The Joys and Sorrows of “Winging It”

I had about a week and a half to move to Cincinnati and start teaching grades 7-12 (and a Creative Writing class) when I snagged my job last August. A week and a half to mentally prepare and get my classroom in order (which was easily a week-long endeavor) and plan curriculum for my classes. I had no time to properly unearth materials from English teachers past (apparently I was the third one in three years), no time to understand the students I am responsible for, and no time to thoroughly lesson plan. Not for six preps. Six! For those of you not in the education sector, the average teacher has 2.5-3 preps. However, I have only a fraction of the students in an average school, so I guess it evens out. Or it’s supposed to even out.

What I end up doing for my less-attended classes is, for the most part, winging it. I don’t recommend it, but I also cannot meticuluosly plan an elaborate unit/lesson, especially when one student attends once a week, while another is there half the time, while I get two new students halfway through the week, and one student enrolled is on an alternative schedule.

I can’t pre-asses a group to plan instruction if I can’t guarantee I’ll even have the same group of students at the end of the unit. It’s absolutely frustrating.

So, let me introduce you in how to survive: you wing it. New student? Have them do an activity in which they write an introductory letter to you—at least you can gather their basic skills—as in, can they construct a simple sentence? Can they spell?

Days when you randomly have students who haven’t been to school in two weeks walk into your room, demanding ‘makeup work?’ I have to throw them the skeletons of the unit(s) we have covered, hoping they will get it somehow with the two minute explanation I give them because I have to deal with a student trying to start a fire rubbing a pencil on his desk (this has happened before, I’m not kidding).

Winging it. Some people call it “thinking on your feet,” but really that’s just what you call it when you’re interviewing.

Now I’m not saying I do not plan my lessons, because that wouldn’t be accurate. But for the things that happen that I can’t plan for (new students, temper tantrums, kids refusing to come to class, suspensions, etc.), I really gotta learn how to let my curriculum be flexible. It’s simply not something you learn before you have to.

How have I done this so far?

1. Plan with the end in mind.

And then expect that even the student who’s there every day won’t meet your expectations. This helps set the bar, but also means you’ve got a plan for the kids who aren’t at school. By law you have to provide an alternative assessment if it’s in the student’s IEP, so you might as well create one anyway.

2. Something not working? Fuggetabahtit.

Do not put something on a pedestal if it’s not working out. If you planned for it and it’s a train wreck, throw it out. I tried to make my students do a poster and then ran into resource issues and had to throw it out–yeah, I was bummed because they love posters, but it is what it is.

3. For God’s sake, plan out your procedure. 

Winging it only goes so far. There are days where I’m all like, “I’m so seasoned.  I can totally blow ’em away today with my wonderful impromptu performance of explaining their project rubric.” LIES. My miniscule theatre experience does not translate into educating as much as I think it should.

I have some core classes that I’ve been able to group together and differentiate instruction by using the same or similar unit/content, which eases the headache of coming up with 9th, 10th, and 11th grade curriculum. But I still have middle schoolers who never come to school, throwing me for a loop when they all decide to show up on the same day.

I’ll get better at this, but  this climate of reactivity makes it difficult to be prepared. I’ve learned how to survive and not lose a whole lotta sleep over it, but I know there are better options than winging it. Any other educators out there have some pointers? Send ’em my way.

-S

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One comment

  1. This is why public school teaching requires more creativity than any other profession. One of my favorite books about teaching is called 900 Shows a Year (by Stuart Palonsky) – 180 days times 5 classes is 900 performances, each one different.

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