As Maria von Trapp famously sang, ‘Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…’ Had she done her research, she’d know that it’s standard practice to begin singing with ‘So and Mi’ not ‘Do, Re and Mi’, but fortunately her students already had an immaculate sense of pitch and incredible aural memories, so as is so often the case in Hollywood things worked out just fine. While watching ‘The Sound of Music’ it may appear that Maria came up with her teaching strategy off the top of her head. Incidentally, you may also have seen perfectly behaved 16 year olds being educated alongside 5 year olds on top of a mountain without the need for any form of differentiation; alas, this is all fiction.
From what to teach each week to how to teach it, planning is vital. Lesson plans are our road maps to get us from A to B. However, when you’re new to teaching it’s easy to forget where A and B actually are, and for ‘getting from A to B’ to be more about getting ourselves from the start of the lesson to the end; when in reality it’s about getting your student from where they are to what they want to achieve.
Here are a few tips for successful planning:
Talk to your students and set goals with them, being sure to strike a balance between high standards and realism. If your beginner clarinettist wants to learn the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in a term, the chances are they’re going to have to rethink, but realistic goals are a great place to start and giving students some input gives them a sense of ownership over their learning. Once you have your goals then work backwards. What does your student have to do to get from where they are now to where they want to be? Break each goal down into steps and make sure they know what they have to do to move forward. Plan your lessons around the goals, and make sure every part of the lesson is relevant to moving them towards their goal.
Use Short, Medium and Long-Term planning
Planning lessons from week to week without an overall sense of direction, or setting long-term goals without a clear progress route from week to week can leave us wandering in the desert. For planning to be effective we need to plan for the long, medium and short term. Ask the following questions:
What do you want the student to achieve:
• This year? - Long term
• This term? - Medium term
• This week? - Short term
The answers should feed into one another, with the long and medium term goals creating a clear path for what needs to be done each week.
Plans that are too rigid can prevent us from responding to students effectively. From time to time students may come in with something they want to work on, hit something that they’re particularly struggling with, or say something that provokes a creative tangent and ends up enhancing their learning. We need to be flexible enough in our thinking and approach to adapt, keeping our goals in mind, rather than ploughing ahead in mindless pursuit of them.
Most importantly, keep a note of which bits of your plans worked and which didn’t. As with everything in life, we learn the most when we make a mistake, so if something didn’t work, analyse why and take that learning forward. You’re teaching your students, but remember you’re also teaching yourself too.