• Tom Garside

Four common teaching nightmares and how to deal with them on the spot


It happens to the best of us - our best laid lesson plans are ready to go, and something unexpected happens. Unforeseen situations happen all the time (now more than ever), so what can we do to avoid catastrophe if something goes wrong in class?

Here are some experiences that I would rather not repeat, but which show the value of flexibility and always having a plan B up your sleeve:

1) ‘We’ve done this!’ - you've planned the lesson that was taught by someone else last week


Aside from the fact that if you share a class with another teacher, you should both communicate about what each other are teaching, this is a common problem. The solution is simple: tell the students that if they have done it, then they must know it perfectly, and they should prove it! This is a good opportunity to lead a test-teach-test lesson. Skip the presentation of language at the beginning of the class, and go straight into some practice tasks (gap fill, sentence building or sentence completion activities) and set the students to work without any further input about the language. Even better, quickly find some different practice exercises covering the same language that you planned to teach, or write some more quick example questions on the board.


As feedback to the task, encourage the students to explain why they chose the answers that they did, relating their responses to other parts of the sentence or text that they are working with. Get them talking about aspects of meaning and structure in the sentences, to check that they really do know the language deeply.

If the students are still struggling, present the language again, as you had planned to, in the context of the sentences that you used earlier in the lesson, and to finish the lesson, use another set of practice tasks (preferably less restricted ones) to test whether they have developed their language.


If you are happy with the answers you get to the practice task, you can move on to a more independent task and get the students using it in different situations, perhaps in role-plays or dialogue-building activities. Either way, the students will get more practice with the language and more opportunity to use it, which can only help their ability with the forms.

2) A power cut / tech issue / missing equipment means you can’t use the audio / video you were planning on using


So you have led in to the lesson, and established the topic and some content points about the video or listening you were going to play, so students have some idea of what they were going to study. The resource itself isn’t there, but the students can still work with the ideas from the recording independently.


Rather than teaching a receptive class, turn it around and make it into a productive skills session, where groups have to prepare a situational play, radio programme, interview or whatever was on the recording, and perform it for the class.


Depending on the listening or watching task, you could even give the class the comprehension questions from the recording to work with, and they can design their role-play to fit the questions. Then, when they perform the dialogue, the rest of the class can answer the questions for the situation that they hear. This keeps everyone involved and gives the class ownership of the content.


In the next class (all tech issues having been resolved), you could play the recording and compare it with the situations that the students created - I bet the class versions will be more interesting! (No offence to course book writers out there…)

3) You're asked to teach a new class with 5 minutes’ notice because the teacher is sick


This will happen to every teacher at some point in their career. People get sick and classes need teaching, so you’d better be ready with a pre-prepared class to jump in and teach at zero notice, whether that’s for a class that you know, or for a completely different group.


There are plenty of activities which can fill an hour usefully with minimal preparation. Have one of these up your sleeve for any eventuality, and you will never get caught out. My personal favourites are:


A balloon debate: students roll two dice - one for an adjective, and one for a positive job word, to create characters who are in a sinking balloon / ship / on a desert island. Each student becomes a controversial character (a colour-blind doctor, a deaf biologist, etc.) and have to debate about who they would push out of the balloon / off the ship / prefer to be shipwrecked with…


Broken CD player dictation: The teacher becomes a CD player, and students have to control how the dictation is delivered to the class by being the ‘remote control’ one by one in turns. Teach the class how to ‘play’, ‘pause’, ‘rewind’ and ‘fast forward’ your delivery of a dictation until everyone has heard and written the text that you read out / pause / stop / rewind etc. The students are in control, so they can manage their own dictation speed.


Jumbled dictation: Students write down 8 sentences of a story, delivered to of order, onto slips of paper. Half the class write out the even numbered sentences, and half write the odd-numbered ones. After checking each other’s sentences, they organise the story and can discuss what they have written. The more debatable the story, the better.

4) In a grammar lesson, a student asks ‘but why?’ And you freeze


When a student asks ‘why?’ Sometimes, you just don’t have an answer to give. Sometimes there is no ‘why’ - it just is, but that is not a good enough answer for an engaged student.


Generally, a grammar ‘why’ can be answered by putting the form into context and referring to other words in a sentence, but sometimes the answer just won’t come! In this situation, there’s no shame in asking the student to save the question for the next class, when you will have prepared an answer. Much better than trying to force your way through a half-baked explanation that may be more confusing than the original question, anyway…

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.


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