How to Spend Less Time On Daily Lesson Planning by Understanding the Lesson-Planning Triangle

Here’s something I remember from my first year of teaching: I stayed up very late every night making detailed lesson plans. Maybe too detailed. Definitely too late.

Then, one day, I saw one of my more experienced colleagues’ lesson plan. And it looked something like this: Math: Multiplication X’s 4.

That was it.

That was it!!!

It was only years into my teaching career that I had my first glorious experience of scribbling a phrase onto a desk calendar, fully confident that I had all the information I needed to guide my class through a day’s learning. That’s because I’d learned that daily lesson plans are actually just one corner of a teacher’s planning triangle. They exist within a larger framework anchored by two other types of planning.

The first type involves routines: determining how to use the time in the school week and space in the classroom. What should kids be doing every Tuesday morning at 9:05 a.m.? Who collects the materials at the end of an activity, and how do they put them away? After making these decisions, the next goal is to make some classroom routines run on autopilot by teaching the steps to the kids, building in incentives or assigning class jobs.

Why are routines so valuable? Because kids who don’t know what to do next need your attention now. A lack of structure makes them more likely to throw erasers, or play with their phones in their laps, or start a long, yawning whine of the phrase, “This is boooooorrrrriiiinnnngggg!” that begins with the initial “I” sound in mid-September and continues, unending, until the final syllable wraps up during Memorial Day Weekend.

With this in mind, it’s a good time to think about what the weekly schedule might look like in your classroom. Is there an activity kids can do without your help? Might they be encouraged get started on it immediately upon entering the classroom, without multiple reminders, while you get a handle on the day ahead? An upfront investment in a predictable schedule can save you a lot of troubleshooting time later.

The final type of planning is long-term planning. This is sometimes also called “backward planning,” because teachers work backward from what students need to learn by the end of the year.

As a made-up-and-possibly-flawed example: If fourth graders need to learn long division by May, they need to master the basic concept of division by March. This means that multiplication, division’s easier-to-understand cousin, should be a lock in November, preferably in time for the natural break provided by Thanksgiving weekend.

These smaller goals go on a teacher’s calendar at the beginning of the year so they know if they’re on track, but—and this is important—all this should be mapped out in only minimal detail. Things change. Long-term plans are best written in pencil. (As if anyone needed to tell you that right now.)

Once you have the other two corners of the planning triangle set up, then you, too, can drop in daily lesson plans that might be indecipherable to anyone else.

Then, be ready for things not to go as planned.

We’re all just laying the best plans we can, forgiving ourselves for inevitable mistakes along the way, and making thoughtful adjustments as needed over time.

We’re all writing in pencil.

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