do students know why they’re doing what they’re doing?

This is something that 1) we owe to kids and 2) goes a longggg way in fueling intrinsic motivation with students, and yet 3) most teachers I’ve seen (including myself) routinely forget to address.

Want an easy way to do this?

I learned this idea from a (first-year-teacher!) colleague and I LOVE it:

When you’re writing your objective to go over with students, whether on a slide or on the board, make it in a “What – How – Why” format. For example:

What we’re learning today (the learning objective): Describing what makes a good website.

How we’re doing it: By performing a scavenger hunt of different websites.

Why we’re doing it: Because websites are the number one way to get your ideas out in the world, and we need to know what makes a good one before we can make one!

Everything students are wondering when they start the lesson is answered, and you’ve established some relevance before it begins. Boom, baby.

5. Finally: who’s doing the most work in this lesson (you, or the students?)

When you’re freaking out about planning your lesson, stop and think about how you’re planning it.

Anytime you feel like you’re working harder than the students, stop. That’s a red flag.

If you’re panicking because you’re trying to prepare things for yourself to do like a 40-slide lecture or a super-detailed worksheet for students to complete–stop, and ask yourself this question: Who’s doing the most work for this lesson?

Is there anything you can ask students to think through and figure out themselves? For example, instead of lecturing about the history of Mesopotamia, can you create some instructions and questions to guide them in researching it themselves instead, and then present about it themselves? Or instead of creating a multiple choice worksheet about a book students read, can you have them create it themselves and then give it to each other?

Students rarely absorb much from passive learning like lectures or reading to answer multiple choice questions anyway (isn’t the number like 10% or less?). So don’t work yourself into the ground preparing these for them.

Spend your energy on how to facilitate students doing the work themselves–things like scaffolded handouts to help guide students in doing it themselves or graphic organizers for collaborating, and then how you’ll combine all their findings at the end of class–rather than how to keep yourself at the center. By freeing you up during the lesson and promoting student ownership over learning, it’s a win-win. 


Eventually, asking these questions will become so second-nature, you don’t even think about them. But until then, keep these questions close by while planning.

Good luck! Let me know how it goes!!

This post is an excerpt from my online course, The Ultimate New Teacher Summer Workshop. If you liked this post, you’d love the Workshop. 


If you found this post helpful, you might find these helpful, too:

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The Summer To-Do List for First Year Teachers

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