The Element of Surprise


In this evening’s blog, Penny S-K talks us through a recurring nightmare and teaching in the face of a lack of planning.

Do you ever have that dream where you’re about to go on stage, and you discover that you can’t remember any of your lines? And sometimes, for added colour, you’ve also forgotten to put on any clothes? It’s a recurring nightmare for me – probably down to my slightly theatrical background and general nervousness about life. But it’s a dream that’s never been more prominent than when I was a teacher.

The fear of walking into any situation unprepared is a common enough worry in all walks of life. No-one likes to be wrong-footed, to be made a fool of. But for teachers, this fear can easily turn into terror. That Year Nine class is bad enough when you’ve got ten worksheets, a PowerPoint, two film clips and a game to keep them occupied. Imagine going in there with nothing but yourself. You’d be eaten alive.

Or would you?

The fact is, that some of the best lessons I have taught have not been planned to the last minute. Or they have, but circumstances have sent them veering off in a totally different direction. Sometimes, the element of surprise can be the kick we need.

I remember a lesson with a Year Eight class where we were discussing a novel. ‘He’s got a touch of the green-eyed monster’ I said about one of the characters. Some the students got it, some had no idea what I was talking about. So I introduced them to the idiom, and then we diverted into other phrases given to us by Shakespeare. It all happened organically – one thing led to another, and we followed where our curiosity took us. The students were engaged, and left the room at the end of the class chatting about what they had learnt. Sure, the learning objective hadn’t been met, but they’d learnt something else instead.

Another time, a particularly unfortunate incident with a photocopier (and poor planning on my part), meant the test I had been hoping to give to a class was impossible. So instead, I had to think up something on the hoof. What followed was a brilliant hour of creative writing, just going where our ideas and imaginations took us, and not being constrained by desired outcomes or objectives.

Now, obviously I am not advocating that teachers throw their schemes of work and lesson plans out of the window and teach whatever they feel like. And I do know that with the immense pressures of the national curriculum and GCSE syllabus, every lesson is precious. But sometimes – just very occasionally – flying by the seat of your pants can reinvigorate your teaching and your relationship with your class. And if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work, then you’ve only lost one lesson. Tomorrow is another day, and you can return to the planning then.

In short, although there is nothing wrong with being in control, sometimes relinquishing that control is not a bad thing either.

Although, to return to the analogy in my dream, while forgetting your lines (or your planning) is acceptable, I strongly advise always turning up fully dressed.

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