If your curriculum is the blueprint of your teaching, the lesson plans are the bricks. You have a guiding philosophy and a plan, but then you need to get to work. You need to build it up, brick-by-brick.
If you hang out with more experienced teachers you might hear some of them say that they don’t plan. They may even say that planning is impossible for private music teachers because so much of what we do is tailored to the individual student.
Planning is valuable and will help you become a better teacher. Even if you end up ignoring the plan completely in some lessons because your student hasn’t done the practice you expected or it just doesn’t work out as you hoped, the planning process will still have been valuable. Planning will help you learn and grow.
In the beginning, you may like to make detailed plans and notes for all your lessons. You may even find it useful, or essential, to write out a script for what you might say and what you will do in the lesson.
You might also like to try time-based lesson plans where you estimate the amount of lesson time each activity will take. A mind-map style plan on a particular theme is another useful way to think differently about your lesson content.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what your lesson plans look like. What matters is the thought you put in while you’re putting the plans together. You should try different formats, for sure, but focus on what you’re learning from them – not finding the right lesson plan style to solve all your problems. 😉
Don’t let the frustration with the amount of time lesson planning takes sway you towards those teachers that insist that “winging it” is better for students. It will get quicker.
Practice makes progress, right? The more you plan lessons for your students, the faster the planning process will get.
My own lesson planning, for instance, takes less than an hour a week most weeks for 30+ students. If it’s taking you more like an hour per student right now, please don’t worry or chastise yourself for that. That investment is valuable because it’s about what you’re learning as a teacher, too.
I wholeheartedly implore you not to try to plan a whole heap of lessons in one go. This is one of the most common mistakes I see teachers making.
It feels great to plan a whole semester in one sitting. We end the session on top of the world, comforted by the knowledge of how ahead of the game we are…but then reality strikes. The student doesn’t grasp a certain concept, so you repeat it for a second week and get behind schedule. Then they have 2 weeks of solid badminton tournament matches when they don’t practise at all so you tweak a bit more. Then you have an awesome idea for a composing project, so you swap one of the week’s plans out for that. Before you know it your plans are in tatters and you’re one of those teachers throwing their hands in the air and declaring that lesson planning just doesn’t work for piano teachers.
Resist the temptation to get ahead of lesson planning. Just take it one week at a time and you’ll avoid so much heartache and frustration.
Planning out your lessons isn’t just about what you’re going to include, but also how to structure it. While mixing it up from time-to-time is a good thing, most teachers have a routine they follow for a lot of their lessons. Here are some general guidelines to help you find yours.
Start with something easy so you can get the lesson off on the right foot. I don’t recommend diving straight into what your student practised during the week…if it didn’t go well, then they’re likely to feel worried about it. It’s also less likely to go well if they haven’t warmed up yet.
I find that improvising together is a great way to kick off any lesson. It requires no preparation from the student and it starts a musical conversation that can continue for the rest of the lesson. Other good options would be games, aural work, rhythm and movement. Basically, anything but scales and practised pieces.
Similarly, you don’t want to end the lesson on a struggle. Make sure that the hard work happens in the middle portion of the lesson and save the last couple of minutes for something which will make your student feel successful. You want them to leave feeling competent and confident.
Throughout the rest of the lesson you want to switch activities often to keep your student alert. The younger they are, the more often you’ll want to change tacks.
As you plan out the order of activities, try to imagine how they look in practice to maximise the variety. You want to mix up the challenge level to alternate easier and more challenging content. You also want to switch between different movement levels as much as possible with some gross movement activities like marching or off-bench games interspersed throughout the lesson.
There have been many studies now which show the benefits of interspersed practice over blocked practice. The idea is that we learn better not by playing piece A 10 times in a row and then piece B 15 times in a row but by playing B 5 times, then A 3 times, then B 3 times, etc.
The same is true for how we teach. Don’t be afraid to loop back on the same thing again and again throughout a lesson. This will lead to better retention than focussing on one thing for an extended period of the lesson time.