Friday, February 19, 2016

The Best Teaching Advice I've Ever Gotten

When I first started teaching, I designed every lesson with the if-you-build it-they-will-come mindset. I figured if I could build a lesson I was excited about, my enthusiasm would be so contagious that every student would come to class eager to learn. 

So I spent hours creating anticipatory sets, content memory hooks, and if-you-thought-today-was-great-wait-until-tomorrow endings.

Sometimes it worked. 

But sometimes it didn’t.

The tragic part, though, was that my joy was linked to my students’ reactions to each lesson.

My Worst Nightmare

The possibility of looking at a sea of frozen faces and glassy eyes staring at random spaces behind me was my greatest fear.

Whenever this happened, voices in my head talked to me.

One voice would say, “You’re doing fine. They just came back from lunch so, of course, they’re feeling a little lethargic. Besides, everything can’t be fun.”

At the same time another voice (a much louder one) would shout, “Hello! Look at them. They may not have drifted off into dreamland yet, but this lesson is putting them to sleep faster than a lullaby.”

A Dream Come True (No Genie Lamp Required)

What I didn’t know then and what I do know now is that if I continued on with a lesson while student energy levels were low, any words of wisdom I was hoping to deliver would be rejected.

So what kind of lucky break or magic trick can turn a lifeless lesson into a memorable one?

The truth is that it isn’t about luck or magic any more than making a dream come true is about rubbing a lamp and having a genie grant it on the spot.

The key to getting kids to focus and participate…is the ability to BE FLEXIBLE.

So whenever I sense that an important lesson is bombing, I STOP THE LESSON.

Sometimes I’m slick about it, but sometimes I just stop mid-sentence and pull out Plan B…or C…or D - any plan that will prevent the lesson (and me) from crashing and burning.

The best part is I only need a few go-to lesson savers, to make sure my worst nightmare doesn't turn into a recurring dream.

Energy-Changing Backup Plans

Here are three backup plans which have helped me transform a classroom of apathetic students into enthusiastic ones - often before they realized they were zoning out:

#1 Make a No-Speech Speech

4-Minute Podcast with Step-by-Step Instructions

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Walk to the front of the room, stand behind a podium or table and say, "Good morning."

Step 2: Then look directly at someone in the class and count to 3 in your head. Look at a second student and count to 3 in your head. Look at one more student, count to 3 in your head, and say, "Thank you very much."

Step 3: Walk back to your chair and sit down.

Have each student try this No-Speech Speech while fellow classmates observe. 

* This exercise never fails to stir up curiosity and reset engagement levels. As an added bonus, it gives students a non-threatening way to practice public speaking.

Check out this entire no-prep strategy and suggested follow-up lessons on YouTube.

#2 Vote From Your Seat

Here’s how it works:

Step 1:  Make a claim and ask students to express their opinions by…

staying seated if they disagree,

standing up if they agree, or

placing their hands on their desks if they believe both sides have merit.

Sample school-related claims: 1) I believe school should start at 11:00 AM and end at 5:00 PM.  2) 50% of required classes should be given online.  3) The school year should be longer 4) I like gym class. 5) I like to read. 6) I think all classes should be pass/fail.

Step 2:  Call on several students to defend their opinions.

* Since students find out quickly that they might be asked to defend their positions at any time, they get their answers ready - just in case the teacher picks on them to share that day.

#3 Create Alphabet Scripts

Sentence Variety: 90 Second Alphabet

Here’s how it works:

Step 1:  Show students a "90-Second Alphabet" Whose Line Is It Anyway? video clip.

Step 2:  Have students write down 7 letters in alphabetical order. Skip three lines between each letter or use this free template.

Step 3:  Announce a setting. 

Sample settings: Six Flags, a cafeteria, McDonalds, a bowling alley, K-Mart, a beach, Chuckie Cheese

Step 4:  Have student pairs take turns writing every other line of a seven line script. For example, if the letters are A-G, one person writes the lines beginning with A, C, E and G while the other person writes the lines beginning with B, D and F.

Step 5:  Give all students a few minutes to practice. Then ask for volunteers to act out their scripts.

* This is a great sentence variety exercise disguised as a brain break. 

Watch a demo of this fun activity on YouTube. 

Flexibility Payoffs

Abandoning great content because students do not seem interested in it is never wise. But neither is attempting to deliver great content to a lethargic or resistant class.

The fact is that good teachers know how to read students and how to adjust energy levels throughout a lesson.

Mastering this skill is a game changer - because once teacher’s and the students’ energy levels are back in sync, that’s when it’s time to go back to the original plan and start again. 

If I had learned this lesson earlier in my career, it would have made consistently delivering meaningful and memorable lessons a whole lot easier!

Thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for hosting this blog hop. Be sure to check out more best-teaching-advice posts below.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.


  1. Teaching is an amazing balance between planning and improvising. Your careful planning gives you the space and capacity to improvise. It's like jazz--you have to know the theme, and how to play it, before you can riff on it. You've shown your students you care enough to plan a lesson, and also that you care enough to bail if it's really not working. You've also developed the confidence and capability to pull that off! Nice post!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Coach Chris!

  3. These are terrific flexible energizers! I agree that one has to be willing to stray from the plan. Now if only my administrators understood that! :)

  4. This was always my greatest challenge! Thanks for sharing such awesome tips!

  5. I know I've been there--Thanks for the excellent, practical advice!