6: Controlled by the Plan

6: Controlled by the Plan

Planning, being flexible in the classroom, and dealing with the unexpected.

Mustafa was proud of his BEd. Now in his first job as a teacher, he had great plans for helping his students learn English, and he knew that what he had learnt from his BEd would help him reach this goal. All through his years as a secondary school student, he had thought that teaching was easy, but his degree had made him realise that teaching was far more complicated when seen from the teacher's perspective than from the student's seat. The most important thing that Mustafa had learnt from his degree was the importance of planning. His tutors had constantly emphasised and re-emphasised the need to think before teaching. Planning, he had been told, was often more important for the success of a lesson than the teaching. Having been asked to teach an impromptu lesson and then compare it with a planned lesson, Mustafa firmly believed his tutors.

Mustafa had been teaching at a technical college in Cairo for two weeks now. His next lesson was on Saturday with an evening class of older students. He picked up the textbook assigned for the class and started planning. On his degree, he had been told to follow a given sequence for planning and to write his plan according to a model format. Mustafa didn't need to remind himself of the sequence or the format since he had used them so often already. Starting from the unit in the textbook, he identified the objectives to be covered in the lesson, used a grammar book to check on his knowledge of these objectives, looked through the reading passage, prepared quick explanations of unknown words, checked the answers to the comprehension questions, decided how to present the grammar points, and wrote up instructions for the pairwork activity. As a final flourish, he decided to devote three minutes at the start of the lesson to chatting to the students.

Looking over his lesson plan, Mustafa was pleased. It looked perfect. He could easily imagine his old tutor giving him an A grade for the plan. With a plan like this, he felt sure that he could help his students understand the grammar easily and that they would enjoy learning.

At six o'clock on the Saturday, Mustafa went into the classroom to find all of his students waiting for him. He checked the register and let the students calm down.

"OK, what did you do in the last week?", he asked. "Yes, Fatima?"
"I went to the cinema."
"You went to the cinema. Very good. OK, Ahmed what did you do?"
"I went to see my uncle near from Alexandria."
"Near Alexandria. No 'from'. OK. Hafiz?"
"I got married."
Mustafa smiled. "You got married. That's interesting." The three minutes he had set aside for chatting were up. "Now turn to page 17 in your books."
Mustafa asked the students to read the passage and to identify unknown words. After the students had finished reading, he asked, "Right, what words didn't you know?"
"Trapped, right." Mustafa looked at his lesson plan. "Trap means to catch. So the boy was trapped means the boy was caught. OK?"
The students were silent.
"Any other words?"
"OK, pick means to select."
"But I don't understand. Here the book has that pick the lock."
"Yes, lock means the thing that you open with a key."
"But I don't understand."
Mustafa wondered what was wrong with Hafiz who was usually a good student. Maybe it was his marriage affecting him. "What do you mean?"
"Pick a lock means select a lock. I don't understand."
"Never mind. Any more words? Yes, Abdullah?"
"I taught you freezer last week. You already know the word. Yes, Miriam?"

Mustafa looked a bit put out. He had noticed the word when he had prepared his lesson, but he had assumed that the students would know it. He knew that in the short time he had been teaching them, the students hadn't come across jog, but it was such a simple word he had thought they must know it. "Um, jog means run."

Ahmed looked up brightly. "Run. Like Said Aouita. Yeah, good runner."

Mustafa was flustered. "No, not like Said Aouita. He runs very fast, but jog is running slowly."
It was now Ahmed's turn to look puzzled. "But if you run, you want to win. Why people run slow?" He then switched to Arabic and used the slang expression for 'They must be cheats'.
Mustafa felt that he was starting to lose control. This wasn't in his lesson plan. "No. You don't jog when you run in a race. Jog is run slowly for exercise. If you want to get fit, you can run but you only need to run slowly. So people jog for exercise or to get fit."

Now it was Miriam who looked confused. "What mean exercise and fit?"

Mustafa felt himself in danger of falling into a never-ending circle of definitions. He decided that he had to avoid this at all costs. So he quickly wrote the three problem words in English on the board with their Arabic equivalents. All of the students looked satisfied and dutifully copied these down into their exercise books. Mustafa was still worried, however. First, he had broken the climate of English which he had tried so hard to establish in the classroom. Second, he realised that he was already five minutes behind his lesson plan. He would have to rush through everything to get the lesson finished on time.

The rest of the lesson consisted of a mad rush on Mustafa's part to catch up with the times written in his lesson plan. In this he was frustrated by several unexpected questions and incorrect answers from the students which he felt duty-bound to deal with. The lesson turned into a race between Mustafa and the clock. He didn't give the students enough time to answer the comprehension questions; his grammar explanation was so rushed that he then had to spend a lot of time dealing with students' misunderstandings; he skimmed through the pairwork instructions at such a rate that the students had little idea of what they were supposed to do; and by the time the bell rang at the end of the lesson none of the pairs were anywhere close to finishing the activity.

After the lesson ended, the students left the room and Mustafa collapsed at his desk. What had gone wrong? His lesson plan had been so good. He looked back over it. The only problem he could see was that he should have predicted the need to teach jog. But surely such a little mistake couldn't have made his lesson go so awry. Nevertheless, it was the only problem he could find. He resolved to be more careful in his lesson planning in future. He would need to check every word in the reading passages, and prepare explanations for most of them. Although he didn't look forward to this, he knew that good lesson plans were vital, and the more he prepared the better his lesson plans and his teaching would be. With a sigh, he started reading the passage for the next lesson he would teach.


1. The BEd that Mustafa took placed a heavy emphasis on lesson planning. How important do you think lesson planning is to the success of lessons? How much emphasis should be given to lesson planning on teacher training programmes?

2. Mustafa had been taught to follow a certain sequence and format when planning. What do you think this sequence and format consisted of? How helpful do you think such a model is to beginning teachers? While models of planning can help give security to beginning teachers, they are also restrictive. Do you think the benefits of such models outweigh the extent to which they restrict teachers?

3. The lesson started with "chatting". What are the purposes of chatting to students? Why is it used so often as a way of beginning lessons?

4. Chatting to students can be considered an attempt to bring the characteristics of natural conversation (such as unpredictability and the need to constantly negotiate topics) into the classroom. However, the way in which Mustafa runs the chatting session does not reflect interaction in the real world. In what ways does the classroom chatting in the extract differ from interaction in the real world? How do you think Mustafa can change the way he runs the chatting session in order to make it reflect real world interaction more closely?

5. To help students understand the reading passage, Mustafa asks them to identify unknown words. Do you think unknown words should be taught before the students read or after they have finished reading? Do all unknown words need to be explained? In explaining the meaning of the unknown words to the students, Mustafa seems to regard the context in which the words appear as not being very important. What problems does this lead to and how can Mustafa overcome these problems?

6. Mustafa's main problems occur when he is required to teach something he has not planned for. Improvisation is a vital teaching skill. Do you think that improvisation is teachable? If so, how can improvisation be taught? All through the lesson Mustafa is being controlled by the plan rather than controlling it. To what extent should plans be followed? When and why should teachers deviate from their prepared plans?

7. Finally, after the lesson finishes, Mustafa reflects on what had happened in the lesson. The main conclusion of his reflection is that he should spend more time on planning. Do you think that this will help Mustafa in future lessons? Overall, planning seems to be the only area on which Mustafa concentrates. If you were Mustafa's colleague, how could you help him gain an appreciation of other aspects of teaching?