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6 lesson planning hacks that work

Do you remember the first lesson you ever planned for teaching? If you’re anything like me, it involved an immense amount of work, second-guessing yourself, and research. But once you got into the swing of things, you may have realized what a crazy amount of preparation you spend on lessons. And your efforts (although admirable) are probably not sustainable for a school year.

Once things get rolling, and teacher life sinks in, you find that you need to have a fluid plan for lessons that don’t require staying up past midnight during the school week.

That’s why we’ve created this guide of lesson planning hacks that work. Take a look, and you could save time for more important things — like teaching.

Start planning your lessons now with Classcraft.

Lesson planning hacks for teachers

man with a neon green outline
Photo credit: Devin Avery

1. Create a unit outline

One of the first steps to lesson planning is knowing your direction. This is where units come in.

At the beginning of each course, it’s helpful to create an outline. And when I say outline, I mean just that — nothing too detailed because things may change down the road. I learned that you don’t want to waste all your time creating a day-by-day unit plan. Unpredictable things like special assemblies, snow days, guest speakers, and more could very well ruin all that time you spend putting something together.

Instead, stick to an overview of your unit with the standards you want to teach. This will help you brainstorm lessons and get into the mindset of student achievement. Think of your outline as the big picture. If you have a broad overview already set, the lessons should fall into place.

woman showing a template on her computer
Photo credit: Rawpixel

2. Use a template

I’m a fan of Understanding by Design (UBD). That’s a research-documented way for students to learn. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, UBD involves coming up with the benchmarks first and then creating performance tasks, objectives, and more around those standards.

It’s quite a process and could be a whole blog post in itself. The good news is hat there are UBD templates for unit and lesson planning that helped. Here’s one from the University of Minnesota Duluth that I like.

Teachers love graphic organizers to tame thoughts just as much as students do. Whether it’s UBD or any other type of lesson of your choice, if you Google it, you will find a template that will put your mind at ease.

zoom on an opened book's pages
Photo credit: Jonas Jacobsson

3. Organize them in a book or on a wiki/website

In a previous post, we talked about how you can organize information with wikis and sites. Why? Because lesson planning is even more effective when you have a place to store your lessons.

You may be one of those people who loves to have a good old-fashioned planning book — great! Don’t fix something that isn’t broken, right?

But that was never my style, and I still like to keep my lessons online. You can do this through a wiki that can also function as a website. I’ve previously mentioned my preference for PBworks and Wix.

I would plan my lessons online every Sunday, making them available not only to me but also to all the parents, administration, and students. Some may think this is a bit excessive and overwhelming — no problem!

The point is that you need to have some organizational system that works for you. That may be a planning book or a website, but try not to just rely on your head. Although I knew a few teachers who successfully winged it every day, they were very few and far between.

Having a designated space for your lessons will help you out if you’re asked to show them in the future.

pile of books and binders on a white table
Photo credit: STIL

4. Create a substitute teacher binder

Life happens, and in my case, sick kids happened — a lot. There were many moments when I had to leave the job abruptly. Talk about a way to interrupt the flow of your class!

This is where my substitute teacher binder came in. Every summer (I wasn’t just kicking back at the beach!), I would put together a few emergency lessons for substitutes.

These usually consisted of small to large projects that I could offer depending on the amount of time I anticipated I would be gone. In addition to the lessons in this binder, I also kept standard classroom routines, grading policies, and announcements.

Most of my subs said that this made their lives a whole lot easier (not to mention mine and my students’, too!).

red pull for emergency knob
Photo credit: Jason Leung

5. Have filler lessons on hand

Not only did I have lessons available for substitute teachers, but I also had some stashed in a dedicated emergency folder for any time of the year.

For English, I always had an author study where students would break up in a group and research a writer. They’d come up with their own medium of presenting the information.

Another filler was having a list of writing prompts available for them. Why were these necessary? There were days when I was covering for absent teachers, and I had to teach an extra class. Or there may have been a day when an assembly took half of the class and I needed a filler lesson.

There are many reasons why you should have filler lessons on hand. Plus, we’re also human — some days, you just need a simple task for the kids to do.

Trust me, you won’t regret having an emergency lesson plan binder for yourself.

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Photo credit: Rawpixels

6. Sync your calendar

To plan your lessons, you need to have some concrete sense of time. For example, if you were going to plan lessons around a student project, you would need to know approximately how long that project would take.

I say “approximately” because we can never nail down the exact time — but set those tentative to-do dates, and do your best to follow them.

To remember all these lesson details, you may want to sync your calendars. I did this by sticking with my Google Calendar, but there are other options you may want to explore.

This can also double as a way to notify students of upcoming activities and due dates. It’s a win-win!

Everyone needs a lesson planning strategy

You may be required to turn in lesson plans to your administration. Regardless, all teachers need a plan for what they’re teaching.

However, it’s also important to not get caught up in the madness because you only have so much time in a day. Although you want to have a quality class, you also can’t spend all of your hours planning for lessons.

So, have a general overview of each unit and emergency lessons in place. You’ll see that a few lesson planning hacks will help your days run more smoothly — and lead to many memorable classes that you will never forget!

Photo credit: Rawpixel/

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