Why Teachers And Trainers Should Always Have A Backup Plan (And A Few Strategies To Develop One!)


On a cool spring morning in southern Georgia, my training partner and I showed up to work with 50 people on an advanced curriculum from Jim Collins’s Good to Great. We were initially told everyone in this group had already read the book and were ready to apply the concepts they learned to situations specific to their organization’s needs and challenges.

The only problem? No one had read the book. In fact, they didn’t even know they were supposed to have read it; furthermore, many had only received their book the day before!

Our entire plan hinged on the participants having read the book. 

So there we were, in front of a room of complete strangers at 8:00am, with no viable plan to fill the next 4 hours.

What would you do?

This is not an uncommon scenario; teachers and trainers are faced with the unexpected every time they get to the front of the room ready to work. I’ve had lesson plans derailed by weather, students not having done the homework, medical emergencies, concepts that were more difficult to understand than I anticipated, and (most commonly) lesson plans that just weren’t working.

Inexperienced teachers and trainers will barrel through with whatever they had originally planned because trying to invent something new on the spot is difficult and, frankly, terrifying. But the most effective teachers and trainers will always have a few tricks up their sleeves, and will know how to monitor and adjust accordingly.

Here are a few of my favorite strategies for adjusting your training lesson on the fly:

Have participants conduct small group discussions

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Becoming a better speech writer will help you become a better trainer. Download this FREE guide to learn how!

This strategy primes your students for learning new things, gets them involved, and (let’s be honest) buys you a bit of time to figure out the rest. Keep a few go-to open-ended questions in your arsenal so you don’t waste valuable time trying to come up with a discussion question on the spot. You can also have them work on answering a complex question related to something they just learned, or (if it’s a new group) something they want to learn.

Recap what they learned from the previous lesson

This is specifically if the new concept you’re teaching or training on is so complex you’re losing your students. Sometimes what looks like boredom is someone truly not getting it. Go back, do a review of what you taught previously, and connect it to the new concept. How can you tell if it’s boredom or lack of comprehension? Ask questions about what you’re teaching. Boredom will yield bored answers; lack of comprehension will give you either blank stares or questions asking for clarification.

Check in with your group, and ask them what they need

This seems counterintuitive because teachers and trainers often feel they need to present an aura of authority and perfection. But some of my most successful teaching experiences were a result of admitting I knew I was missing the mark, and asking my students/trainees what they needed from me. Trust that they want to learn, and they want you to succeed because then everyone wins. And be willing to listen to the answers, even if you’re getting tough feedback! Working hard to be better, and then delivering your students what they need to learn, earns you respect as an educator.

Do what you know works

Was there a plan or strategy that’s worked well for you in the past, and can be reconfigured for this group and concept? Then do it! The best lessons are not trying to reinvent the wheel, they’re taking proven strategies and making them relevant for the current group.

So what did we do when our trainees hadn’t read the book? Well, we improvised, fast.

Next, we put the participants in small groups of 3, and had them each take a concept from the book and develop an open-ended discussion question that connected the concept to their specific organization.

Finally, each small group used their question to lead the full group in a discussion about the material. We could tell from the quality of both the questions and the discussion that this group was learning quite a bit about the material, and it would support their understanding of Good to Greatwhen they read the book.

Getting out of the way, trusting in our students’ and trainees’ ability to learn and engage, and being willing to adapt to obstacles that arise is a hallmark of being a great educator. This improvised lesson plan went so well, we recorded it for future use as a planned lesson. But of course, you know what they say about best laid plans!

First, we did a brief introduction to the material using an old PowerPoint on my flash drive used to introduce a different group of trainees to the Good to Greatcurriculum. We focused on teaching the core concepts, knowing they would read the book and have further learning opportunities after the training was complete.

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