When to Throw in the Towel

One of the most important lessons I have ever learned is knowing when to “throw in the towel” on a lesson plan. I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. You could be saying something mid-sentence and realize, “My students look bored. They’re not getting this. This just isn’t working.” At this point, we have two options. Sometimes we make the smart choice and adjust our methods, tweaking the activity as necessary. But if we’re optimistic that things may improve (or simply determined to get through the material after having spent hours planning it out), we may choose to plow through it as planned. And the results can be disastrous.

One particular moment that comes to mind is when I was teaching English in China. I was partnered up with another teacher, Nolan, and together we taught songs to six classes each day. Towards the end of our English camp, the school had asked us to teach the students a song that they could sing at the End-of-Camp Ceremonies. Nolan thought of an idea right away; he wanted to teach the upper-level students the chorus to Brian McKnight’s “Back at One.” At first, I kept an open mind. Sure, the tempo is a little slow and the subject matter is a bit mature. But the students loved American pop music. So I (naively) assumed, “We’ll make it work!” We walked into class toting eager smiles and an overhead transparency of new lyrics. But after only fifteen minutes, we recognized the dreaded signs—the glazed-over eyes, the shuffling feet, the utterly monotone voices—of a failed idea (a failed idea we had them rehearse for two more class sessions before finally realizing we needed to not only throw in the towel but also burn it!).

Fortunately, we had a back-up plan that we could resort to (“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds—thank goodness for melody!). In fact, it’s these kind of secondary ideas that I frequently fell back on well after this experience because, in the end, it offered a more rewarding experience to my students. And isn’t that what teaching is all about?

5 thoughts on “When to Throw in the Towel”

  1. Jessica Deal

    You’d think continuously trying would solve it, but there are times when you have to know when it’s time to move on. Thanks for this motivating post!

  2. Nicole

    Wow Erica, you’ve opened my eyes! In a little more than a year I will graduate and have that wonderful certificate that says I can teach biology. And have a zillion fantastic ideas in my head. I never thought (or didn’t want to believe) that some of them might just not work. Some times resolving that “they’re not getting this” face is only a matter of approaching the topic from another direction, or teaching kinesthetically rather than verbally; but in extreme cases it might be best to know when to let it go. I’ll be sure to keep it in mind over the next few years, Thanks!

  3. Erica R.

    That is so true, Betty. I always found it interesting how things that weren’t in my control could make a large impact on things that were within my control. Case in point: activities during certain times of the day. If I had a high-intensity activity or cognitively challenging lesson planned for the beginning of the day or right after lunch, it just wouldn’t work. The students were tired and/or in a “food coma” and didn’t have room to absorb anything else. I think a big part of teaching is knowing how to schedule and be flexible. It looks like you and Jessica are masters of both. Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Erica R.

    Nicole, you definitely have the right idea. Having a few back-up lessons, just in case, will make those anxiety-ridden moments much easier to bear.

    Congrats on your impending graduation! Our school system will be lucky to have such an eager-to-learn and optimistic new teacher!

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