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The most terrifying thing about teaching my own class is 'do I actually know enough to effectively teach students?' I know this is anxiety brought on by a lack of experience but finding the tools to deal with crisis moments before they occur is key to handling any situation well. To that end, I was inspired by a comment on Brian Rushton's question about damage control during a lesson.

What do you do when you realize two weeks into the course that your course plan is not working?Joel David Hamkins

I know that (in the US) most new teachers have an older teacher assigned to mentor them and all course and lesson plans will have to be approved, but I could see a situation in which I have a fantastic idea for how a course should progress and it simply falls apart. Some examples of issues could be:

  • Students do not have the necessary background knowledge - This shouldn't be the case, but if a majority of the class doesn't understand basic algebra, it would make it extremely difficult to teach Pre-calculus.

  • Students are bored by the material - I feel that it is the instructor's responsibility to engage the students but if the material itself is boring because it is not challenging, what could be done?

  • The schedule is completely inaccurate - Again, I know that as a new teacher, any syllabus should be approved before I'm allowed to teach it, but what if after two weeks, I am 3 or 4 days behind?

These are only a few examples of issues I could see coming up and not meant to be a comprehensive list of things that require damage control. I'm hoping for an overall concept that can then be applied to specific situations.

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    $\begingroup$ "I know that (in the US) most new teachers have an older teacher assigned to mentor them and all course and lesson plans will have to be approved" Really? That hasn't been true anywhere I've been. $\endgroup$ – Henry Towsner Mar 20 '14 at 3:51
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify whether your question refers to K-12, undergraduate or graduate teaching? $\endgroup$ – mweiss Mar 20 '14 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTowsner I have been lied to! Seriously though, several teachers have confirmed that this is a common practice locally and the professors made it sound like a common practice nationally. Is it a regional thing? $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 20 '14 at 23:58
  • $\begingroup$ @mweiss I am going into secondary education, but had hoped the question was broad enough to be answered for a wider range. $\endgroup$ – David G Mar 20 '14 at 23:59
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Well, of course, if your plan is not working, then you have to adjust it.

This is easier to do, of course, if you are in the happy situation where you find that the students are able to handle much more difficult material. One can simply cover the planned material more quickly and supplement with more sophisticated asides or extensions of that material. This is relatively easy to do, and often quite enjoyable, since it is always a pleasure to teach students who are able and eager to learn more. One simply provides them with more.

A much more difficult case, in contrast, occurs when one realizes that the students are weaker than had been expected and perhaps not able to master the material that had been intended for the course. In this case, the instructor may find him or herself at a loss. The matter may come to a head if the course is part of a long chain of courses, where the students must really know the stuff before the next course. In that case, one thing to do is go into emergency mode, concentrating the course on the most essential easiest parts, and try to give the students what they need to advance. But my considered opinion is that it is actually rarely the case that students must really master a set syllabus, even when the course is part of a long chain of courses. So instead, one can adjust the course to the students, providing them with suitable material that enriches their mathematical lives, even if this isn't what was originally planned. One must re-focus the course to be suitable for the students taking it. (This situation would probably be accompanied at the end by lower grades than usual for the course, in light of the reduced level of the material.)

My personal style of teaching tends to have a lot of flexibility, where I follow new topics that come up in class, or respond to students ideas by exploring a related topic more fully. So I find it easy to make this kind of change in stride, both for advancing the course and for slowing it down, depending on what is called for. But I know that other instructors like to have a more rigid plan, with topics and assignments planned long in advance, and I can see that this would make it more difficult to accommodate changes.

Apart from those kinds of issues, another kind of a difficulty can arise when one realizes part way into the course that the chosen textbook is not suitable for some reason. Perhaps one realizes after the course has begun that the textbook is too difficult or focuses too much on the wrong topics, in a way that cannot be easily overcome. Fortunately, this has happened to me only once in my teaching career (about twenty years), but what a problem when it does happen! What I did was to essentially abandon the unsuitable textbook, and begin essentially to use another text. I provided print-outs to the students of the new material, as well as more thorough notes than usual. In the end, the course became refocused on the ideas I had wanted, in a way that was appropriate for the students. But of course, it would have been better if I had realized the unsuitability of the text much earlier.

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