Flexibility and adaptability are among the most important skills any teacher should possess to foster learners’ curiosity and cognitive engagement.
This is an updated version of the original post I wrote last year.
When I started off as an ESL teacher, I used to plan every moment of my daily lessons. My unit plans were like a puzzle as every activity, assignment, test or exam was well-thought-out and rigorously mapped out for the entire semester. But there was only one problem with this strategy. These plans gave me very little flexibility to easily adjust to unforeseen changes. If I had taken out one piece of a puzzle, the entire unit plan would have fallen apart. I am sure you can envision how scared that idea made me feel as a novice teacher. Being organized and having well-defined learning goals are all important to run our class smoothly. However, sticking to our plan no matter what because we are afraid of losing control over our classes will not necessarily make us the teachers of the year.
My Perception of Flexibility in the Classroom
We are often told during our teacher training years that planning is the key to a highly effective lesson. I agree with that. It is important to establish a routine, cover the content we planned for the class, and end our lesson with a “wrap-up” moment of what has been seen during the period. Yet, over the years I learned that quality counts more than quantity. So, what if we did not finish all the activities we intended to carry out during the lesson? What if we changed our mind while looking at our bored students’ faces and organized a debate to make them more motivated instead of doing the grammar review that we planned for the period? What if we stopped our lesson to give our students a break so that they could carry on later stronger than ever? I believe that these actions do not make us less competent teachers, but they make us more human in our students' eyes and more responsive to what they really need.
What my students valued the most this past challenging year was my concern for their well-being. They appreciated that I stopped my lesson to really care about them, ask them how they were feeling, and how I could help them even though we lost 5-10 minutes of our precious learning time. Hybrid teaching made teacher-learner relationships harder to develop, but I have come to realize that those 5-10 minutes helped me bond with my students the most.
Of course, flexibility does not mean accepting late assignments, giving out homework passes because the dog has eaten poor Johnny’s paper or postponing exams because students have not studied enough. On the contrary, flexibility means bringing rigour into the classroom by offering a rich learning environment where students take ownership of their learning. This is possible if we recognize and act when it is time to adapt and readjust our lesson plan to sustain student motivation and engagement.
Using Flexibility in the Secondary ESL Class
Flexibility will most likely allow us to offer our teenage students a meaningful learning environment as we adapt the activities to our students’ needs to fuel learning instead of rushing through everything we wrote down on a piece of paper. Checking off all the tasks we manage to accomplish during a lesson will not be the proof of our hard work. It is rather the quality of activities and our students’ engagement that will result in reaching those expected learning goals.
Fortunately, teaching English as a Second Language gives us ample opportunities to be creative and experiment with different activities and projects so that students enjoy our classes. For instance, the most rewarding moments have always been the ones when I took the risk to improvise, so I am not afraid of ditching my plan A when it is necessary. I always have a Plan B or C in case I need to “improvise”, in other words, spice up my lessons when boredom settles in, and I would rather switch to Plan B on the whim than making my students complete tedious tasks they might not enjoy doing.
When we work with teenagers, we need to understand that the activity we thought would be perfect for the period might turn out to have the exact opposite result. If my students are excited, I start with an independent reading activity to have them calm down before starting any group work. If they look tired and annoyed, I turn their mood around with a conversation activity that encourages them to express their point of view, take a stand, and provide arguments for and against an issue. Sure, we cannot always change things, but we must be responsive to our learners’ needs by being flexible enough to switch to Plan B or shuffle the order of tasks to ensure that our class is a success.
My Approach to Flexible Planning
Before planning for the entire semester, the most important thing is to know our learners and their interest. I never start planning what kind of activities I will do until I meet my students and evaluate their skills. Once I have a good idea of my learners’ proficiency level, I start planning learning outcomes and the important content I want to cover during the first term. I call this the skeleton of my holistic plan for the entire semester. You might know it as a scope and sequence guide. Then, I select appropriate tasks to build the skills my learners need to achieve those specific learning goals. This gives me the flexibility to adapt and change these activities depending on how well students have acquired certain skills. If you wish to read more about planning, I have written a blog post about Backward Planning in the Secondary ESL Class.
In brief, flexibility and adaptability are among the most important skills any teacher should possess to foster learners’ curiosity and cognitive engagement. In addition, flexibility and responsiveness also allow you to differentiate, offer feedback, or design evaluations with ease to meet your students' diverse needs.
I would love to hear about your approach to flexible planning. Please, share your ideas in the comments section.