Yesterday I got a phone call out of the blue from a guy I'll call Anton on the East Coast. His father and my uncle are friends, it turns out, and in one of those "hey you should call my nephew" moments, my uncle gave him my number. The reason this made sense is that Anton is starting a 2nd career as a math teacher after working in non-profit fund-raising. He'll be starting in a couple of weeks, and he was getting panicked writing his lesson plans, not knowing what it would really be like to teach. So he took my uncle's advice and gave me a call.
Now, I don't claim to be an expert on teaching. I mean, I think I'm pretty good at it--maybe better than I am at any other skill. But a lot of colleagues at my school are at least as good or better than I am.
I started by confessing to him that I don't spend vast amounts of time planning lessons. As I was talking, I realized that I don't even know what a lesson plan is really. I don't have an education degree (I don't need one at a private school), so I've never studied lesson plans formally, and I don't think I've ever seen anyone's actual lesson plans. If my boss asked me to submit my lesson plans to him for a week, I'd have to admit that I wouldn't really know what he was expecting to see.
I do plan, of course, but I make a few notes and plan a few examples, but nothing like what I imagine a real lesson plan must be. But my basic premise is always this: What do I want the kids to learn today? Which is very different from: What skill am I going to teach today?
Anton said that lesson plans often start out with a goal like that. The teacher's own goal, or a goal from a list of skills provided by the school or by the school board or by the state. But those goals from the lists are useless, as far as I'm concerned. Sure, the state might mandate that a student can, say, factor a quadratic expression in which all the signs are positive. But that's not going to be my goal for the day. My goal might be: Now that they can use FOIL to multiply two binomials, let's see how we might do that backwards under some easy conditions like having all positive signs. Learning to factor is a result of understanding the connection between the FOIL process and its results, not a goal on its own.
And I can't predict with much certainty how any individual class is going to handle new material. Sometimes I can get further than I thought, and sometimes I need another whole day to get at the details. So a very specific lesson plan might help in some ways, but it also might restrict my flexibility and ability to see what needs to be done.
Could I plan more? Sure, all teachers could plan more and make the class better. Every class could be better. But at some point it's not worth the effort anymore. In fact, at some point it's wasted effort--if I plan Monday and Tuesday's classes, but it turns out I need part of Tuesday to clear up the skills I taught on Monday, then my whole plan for Tuesday is ruined. So I told Anton that I save my energy for the classroom and not for planning.
Non-teachers don't really understand, I think, the pressure of constantly being in charge of other people's time. The closest thing in the money-making world is running business meetings. If you set a boring, unproductive tone in your first few meetings, then everyone will think the meetings are a waste of time, and come in with a negative attitude, which makes all the meetings an actual waste of time. Then imagine you have to run these meetings all day long. Kids can be even more cynical than adults. They have to really believe that they're not wasting their time. From day one I teach them something new. If I have to review, I'll wait a few days, or I'll review from a much more advanced point of view. The planning should be about how you'll use your energy to make the class worthwhile for everyone. The strong kids have to be challenged, the weaker ones need review, and losing any of them can ruin your classes for weeks or more. I'm responsible for their time, and if I don't use it well, I ruin my ability to do my job well later. In my music ensemble, I'm not the conductor. So every week for a few hours we have a rehearsal run by someone else. And almost every week I'm reminded how nice it is to accomplishing something without having to be in charge of everyone's time. I just work at my part, and rehearse what the conductor thinks needs to be rehearsed. It's an incredible relief.
At the end Anton asked me if I get sick of teaching the same stuff year after year (I've been teaching for 11 years now...respectable, but not that long). I've been asked this before, and I think my answer is consistent with my approach to planning for classes. It's about the kids, not the material. Sure, I teach math, but more importantly, I teach kids. The kids are different every year, so the teaching is different every year. So I don't really get sick of it. My connection to the kids is much deeper than my connection to the math, of course. You have to care at least a little about how they do, because they'll notice if you don't. But if you care too much it's exhausting. Before I started, I thought the job would be intellectually exhausting (like Anton was worried about). But it's not. It's emotionally exhausting to ignore your own needs all day and pay such close attention to every raised or furrowed eyebrow. That emotional exhaustion is something else non-teachers don't really get.
I discussed all this and more with Anton. He claims I helped him really understand what goes on in a classroom. But I don't know if I gave him any concrete suggestions other than "at some point, more planning isn't worth it". He seems sincere about wanting to do well, so I'm sure he will. But I also warned him that this is just my own approach to teaching. Plenty of teachers make detailed lesson plans (whatever that means) and follow them well. Maybe I'm just lazy in that respect.
I'd be interested in hearing other points of view on this. But for me, teaching is all about putting myself in the kid's chair and figuring out what they need to hear (more explanation? more examples? more practice? the hard truth: "you can't expect to ace the tests if you skimp on homework"?).
Not too much of a ramble, I hope........