Stop Wasting Energy on Pointless ESL Lesson Plans

waste-of-time-283x300Whether you have enough creative energy to guarantee you’ll be whittling or knitting on your deathbed, like me — or especially if you don’t have that much creative energy — you should choose to teach a specific type of English lesson to a specific type of student.

How “Yes” chewed me up and spit me out

When I stopped working for English schools and decided to teach on my own, I was a stress basket. Suddenly, my schedule stretched before me like a giant gaping hole.

There are billions of people on the planet, but could the known universe really contain enough students that I could fill my schedule?

As far as I was concerned, there was only one way to find out: Accept anyone of any age in any place who was willing to book a lesson.

The Yes Fest began.

Yes to working any day of the week at any time.

Yes to free demo lessons.

Yes to Business English classes at companies scattered around the city.

Yes to conversation lessons in cafes with students who could physically talk (but resist engaging in any kind of real conversation) for so long I became bleary-eyed and disoriented.

Yes to TOEIC, TOEFL iBT, SAT and a parade of locally-created English exams with incomprehensible acronyms.

Yes to lessons at this private school. Yes to lessons over there, too!

Yes to a bratty 8-year-old who spilled water all over the desk and waited, smugly observing how many layers of paper, how many crayons and how much eraser dust would get soggy before I mopped it up.

Yes to the pilot who wanted 15-minute conversation lessons via phone calls 4 days a week, but who was always out in some loud place where he couldn’t hear me, didn’t have a notebook and failed to remember anything new from yesterday.

Yes to the pathological liar who had endless reasons for cancelling: Her brother broke his arm. Her cat fell off the balcony. She just lost her wallet.

Next week, same time? Of course!

“Small piece of butter, meet big piece of bread.”

As the months passed, my energy was beyond depleted.

I could reuse only about 5% of the lessons and materials because my students were so completely different from each other.

But in the vain hope that some time before my death, two students might need the same thing, I amassed a mighty collection of materials. I filled plastic sleeves with photocopies of activities from this book and that book. Some things for kids, other things for adults. Anything that was too random to go in a plastic sleeve went into another folder that I vowed would get sorted later on (vow, broken). When I ran out of plastic sleeves, I created piles.

When it came time to plan a lesson, I would flip through my collection (5-10 minutes) – but often I couldn’t find what I needed, I’d flip through it again (another 2 minutes), determine it actually didn’t exist yet and end up making something (5-70 minutes, depending on the quality and complexity). So I also developed sprawling computer files.

I lasted about a year before I was exhausted – mentally and physically.

Thankfully, my business coach staged an intervention.

“This is ridiculous,” she told me as I complained for the umpteenth time. “You clearly don’t even enjoy most of this – which means that your students aren’t actually getting good service from you, so they won’t refer to their friends. Why are you teaching so many different kinds of people?”

“Because I need the money.” I prickled at her insinuation that I had made a mistake.

A good coach spots evasion tactics the same way that a good English teacher spots students’ errors.

She broke down my weekly energy budget and the way I spent my time. Staring at real numbers, I had to accept that I was literally pouring time down the drain.  Every week – and seeing absolutely no return on it.

“If you just taught the students who you like — TOEFL students — then you’d be happier and you would save so much time and energy. Any materials that you make to use with one TOEFL student, you would probably need again with another TOEFL student, right? And then you would stop having this huge collection of material that doesn’t really fit anyone. Instead, you’d have a huge collection of material that really fits and helps TOEFL students.”

With numbers staring me in the face, I finally got it.

I agreed to devise a plan to phase out the students who were not a good fit.

I had moments of fear and panic as I got closer to actually “firing” some of my students, but it was the best choice I made that year. No more bratty kids! No more pathological liars taking up my prime lesson time and regularly cancelling! No more unsatisfying conversation lessons via telephone!

My coach was 100% right about what would happen if I consolidated my lesson-planning energy.

Just months after focusing exclusively on TOEFL iBT students, I already had the beginning of my first program: Right Notes. Since then, I also developed The Speaking Guide to Scores of 26+ at TOEFL and the 24+ Writing Tutorial – including extensive materials on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar – all related to TOEFL students.

That folder of random material that I made for my random students? Yeah, I’ve dipped in there once, maybe twice in the last few years.

Those plastic sleeves of random photo copied activities? The layer of dust on them is thick. And well, since Hoarders will probably never decide to film an episode about de-cluttering English teachers’ resources, I guess that I’ll have to do it myself.

It used to be a struggle to book students. I got virtually zero referrals and I wasted loads of time planning lessons I would never teach again.

Now? At the drop of a hat, I can teach one of at least a dozen different lessons for TOEFL speaking or writing that I know inside and out, backwards and forwards. Why? Because I niched down into TOEFL. Not to mention that I really started to understand how to teach something gigantic like TOEFL iBT.

Whatever area you choose, I am confident you will find that feeling of effortlessness, too.

Consider These

These are some of the questions that my business coach asked me. If you write your answers in a comment below, I’ll respond and we can dialogue…

  1. Think about your average week.
    • How many different types of students do you work with?
    • Do you create lesson plans for them?  If yes, how many minutes or hours do you actually spend on average?
  2. Look through your computer or your binders of teaching resources.  How much stuff do you have that you haven’t actually reused with students?  Here, I mean things that you made that never got repurposed for anyone else.
  3. Look through arsenal of materials.  How much money have you spent on books or materials that, again, you cannot actually reuse with students?
  4. If you focused your energy on just teaching one type of lesson or one type of student…
    • Would you invest your money in materials and books differently?  If yes, how?
    • Would you spent your time each day or week differently?  If yes, how?
    • Would you feel different?  If yes, how?