Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

Lesson plans of some form are vital. Fixation on their format is distracting. One of the ways schools frustrate new teachers is by forcing them to submit lesson plans written according to complicated templates. When teachers spend more time fretting over format than determining procedure, there is a problem.

Teachers need a destination and a route. They need to know what content or skills students must learn. They need to know their students’ abilities along with any necessary accommodations. Finally, they need some method of imparting the content or skills. This is a heap of information. The lesson plan should be a reliable way to streamline it.

The least desirable quality of a lesson plan is complexity. Ideally, the written plan should be something a substitute can follow without difficulty. The actual teacher typically shouldn’t need the plan during instruction, although using it as a guide is fine. It should be easy to use. It should read like a recipe. The plan need only be an objective, a list of materials, any accommodations, and a brief step-by-step procedure. Depending on the lesson, some assessment could be included. The key is simplicity. What it looks like shouldn’t matter, as long as it’s usable. It should be part of a sequence, but isolated lessons have a place as well.

Enter accountability. Many parents demand it. Most states demand it. Thus, schools require transparency regarding planning. Policy varies, with some schools insisting teachers post plans where students and parents can access them and others only requiring submission to administration. Perhaps students and parents should have access to daily plans, or at least to a calendar of upcoming lessons and corresponding assignments. Administrators probably should have access to these as well. Accountability measures keep teachers from slacking on planning while providing stakeholders with assurance that systematic instruction is happening.

The trouble begins when schools insist on highly detailed plans for all lessons. This isn’t practical and instead is counterproductive. Yes, any plan should include the components described earlier, but these can be stated succinctly. Confident teachers could keep these in a day planner or even on sticky notes. Making teachers write plans that include “essential questions” and “assessment anchors” often forces the stretching otherwise good ideas to fit artificial and unnecessary constructs. It also wastes teacher’s time and insults them by suggesting a lack of professional faith.

State standards aren’t inherently evil, as many education professionals suggest they are. Curriculum guides aren’t either. New teachers benefit greatly from having a scope and sequence for instruction. Some schools insist teachers take plans directly from these guides, bypassing the controversy over plans. Others require teachers to take everything in the classroom and make it fit an inflexible template. Failure to comply can lead to punitive action. School officials (and the whole of education law) tend to ignore notions of positive reinforcement.

What stings more is inconsistency. Some schools don’t require teachers to submit any kind of plans. Are teachers in these schools more dependable and less in need of supervision than those in other schools? Probably not. Are these school loosely run, chaotic messes without any form of oversight? Most often, no. The best teachers in these schools almost certainly have their own systems for planning, but no one holds a magnifying glass over them. Learning typically isn’t compromised. This is an indictment of the schools that require them.

Inequities develop within schools, too. Special education teachers might be exempt from writing and submitting plans. The rationale? They collaborate with general education teachers on accommodations, but aren’t authoring their own plans (this assumes they’re supporting students with IEPs in the general education classroom and curriculum). Additionally, these teachers are busy enough with developing IEPs, conducting progress monitoring, and other special education-specific responsibilities that exemption from planning makes sense. It doesn’t always sit well with equally busy general education teachers. When special education teachers do have to write plans, the results can be maddening. They frequently must attempt to fit scripted lessons from commercial interventions into convoluted templates meant for totally different kinds of lessons.

Colleges of education train teacher candidates to write detailed plans. This makes sense in college, as it forces these students to consider the reasons behind each decision and action in a lesson. Student teachers find themselves dumbstruck if they learn their cooperating teachers aren’t required to write plans. They might almost be relieved to end up in schools in which they must write them. Upon hire, that relief will last until around the end of the first month.

When schools require overly detailed lesson plan formats, they’re giving strained professionals one more task that mostly serves to complicate their jobs. It also suggests their judgement isn’t completely trusted. Teachers should practice their craft like someone is watching, but with confidence and pride instead of fear of reprimand. Employing sensible accountability is an asset. Making teachers grind out twenty or more multipage plans per week is a burden. Teachers shoulder enough of these.

Lesson Plans as Bureaucratic Time Wasters

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation

I’ve been leery of teacher preparation since college. After a few years in the field, my sense of its potency diminished further. Surveying my career, I find myself struggling to completely support traditional teacher preparation. I’m not convinced it’s the only route that can send effective new teachers into classrooms.

Don’t think I absolutely deny the worth of teacher preparation. I acknowledge the need to equip incoming teachers with requisite skills and knowledge while filtering out candidates not fit for the classroom. Furthermore, I recognize that colleges of education manage this most of the time. My position is that teacher preparation as these colleges do it doesn’t work well enough to be considered the gilded route to the classroom.

I’ll start by speaking to my experiences. As an undergraduate, I got the foundations. The required battery of courses exposed me to the field’s history, a survey of the law, and the basics of child development. I learned some methodology. I learned about assessment. Somehow, this stretched across a few dozen credits and several years of schooling.

Despite this exposure, I was completely out of my depth when I hit the field. I hadn’t realized what I didn’t know until I was required to know it. Some of this was procedural knowledge my courses could have included. Much more of it involved surviving in the school that hired me. I can’t fault my program for not preparing me for the latter.

Having had the chance to examine other undergraduate programs, I think mine did about as well as any. I recently got to return to that program to serve as an adjunct. It’s still as thorough as programs at much more expensive schools. It has a reputation for sending strong candidates into schools. I’m not about to knock it.

The trouble is, nothing truly prepares a person for working in a school. Note how I phrased that. Teaching is but one element of being a school employee. It becomes an afterthought relatively quickly. Dealing with the day-to-day of working in a school is something that must be learned on the job. Something similar is reflected in many fields. Knowing the culture of an organization (or school) and its unspoken codes of protocol and procedure can be as critical as knowing the job (or pedagogy). Consequently, I’ve told undergraduates that most of what I knew in my second year of teaching, I learned in my first.

Further lessening the absolute impact of teacher preparation is what teachers possess from the start. A large part of what makes a teacher effective is internal. Personal organization, intuition, and fortitude are important to succeeding as a teacher. These aren’t taught. Throughout my career, I’ve watched student teachers coming from the same programs exhibit wildly different competencies. This has had to do with them, not their programs.

With on-the-job knowledge and internal prowess being so important, I have to wonder if everything that goes into a traditional teacher preparation program is necessary. I’ll share a counter-example. For years, I’d read rants from the education faithful about the evils of Teach for America. As I read about the program, I formed some doubts of my own about it. Then I met three teachers moving through TFA. None had any substantial pedagogy training. However, two out of three of them were among the most effective teachers I’d met in a decade. Interestingly, none wanted to be teachers. They were passing through on their way to something else, confirming a major criticism of TFA.

Why were those two so good? They were smart. That was all. They were smart enough to quickly figure out what worked and what didn’t without someone holding their hands through it. Though a microscopic sample, their effectiveness nearly drowned my confidence in the worth of four-year programs.

If intuition and problem-solving skills were enough for these TFA candidates to do well, what is the defense for teacher preparation? Could it be a costly scam? Is it a matter of intellectualizing the obvious for the sake of giving states, universities, and testing companies a stranglehold on licensure? I definitely thought all of this as an undergraduate. I still think some of it.

I can’t sweep aside what colleges of education do based on two people. They might have been exceptions. Simultaneously, some potentially great teachers might only bloom via a more traditionally structured program. I’d still contend such a program could be much shorter than what most colleges offer. I’d even support teachers getting a different Bachelor’s first and then getting certified as part of a Master’s program. This delays getting candidates to the field, but it might result in better prepared candidates, especially in specific subject areas.

My thoughts on it aside, teacher preparation is taking a hit. Consider online programs, emergency certifications, and charters that hire non-certified teachers. Whether or not these are improvements, I’m not surprised that cracks in the sanctity of traditional models have been exposed. Getting smart, dependable people into schools might be more critical than insisting they be trained a specific way. I can support unorthodox routes, so long as they work. My suspicion is the candidate is the more important variable than the route. Nudging might help, but I think teaching is something a person either can or can’t do. This might be my essential indictment of four-year programs along with the basis of my tentative approval of less traditional routes.

A Few Thoughts on Teacher Preparation