So you’ve found yourself a job at a private or international school. You were promised more freedom and growth as a teacher, and the school is delivering that. The thing is, you’ve never planned a curriculum before, and now you have a blank sheet of paper in front of you. What are you going to teach these students every class?
This sounds pretty daunting, no?
That’s exactly what happened to me when I started working for an international preschool in Nagoya in 2014. A few days before the students started to arrive I was told to go and prepare my classroom for the students to arrive. I asked:
“What am I supposed to teach them?”
“Whatever you like!”
At no point during the interview process was I ever told that I would be planning the entire year with five hours of class per day teaching three to four year-olds. I went into full panic mode, and only after a month or two of struggling through every day did I start to get a handle for preparing classes that were fun for the students as well as challenging and met the goals of the boss (who herself had no idea how to meet those goals). When I got a part-time job last year teaching debate class to high school, it was much easier because of my experience planning a curriculum in the past.
I was going home at 7pm every day and researching the Montessori method, teaching techniques, classroom management and little games to throw in to keep these kids happy and engaged. I worked like crazy to get up to par on my planning skills, and it really helped that one of the other teachers at the school was experienced and helped me a lot in those early days. The main thing was setting up a rubric for my planning, which made it easy to see a few things differently and plan according to the needs of my class. This is what really made a difference and turned me from a terrible know-nothing to a marginally competent solo teacher.
Set goals for the lesson
What is the point of your lesson?
It’s not acceptable when you’re the main teacher in a class to just figure out what will waste the most amount of time and have the least amount of prep so you can wing it and go home on time. I felt like I had a responsibility to my students to do a great job, so I set specific goals for each class. Am I working on their listening, speaking, reading or writing? If it is listening, are there specific sounds I want them to hear a lot and get used to? For older students, am I trying to get them familiar with words used in a particular context? If it is speaking am I trying to teach social fluency and conversation skills?
Don’t just drill kids on vocabulary like you’ve seen in countless classes that you always complain don’t help the students to speak – think really deeply about what your goals for the lesson are that gives the learners a chance to improve.
Choose what textbooks and materials you’ll use
Lots of people just use whatever textbook their schools have used in the past or already have (or have a licence to use). One school I worked at had these online print handouts that they would just give us, and they were basically boring and the kids and I hated them. Don’t be afraid, if you are the teacher in charge, to go your own way and pick a text that suits your students more. If your texts are really rubbish (a lot of them are) and you want to do something different, it might take a little extra work but it will be worth it to have engaged students who can communicate better and better every day. There’s nothing more draining than feeling like you make no impact, so don’t let your textbook make you into a boring teacher.
If you really have no choice in the textbook for the class (school has already assigned it and kids have bought their copy) then get really familiar with the contents and know what parts of the textbook are worth using and which parts should be skipped over.
Be aware of students’ levels at all times
Your students will all be at different stages of learning, as some learn faster than others. I had a few kids in my preschool class who spoke like natives, and a few who would always tilt their head like a confused puppy when I asked them how they were that day.
Anyway, you have to realise that not all of your content will work the same for your students, and some may struggle while others might be bored. Challenging the top level students while giving a leg up to the lower level students is critical, and trying to build a one size fits all curriculum doesn’t work in my experience. For faster students, prepare extra challenging stuff once you realise that some kids get through everything you have planned in a fraction of the time it takes others. This way they won’t be bored, and they will feel special because you recognise their skill, and they won’t get distracted or distract other students.
Ask for help
If your school isn’t terrible, they will want to help you to make your classes a success.l Listen to more senior teachers even if you think you know better, and try out their suggestions in the class. Nothing makes you more popular with senior teachers than listening to their advice and telling them the next time you see them: “I tried out that idea you told me last week and it was really great, my class enjoyed it. Thank you!”
I know I would have struggled a lot more than I did if it hadn’t been for the teacher at my preschool that was teaching the class next door. He got frustrated with me sometimes because I didn’t always think through my plans very well, but with his guidance I became much better at planning lessons that really challenged the students and met the goals we set for them. It takes a long time to get good at this, but if you’ve been an ALT or an eikaiwa teacher for most of your teaching career in Japan, I can tell you that preparing a curriculum from scratch is a whole different game.
Good luck with your curriculum planning, and don’t forget a few of these sites to help you think about what you’re going to do with your classes: