Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati (a former student of mine, and a key illustrator in my book). You can e-mail her at email@example.com if you’d like her to do some beautiful illustration work for you!
The start of a new academic year at any school is usually very hectic, especially if you’re starting somewhere new. With fresh classes, new systems, new students, new workload demands and a new timetable, it’s easy to become overwhelmed.
Falling behind on your teaching schedule (i.e. the topics you’re supposed to cover and when), is easily done. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like when the floods hit Bangkok in 2011 and schools were closed for two weeks, or when you have to go on a residential or field trip. Sometimes it’s a symptom of getting used to life at school, and adapting to new changes.
Don’t feel guilty
Falling behind schedule happens to every teacher at some, or multiple points, in our careers. Don’t beat yourself up – accept what’s happened and use the prevention and cure strategies in this article to solve the issue quickly and easily.
Fundamentals: The Curriculum Map
In order to know whether you’re behind schedule in the first place, you’ll need curriculum maps set up for each of your classes.
A curriculum map is basically a long-term plan for each class for the whole academic year. It doesn’t have to be fancy – even a table drawn on paper is enough. However, a good curriculum map should show the topics you intend to teach each month, or week, of the academic year. These topics should be linked to the textbook you are using in class or the syllabus you are following or both.
Once your curriculum maps are set up, and you know what you should be teaching and when, you can start using these prevention strategies which will enable you to keep on schedule for the rest of the year.
These can be used at any point in the year, as you may be behind, or ahead of schedule (a topic for another blog post?), at multiple points during the academic year.
Set time aside each week to plan ahead
When I first qualified as a teacher I used to plan my lessons day-by-day. This was not a good strategy, as I found it hard to gain a long-term focus for my planning, which sometimes caused me to fall behind.
Now I set aside time every Sunday afternoon to plan all of my lessons for the week ahead. However, I don’t just simply scribble activities into each and every box in my planner. I ask myself these five questions for every class:
- Let’s take a look at the curriculum map. Am I on schedule?
- Where are the kids up to now?
- Where do they need to be by the end of the week?
- Has anyone missed any lessons (including me?). How can we catch up?
- Which new activities or games should I use this week, which I haven’t used for a while? (Great ideas for learning games and differentiation tips can be found here, here and here).
Going through these five steps allows me to not only plan lessons which are enjoyable, tailor-made and meaningful, but also allows me to keep up with the pace of the curriculum.
I addition to this, some extra strategies are sometimes needed to fully answer to above five questions. Let’s take a look at those strategies now.
Set up a marking timetable
I know this is probably not a popular way to phrase a sub-heading, but please stay with me and you’ll see the immense benefits that this strategy has.
For this current academic year, I am teaching 8 different classes. Obviously, I see those classes at different points during a typical week, so I spread out my marking as follows:
- Year 11 on Monday
- Year 9 and 10 class 1 and 2 on Tuesday
- Year 13 on Wednesday
- Year 7 and Year 10 class 3 on Thursday
- Year 12 on Friday
Okay, so you get the idea of what a marking timetable looks like. How does this help you to keep your teaching on schedule?
- You’re constantly checking the students’ books to see if they have covered exactly what you think they’ve covered. Sometimes it can be easy to lose track of where your kids are at, especially if you have multiple classes to teach. Sometimes planner or VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) records are not enough – you need to check if the kids have actually UNDERSTOOD what you taught them.
- It doesn’t take long to do if you do it each day and spread it out. A quick glance may be all you need to see where the kids are at.
My grandad was a very keen and competent gardener. He lived by the Little And Often Principle: “I do a little bit of gardening, every day, so that I don’t have a load of weeding and pruning to do every Sunday” is what he used to say.
I like that idea.
Make sure that your marking timetable fits in well with your school’s homework timetable (if they have one) and your free-time.
Other benefits of having a marking timetable are as follows:
- You’ll get to know the writing, presentation and artistic styles of your new students really quickly.
- Checking through the students’ books and homework yourself is one way to quickly memorise new names
- It allows opportunity to provide written and verbal praise, which helps you to build rapport
Set meaningful and robust cover work
Whether you’re out on a school trip, ill with the cold or attending PD overseas, your cover work should aim to minimise re-teaching when you come back.
Some teachers fall into the common trap of setting work that keeps students occupied or entertained, rather than work that challenges the students or covers new material.
It is understandable why some teachers are reluctant to give new content as cover work – if you’re a subject specialist who’s away from school, then it’s likely that your class will be supervised by a non-specialist.
But does that mean you should make your cover work easy?
If you want to avoid being behind schedule, then set cover work that covers some of the syllabus that the kids would normally learn if you were at school.
For example, I was just recently away for three days on an Outdoor Expedition trip. I asked my Year 12 class to complete the End of Chapter questions on Atomic Structure – a challenging task since they haven’t quite learnt everything about successive ionization energies yet. When I go back to school tomorrow, I’ll check their books to see how far they got and to see if they could do the successive ionization energies question.
If they could all do it, then congrats – the kids have taught themselves some new knowledge whilst I was away. I can quickly go through that question and move on.
If some couldn’t do it, then I’ll take those individuals aside during a class activity and go through it with them.
If they all couldn’t do it, then I know that my cover work was too challenging (or the kids chose to slack off whilst I was there). However, now that I know the kids really well, I can gauge that my cover work wasn’t too challenging (a skill that takes experience to master). If all of the kids couldn’t do it, then I’ll have to spend time to teach that topic to them again.
Bottom line – Cover work should aim to teach, not just to entertain.
A basic one this, and more for individual kids who have missed classes.
If you’ve handed out worksheets or paper-based homework in class, then keep the same sheets in some kind of filing cabinet or folder. When the kid comes back, you can hand him or her the work that he or she needs to catch up on.
Even better – put everything on a VLE. Good systems include Google Classroom® (which is virtually free of charge), Firefly® and Moodle®.
Stick to the syllabus
We all want to enrich our lessons with real-life examples, practical work, field-trips, case-studies and projects (which are all great and all have their place in teaching). However, it can be easy to get carried away a bit.
I made the mistake of doing this in my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year – my first year of teaching. I was going through genetic diseases with a Year 11 Biology class, and I decided to teach them about Huntington’s Chorea when it wasn’t on the syllabus.
Whilst it was nice for these kids to have another example of a genetic disease in their toolkit, and they found it interesting too, they weren’t going to be examined on it. I basically wasted a lesson teaching them this.
The odd lesson here or there of additional material isn’t usually a major problem, but large periods of time need to be considered more carefully. Do your kids really need one week to complete a recycling project, or will one lesson give them enough material for their test or exam?
Plan your enrichment material carefully. Make sure it fits into your curriculum map without disrupting the flow of the main syllabus content. Ideally, enrichment activities should embed and enhance the curriculum, not digress from it.
Use focussed resources
Have you ever produced a worksheet or resource that was designed for a slightly different course, but you had little time so you set it anyway? I’ve done this in the past, especially when I was just starting out as a teacher, and it usually has one or more consequences:
- There will be a question or two that the kids can’t do, and you’ll need to spend extra time explaining the theory behind those questions
- The kids may spend too long on the worksheet or activity, eating into valuable teaching time
- The kids will get confused about what they actually need to know, and what they should revise for their test or exam
There is a flip-side to this though – some resources designed for the same topic but other exam boards can be used as extension material – stretching you’re best learners to excel in the lesson. Just be sure to specify though – “Everyone should do questions 1-5 in 10 minutes. Questions 6 and 7 are bonus questions if you finish early”
Behind Schedule Cures
But what if you’re already behind schedule (whether or not it is your fault)? How do you get back on track?
Play accelerated learning games
There are some activities you can do in class which speeds up the amount of content learnt per lesson. My two favourites are marketplace activities, and the Poster Game (given below).
Possibly the most fun and competitive game I’ve ever invented for teaching new content. You’ll need space for the kids to walk/run, and the game does take some prep. However, once you (and your students) become used to playing this game you’ll find that it’s a doddle to set up in no time at all.
Can some of the simpler stuff be given as homework? If you’re behind schedule with your teaching, then this could prove to be a useful tactic. Just be sure to check the work quickly to make sure that no-one is left behind.
Sharing a class? Speak to your partner!
If you share a class with another teacher, then be open and honest and tell them that you are behind schedule. Two heads are better than one, and together you may be able to find a creative solution to the problem (e.g. the other teacher might be able to cover the missed material, while you progress to the next topic).
Assign extra time
This might be your only option if you are far behind and exams are approaching. Sometimes this happens through no fault of our own, and sometimes we’ve just gone too slow (which could be the result of multiple causes, some of which may be beyond our control).
You may need to find out when all of your kids are free, and give them some extra sessions. After school, lunchtimes, school holidays and weekends can often be used.
The last resort, but still an option.
Speak with your head of department
If you are really struggling to keep up and are finding that the pace of your lessons is not adequate to meet the demands of the curriculum map (despite trying the tactics I’ve mentioned), then speak with your line manager as soon as possible.
You’ll be seen as more mature, focussed and trustworthy by owning up to the problem than trying to sweep it under the carpet. What’s worse – a discussion with your HoD at the beginning, or multiple problems towards the end the academic year?
Your HoD should sympathize with you and offer a suite of solutions, some of which you may never have thought about. You may be going too slow because behavior management is taking up too much time, or maybe your kids just find learning a challenge in general.
Speak up and don’t be afraid. You’ll be respected for doing so.
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