May 12th, 2014

What We Can Learn from a Bad Day of Teaching


We’ve all been in the classroom when our lessons flop, our students get restless, and we feel like captains of a sinking ship. I claim that all teachers have bad days, but the best teachers are the ones who can learn from their mistakes. In this piece, I will reflect on a bad teaching day and what I learned from it. I will encourage you to take a reflective approach to your own teaching for your students’ benefit and for your professional development.

After a last-minute change in my first-year composition lesson plan, I thought I had a perfect opportunity to try out our online supplementary writing guide. My students’ erratic apostrophe use was starting to irk me. I printed out worksheets from the book’s online grammar activities and headed to class.

I’m certain that I did myself no favors by beginning class with: “Today, we will bring our focus to important details of writing—that is, grammar.” Between the lack of student motivation and the difficulty of the worksheet, I spent most of the rest of the period wishing that classrooms came equipped with ejection seats for teachers in trouble.

The only upshot of the worksheet was that it was so challenging that students naturally gravitated to group work to try to sort out the myriad rules of apostrophe use. Sometimes a little chaos is a good thing. Here’s why: After a few silent minutes of individual panic, the students start talking. They start consulting resources, asking each other questions, asking me questions, and trying their best to work through the challenge. This is positive chaos. However, overall, the lesson was moving in the wrong direction. I really wanted students to focus on the basics, like the difference between plural and possessive. Because the worksheet was focused on other areas, I felt like I had lost control of my objectives for the day.

During the chaos, I was most worried about the next class. I teach the same course back to back every day, so I try to teach them the same way. However, in this case, I knew that I needed to do an overhaul in 20 minutes.

Between classes, I paced the hallway as I tried to figure out how to improve the plan. Here’s what I came up with.

  1. The course text was neither meeting my objectives nor providing motivation for students to learn. So, for the second class period, I first had them work in small groups to compile what they already knew about apostrophe use (without the book). I asked them to list seven rules, because I doubted that they could, and they would then be motivated to continue with the next step. After several minutes, no one had seven rules, so I asked them to consult the online textbook and continue adding to their lists. Because students were working together to compare the rules in the text and on their lists, they were connecting existing and new knowledge, a powerful learning tool. Giving an end goal (seven rules) helped to increase my students’ motivation, and working with their existing knowledge prepared them to add new rules about apostrophes to their repertoire.
  2. The now infamous worksheet didn’t focus on the basics, so for the second class, I repurposed the sheet as a challenge for the students. Can you fill this out with your seven rules? Can you figure out the rest using the online handbook? Circle the questions that you can’t figure out. This change took the pressure off of the worksheet to do the teaching, but still required students to apply their growing knowledge of apostrophes to meet a specific challenge.
  3. My class runs best when students are interacting. I added the seven item list to get students interacting purposefully, and then I kept the element of positive chaos with the worksheet. This challenged students to apply and expand their knowledge through interaction.

Although they are difficult in the moment, bad teaching days are my greatest learning experiences. Astute and reflective teachers realize whether a lesson was successful. We then analyze the plan and the execution of the lesson for strong and weak points. Finally, we reflect on how to improve our teaching. Students deserve our best teaching as often as possible. It’s important that we learn from our worst teaching days in order to have excellent teaching days more often.

Jena Lynch in an English instructor at Northern Arizona University.

What lessons have you learned from a bad day of teaching? Please share in the comment box.

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  • Jeff Sommers

    Teaching English in the Two-Year College (TETYC) ran a piece entitled "Seeing Red: What Didn't Work for Me" in December 2010 (38:2, pp 190-195). My introduction read: Rob Wallace responded to my call for brief “What Didn’t Work for Me” submissions (December 2009) with his description of an inspiration that disappointed him when he tried it out in class. “Seeing Red” describes the event. I invited five previous contributors to TETYC, all of whom had in one way or another written about visual rhetoric in the writing classroom, to offer their takes on why Rob’s inspiration did not work as he had hoped. Rob himself offers reflections to round off the discussion. I don’t expect readers will necessarily either attempt to reclaim Rob Wallace’s brainstorm for their own classrooms or make a concerted effort to avoid adopting his idea. My hope is that these five commentators prompt further thinking about what happens when we experiment in our writing classrooms." Jeff Sommers, Editor

  • Rosalinda Haddon

    Jena brings up a very valid point in her article. So often when things go wrong I hear colleagues fault the students. What Jena mentions in her article is the importance of self-reflection of our teaching. What could "WE" have done differently, versus what "Should" the students have been doing. Self- reflection is not always easy and sometimes takes the confidence to ask a peer for help in making an evaluation. Reflection on our teaching teaches us so much. I learn all the time from my mistakes and as every class is different, I find myself changing everything I do every semester. That is the challenge and reward of teaching. Thanks Jena for sharing your story.

  • Bill Hart

    Jena's taking the 20 minutes to regroup and make changes also increases her enthusiasm for making it right and bringing the new group of Students into her course objectives. For me those unplanned moments during class where I think "I have lost them" I will break off into a real story. Teaching Operations Management or HR those stories are out there and seem to capture their attention.
    On occasion I have an entire class that seems to "not get it" or they have no response feedback etc. Of course I wonder what changes need to be made. Rather than wait for an anonymous survey, I have taken key Students aside after class into a “mini-focus group” and ask them!
    They can read their own peers in class better than I can and they do suggest methods to encourage their input. I also tell them they need to partner in the learning process as emerging leaders and guide a charge towards our objects. This often works as they are inspired by a 1 V 1 conversation.

  • Debra Ferdinand


    Your bad teaching experience also resonates with me, only I am online and not in a f2f classroom. I had to learn the hard way when students were not reading their online course materials and answering the review or disucssion questions on the readings. I then reflected and realised that these materials did not always relate to their context. In helping them to connect to the materials, I related them to their prior reading, experience, or local/global issue. I also added a debate activity on a controversial issue in the readings. I saw where participation increased tremendously both in the number and length of posts.

    Many thanks,

    Debra Ferdinand, PhD
    Educational Technologist
    School of Education
    University of the West-Indies

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