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Calling an Audible: Last-Minute Changes to Lesson Plans

Jordan Catapano


You’ve got the lesson plans. You’ve got the materials. You’re ready to execute.

But as you line up and survey the field, you recognize a problem: The plan you have in your head doesn’t match the reality of what’s in front of you. What do you do? You know that if you proceed forward with the lesson plans, they will fail. But you know that if you make a sudden change to the lesson plans, you might just still be able to pull off a victory.

Some of the world’s greatest champions are known for their abilities to “call an audible” and make a last-moment change. Peyton Manning – the Denver Broncos’ quarterback – can take one look at an opposing defense and make adjustments to his players. Even Alexander the Great would survey the opponent before battle and then position his troops in response. Aren’t we teachers just as good as Manning and Alexander?

As teachers, we have remain flexible enough in our implementation to know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work for our students at any given moment. This involves a few quick-thinking considerations that we don’t want to ignore.

1. Survey the Troops. Even though you’ve poured a great deal of time and attention into your day’s lesson plan, you might take one glance at your students and recognize that it’s not going to work how you imagined. That’s OK. You need to look at your students and understand what exactly their needs and abilities are at that moment, and respond accordingly.

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Determine what they actually need at the moment and let them have it. This will change their approach to the lesson you eventually get to. If they need to move around, have a move-around kind of activity; if they need to interact, let them work with one another; if they need more time to study, review, or learn material, give them more time before that next test or assignment. A small change often improves rather than detracts from the learning objective!

2. Go with the Inspiration. Often as a class is engaged in a lesson, a teacher might sense a variation, addition, or modification that would improve the learning moment. Go with that inspiration! As you watch the activity of your students, you get a sense of what might work even better in that instance. Trust your instincts and make the change. That same change might not work later, and it might not work for a different set of students … but if you know that it’s going to work now, then go with the inspiration.

3. Lead as a Follower. This counterintuitive approach embraces the direction that students are already going. Often as educators we attempt to take students and put them onto our track and have them follow our plans. This is all well and good, except that at times we must acknowledge that the directions our students are moving in is just as effective as where we imagined taking them.

So if a class discussion takes an unexpected twist, if students misunderstood instructions and performed something different, or if students openly declare they need something just a little bit different, then give yourself the freedom to actual follow their lead. Think on your feet and consider how the learning objectives could still be accomplished, just this time with students in the driver’s seat for the moment. You and your students might be pleasantly surprised.

So no matter how much preparation we do in advance, there are times when it just might be better to put that prep on the periphery and respond to the real in-the-moment needs of our students. And of course, there might be times when we realize it’s better to proceed with our plans anyhow. But our real goal is to give ourselves the freedom and flexibility to make appropriate adjustments “on our feet,” to be so in tune with our students’ needs, and to know exactly what recalibration our lesson needs to maximize our time together.

Do you “call an audible” in your classes? What strategies do you employ to make sure you’re making the right decision? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website


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