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Are we Cutting the Right Corners?

There’s no question that teaching is hard right now. Not that it’s ever a cake walk, but in these times, educators are especially overwhelmed and overloaded. It’s natural to look for opportunities to reprioritize or streamline tasks, in order to make the workload closer to manageable. 

I was in a team meeting recently where we made a list on the board of all the things—each time-consuming task that is weighing on teachers day-to-day and week-to-week. Our goal was to look for places we might rethink, share, or cut the work in order to free up time for the most high leverage tasks connected to student learning. 

As teachers named challenges and began to propose creative solutions, it became clear that they hold a shared belief in the value of small group instruction. Small groups—in writing, reading, and math—is essential time in the instructional day where teachers differentiate instruction to meet the wide variety of needs in their classrooms. However, as teachers talked more about the need for small groups, I had a sudden moment of clarity and wondered aloud: 

“Can I ask a potentially uncomfortable question?” (Always a bit of a gamble to drop that one in the room.)

When they said yes, I asked, “How much of your planning for small groups is written down ahead of time?” 

Crickets. 

Those few moments of silence were quickly followed by rationale from some about how they don’t have time to write down their plans for small groups. They’re too busy; there’s too much to do. They know what it is they want to teach. Why bother writing it down? 

The realization that I had just assumed that written plans for small group instruction were part of our practice—followed by the recognition that I had been so far off—was beyond unsettling. Beneath the surface (and behind my mask), my head was exploding—and a blog post was born. 

I get it. Teachers are overwhelmed. They care deeply about their students, and they work tirelessly to create impactful learning experiences for them. And—this is the wrong corner to cut. Forgoing written lesson plans for small group instruction might feel like a time saver in the short term, but it is not. In fact, skipping this essential task has the opposite effect over the long term. If you’re not convinced, or, perhaps, this is a corner you’ve been cutting yourself, here are three reasons you might rethink that strategy. 

Reason #1: Written Plans Lower Stress Levels

We all overestimate how much we can actually do in a given day. Whether we’re talking about tasks at work or tasks at home, our to-do lists always exceed what is possible. So when we have an endless list of tasks and needs circling in our head, we never feel finished. We always think we could have done more “if only.” If only there hadn’t been an assembly. If only there hadn’t been a fire drill. If only we didn’t have 27 students and so many meetings and an overflowing inbox. . . 

Writing it down makes the time we do have concrete and realistic.

For example, as a classroom teacher, I might have to recognize that there is time to pull two small groups during my workshop each day (or perhaps one small group plus conferring with several individual students)—it’s not actually possible to get to everyone every day. I have five days in the week. I need to create a schedule where I write down the times in my day when I plan to do small group instruction. I need to figure out what is possible and then go from there. Writing it down helps me to internalize this. 

Once I have a schedule that is do-able, I have the opportunity to be successful.

When I don’t write down my plans, I carry around that unrealistic expectation in my head, and then I feel stress—every day, across every content area—when I am unable to do the impossible. I focus on the students I haven’t had time to get to, rather than the ones I have. Teaching this way compounds my feelings of being overwhelmed, because I never feel finished. I find myself putting out fires, attending to only the highest needs, and being reactive rather than proactive. 

I can see evidence of this pattern—of repeatedly failing to meet unrealistic expectations—contributing to the high levels of stress that many teachers are feeling right now. I just didn’t know exactly what it was until the brave teachers on this particular team were willing to talk about it. 

In contrast, when I make a plan for the week and write it down, I have visual documentation of all that I am accomplishing. I am in control of my time, rather than at the mercy of it.

As I move through each day, I have the satisfaction of meeting those short term goals of planning for x number of small groups in writing/reading/math and teaching each of those small groups. I can see day-to-day and week-to-week who is receiving small group instruction. I am out in front of it, and I have a record of my intentional teaching. I have notes capturing how students are responding. Rather than fixating on what I haven’t yet done, I am focused on what I have done.

From a teacher wellness perspective, this feels exponentially better. Imagine the positive impact on stress levels over time to have daily evidence of your accomplishments and impact, especially in these times. 

Reason #2: Writing Plans Down Reduces Decision Fatigue

Research suggests that teachers make upwards of 1500 decisions every day. Gravity Goldberg and Renee Houser wrote an article for Edutopia in which they make recommendations for reducing the effects of teacher decision fatigue by focusing on the most high leverage decisions for reading instruction. I would argue that putting plans for small group instruction in writing is another way to conserve capacity for decision making across the day. 

Think of it as your own personal pensieve, if that Dumbledore metaphor resonates with you. 

When the focus and process for my small group instruction has been pre-planned, that frees me up during the instructional day to make other decisions. I don’t have to hold that thinking in my head alongside all the other things that are coming up moment-to-moment. I’ve already decided. Think of it as a metaphorical weight that I can take off—like a hat. It’s not a worry rattling around in the back of my mind as I’m doing other things—What will my teaching point be? Should I grab a mentor text for that or should I model? Did I want to pull Katie into that group or the other one? When was the last time she. . .? 

This doesn’t mean plans are set in stone. I can always adjust plans on the fly as needed, if I notice a shift in students’ needs. I can still be responsive. However, having plans written down in advance frees me up to be fully present with kids. 

I’ve heard teachers claim some version of, “Oh, I don’t need to write that down. It’s all up here in my head.” To that, my (internal) response is, “Baloney,” (or a synonym for that sentiment). One, because it is not actually possible to store all the information we know about each of our learners as well as every detail around the instruction we plan and deliver for them (plus their response to it) in our heads. It is unrealistic to expect ourselves to. And two, even if it were possible, it’s not healthy for us to do so—and still expect to have enough capacity for decision making left to make the other 1000+ decisions we need to make each day. 

No wonder teachers are stressed. Some of the habits that we think are saving us time are having the opposite effect on our mental health and wellness. Writing it down is the equivalent of setting it down—what a relief!

Reason #3: Written Plans Ensure That our Small Group Instruction is Intentional and Focused

I know when I take the time in advance to write plans down, I am more focused. I can prioritize and make sure that my teaching points are specific enough and that they connect to each other over time. I like to be able to look back and look ahead, planning for a series of small group lessons. This allows me to be more efficient with the time we have. When learning connects, learners are more likely to hold on to it and to apply it. 

Without written plans, it is too easy to be distracted or pulled off track, perhaps bouncing around between isolated skills based on the variety of needs in the room. This leads to ineffective small group instruction. This also leads to frustration (and more stress), when evidence of the impact of this precious time is not showing up in student learning. Sometimes, without written plans, teachers can become so overwhelmed that they forgo small group instruction entirely, rationalizing that “all kids need this,” when, in fact, they do not. 

We all know that when we are more intentional, our instruction is more impactful. “Written plans” doesn’t have to mean lengthy, detailed play-by-plays for every lesson. A few words or short phrases can suffice as notes for a small group lesson we have taught many times in the past. Having plans from the previous lesson right there on the page/in the same notebook can be enough to remind you to connect the current lesson to the last one. Whatever the plans look like on the page, it’s essential to be clear on the following: 

  • What is the focus or learning target? 
  • What will be taught explicitly (and how)? What materials are needed? 
  • How will learners engage with the content in the lesson (and each other)? 
  • What questions will you pre-plan? 
  • What will it look like when learners “have it,” and how will this learning be assessed? 

Once these essentials are clarified and written down during the planning process, we can free up the cognitive space it takes to hold on to it for other things. And once it’s time to pull the small group, we’ll be (and feel) ready.

Closing Thoughts

The pandemic has forced us all to work in new ways—some of which are serving students (and us), and some of which are not. It is essential that we find ways to manage our stress so that we can best meet the needs of learners. Taking the time to thoughtfully and intentionally plan for small group instruction (and writing it down!) is one strategy we can use to ensure that our energy is going into high leverage work with kids. Time spent on this task supports student learning as well as our own wellness over time.

If you are seeking additional strategies for planning for and implementing small group instruction, please check out TWT’s most recent blog series, Expanding the Reach With Small Group WorkSo many gems from TWT co-authors in this series!

Amy Ellerman View All

Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.

6 thoughts on “Are we Cutting the Right Corners? Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for posting this. I also like how you phrased, “Can I ask a potentially uncomfortable question?” What a safe, clear way to begin a Ricky conversation. This sounds like a hard conversation to have, but important.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post. Writing down small group plans and saving them also means reduced stress for the future. We will most likely need our small group plans for other students (either in the same year or future years). If we have written these ideas down, we won’t have to re-plan over and over again. Once again, less stress and more available cognitive space.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true–thank you for bringing this up! It is a time saver to be able to look back at plans for a particular text/skill/process and use them again with another group of learners who are ready for them at a different time.

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