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When it's okay to throw away your lesson plan

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

It's going to be a short one this week, but it's a topic I've been thinking about a lot lately.


Recently, as my grade 10s were just getting settled in to begin our lesson, one of the students asked me why I became a teacher. A few kids were absent and we were ahead in the syllabus, so I put down my notes and started telling them the story of how I got into education. I hadn't intended for it to turn into a long discussion, but it did.

old neglected lesson plan paper
Source - Midjourney
"In those moments, I sometimes make the call to forget my lesson plan and simply talk to my students openly and honestly, because whatever I had planned is not what they need."

As a specialist subject teacher in high school, you get used to teaching about one thing. Obviously, we know that there are lots of other things kids need to know about and we hope that they are learning those things in their other classes or at home, but the reality is that sometimes they're not.


I'm referring to life skills here, and perhaps more importantly, life lessons. Kids are genuinely interested in knowing how to become competent adults, but they also know that they aren't getting that knowledge at school, so when you put away the periodic table and start talking about career paths, life choices, and even general interests, they listen.


All teachers know what it feels like to have the room's full attention, and it's not something you take lightly. Sometimes I manage to hook everyone when I'm off on a tangent about exploring exoplanets or manipulating genomes, but it's rare and it doesn't last. When I get that feeling, I know I'm on to something, and I tend to stick with it for as long as possible because that's when you know your message is really getting through. In those moments, I sometimes make the call to forget my lesson plan and simply talk to my students openly and honestly, because whatever I had planned is not what they need.


To be clear, I'm not talking about how to navigate the college admissions process or how to study effectively. To be sure, those are both important skills, but what gets my students consistently engaged is real talk about how adults feel and why we make the decisions we do. My teenagers also seem to greatly appreciate when someone acknowledges that they have problems and interests outside of your class, because, let's be honest, your history quiz or chapter summary is not the most important thing on their minds right now.


"I think it's incredibly disingenuous and harmful to young people for adults to pretend that we always make great decisions and have everything figured out."

Students want to know how to deal with relationships, stress, boredom, and loneliness, but they don't want to hear any more generic parental advice along the lines of recommending a healthy diet and a good night's sleep. They often ask what I think and how I dealt with similar problems when I was their age, not because I'm some kind of beacon of wisdom, I suspect, but precisely because I'm not. By sharing my likes and dislikes, my successes, my failures, and my opinions, my students start to recognize that everyone has gone through adolescence and most of us turned out alright.


I think it's incredibly disingenuous and harmful to young people for adults to pretend that we always make great decisions and have everything figured out. It's even more peculiar for us to ignore our students when they are clearly distracted by life outside of our four tiny walls and forge ahead with our curriculum as though we don't know or don't care. Let your students know that you see their struggles. Let them see yours as well. Then you can learn about quadratic functions.


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