Planning is the most important aspect of organization and management. Your entire life as a teacher revolves around planning. Everything you do before the first day of school constitutes planning. Arranging the physical environment; deciding about rules and routines; collecting materials, supplies, and ideas; contacting parents — these and more are planning activities. You are planning for a productive school year.

The "other" side of planning, of course, is the actual preparation for teaching academic content. Planning lessons, weekly units, and an entire school year is a big task. Many of us find it the most intellectually intensive activity of teaching and a tremendous creative outlet.

Good planning takes practice. It's the key to professionalism. When you plan, you use your professional judgment to match ideas, activities, and materials with students' interests and abilities. Planning is not simply a matter of making a "To Do" list. Planning is deciding when, where, why, and how a certain lesson is taught.

Couldn't a good teacher just "wing it"?

No way. A plan offers direction, confidence, and security. And plans help you use classroom time more efficiently by reducing confusion and wasted time. Generally, the more thoroughly you plan an activity, the less time it takes to complete it.

What Experienced Planners Do

In studies at Michigan State University, researcher Christopher Clark and his colleagues found that experienced teachers generally use a four-step process when planning an activity:

  1. Understand the total activity.
  2. Imagine using it in the classroom.
  3. Think of ways to avoid potential problems and modify accordingly.
  4. Create a mental image of the revised version.

Effective teachers also:

  • Plan for interruptions and unexpected events, thereby maintaining order and minimizing disruptions when they occur.
  • Plan transitions from one activity to another. This minimizes wasted time, confusion, and behavior problems.
  • Communicate the plan to students.
  • Find out what students already know about a particular topic with formal or informal pretesting before planning lessons and units.
  • Set aside a regular time for planning.
  • Make their daily and weekly plans fit into large units and yearly plans.

Teachable Moments

Clark advises teachers to think of their plans not as rigid scripts but as "flexible frameworks for action." Plans, he says, are devices for getting started in the right direction. Good teachers frequently depart from their plans or elaborate upon them as they proceed. The take advantage of those unplanned "teachable moments" — time when learning potential is high because student motivation and interest are high.

 Veterans reflecting back on their first few years of teaching often report that they were slaves to their plans. While it is important to develop and follow instructional plans, don't be so rigid that you pass up unexpected opportunities.

Suppose, for example, that a migrating flock of Canada geese lands briefly in a field outside your window. The students are excited and have lots of questions. Where are they going? Where did they come from? In response to the students' questions and enthusiasm, why not fly with a science unit on birds and migration?

One urban teacher turned the noisy disturbance of a nearby building demolition into an exciting class discussion about machines, building materials, and the people who had lived in the building. Another teacher used an incident of student littering on the playground to involve her students in an extended ecology, conservation, and recycling unit.

Fourth-grade teacher Penny Strube relates an incident involving one student's biography on Ulysses S. Grant. Instead of flipping immediately to Gr4ant in the encyclopedia he was using, the student began perusing. Suddenly, he asked Strube if she knew that there had been a gold rush in 1849. Failing to grasp the connection, Strube asked what president he was working on. But he just continued excitedly that that's where the 49er's (football team) must have gotten their name.

"The excitement of seeing that connection was felt all over the classroom," relates Strube. "I stopped what I was doing to grasp that teachable moment with the entire class. Ryan's comment started a discussion in which another student pointed out that the Pittsburgh Steelers got their name from a natural resource in that state, and another student mentioned the Oilers."

Teachable moments crop up often, especially if you stay alert for ways to build on students' interests, needs, and moods. In fact, it's a good idea to capitalize on student interests whenever possible. Effective teachers don't hesitate to solicit lesson ideas from students. Asking students what they would like to study about can help you generate high-interest lessons. You can match their ideas to the concepts and skills you want to teach.

Planning for Substitutes and the Unexpected

Sometimes, even careful plans and well-thought-out lessons are not enough. What about the times you are unexpectedly absent from the classroom or a situation demands your immediate time and attention?

With advance planning, you can be prepared for the unpredictable. Build a file of emergency activities and "sponges" to soak up time lost to interruptions or unexpected situations such as a child getting sick in class, a parent knocking on the door, or a school assembly starting ten minutes later than scheduled. By planning meaningful "instant" activities, you can turn lost time into learning time. You can also plan for those times when you must be absent from the classroom.

"I never leave my classroom when the day is over without having the next day's plans and papers laid out on my desk, along with directions for the parent volunteers," says Washington teacher Kathy Wesley. "I don't want them to be without something to do if I end up with a sub the next day."

Don't forget to prepare students in advance for the possibility of a substitute. Discuss the conduct you expect from them when you are absent. Remind them how they can help the substitute and why their cooperation is important.

Washington teacher Judy Lee Dunn explains to her students that different teachers have different ways of doing things. Dunn suggests switching classes with another teacher for a day to allow children to experience different teaching styles and changes in routine. Dunn also suggests that you can reinforce the substitute's teaching by asking students to describe at least three new things they learned in your absence. She gives extra credit to students who can do so.

Finally, thank the substitutes who do a good job in your classroom. Call them or write a note. Let the principal know you were pleased and ask for them again.