A class is made up of so many elements—the teacher, the students, the room, technology—that the unexpected is bound to occur. Learning to anticipate, accept, and even benefit from these unforeseen moments can make you a more dynamic instructor. The following are great tips to help you go with the flow.
Anticipate the Unexpected
Have a back-up plan. Technology can be a great teaching aid, but it can also betray you when you least expect it. But don’t panic! Prepare a back-up plan for each lesson plan that you could resort to, no matter what the computer/projector/etc. decides to do that day.
Give yourself the gift of time. Build in some extra time for syllabus changes near the middle of the semester, and toward the middle third of any big projects/papers. You may find yourself needing to model certain aspects of each project more than once, or addressing unplanned subjects.
Accept the Unexpected
Acknowledge the situation, fix it if necessary, and move on. Things happen---activities fall flat, students don't connect to a lecture, or a lesson has unforeseen consequences. Try not to be disheartened or dwell on it, and especially avoid getting irritated with your students. Sometimes when these types of unexpected situations occur, there is little to do but take notes for next time and carry on.
TA Testimony— "I noticed that many of my students were misusing semi-colons, so I decided to give a short lesson on how to use them correctly. Well, when I got their final papers, they were full of semi-colons. I'm talking four sentences with semi-colons in a six sentence paragraph. Even students who hadn't used semi-colons in their rough drafts had scattered them through their final essays. I think my students interpreted my lesson as "the teacher likes semi-colons! If we use them we can get a better grade!" And there wasn't much I could do except laugh at myself---there was no point in being irritated with my students about it (and they were, at least, using the semi-colons correctly). So, I explained to them that semi-colons are a sometimes food and let it go. I think sometimes we as teachers need to be careful what we ask for."
Benefit from the Unexpected
Listen to your students. Students are often very good about letting you know which topics and areas they need more support in, and what looks like “getting off track” to you might actually be addressing things that students are struggling with but too shy to ask about. So don't be afraid to take an unexpected detour or two—just make sure to adjust the next lesson plan to incorporate anything you didn’t get to that day.
Involve your students. Unexpected student questions or comments can make you flustered, but they can also serve as great teaching tools. Opening up these questions to the class can be a productive way of involving your students in discussion and exploring new ideas as a group. Check out how one TA successfully used this technique in her class:
Try something new. Not every lesson plan, lecture, or class activity will succeed. This is true no matter if the instructor is highly experienced or fresh out of the box. If your plan falls flat, look at it as an opportunity to try something new. You might surprise yourself and your students with your creativity.