In this article, we'll explore why teacher lesson plans are collected, why it's worth rethinking the practice, and what can be done to accomplish the underlying goals more directly.
Where Lesson Plans Are Collected
While most schools seem not to require teachers to turn in lesson plans, the practice is apparently widespread—though concentrated in harder-to-staff schools.
Where teacher turnover is low, teachers seem to work under fewer requirements that they turn in lesson plans—perhaps because they've demonstrated other ways to satisfy administrators that they are teaching appropriate content and sufficiently planning ahead.
In high-turnover schools, which also tend to serve the highest-needs students, the practice seems to be more prevalent. However, there's little evidence in the literature about where lesson plans are required and whether it's helpful to collect them.
To my knowledge, no nationally recognized authors, researchers, or consultants advise that schools collect lesson plans from all teachers. The lack of research on this topic is both puzzling and an important clue.
Planning Lessons Is Different from Turning In Plans
Before we proceed any further, a clarification is in order:
While turning in lesson plans isn't required in most schools, planning one's lessons should be an expectation in all schools.
Being prepared is essential for success.
But that doesn't mean it's helpful for administrators to require teachers to turn in lesson plans.
Organizing oneself for the work ahead is one thing. Making those plans comprehensible to someone else, who doesn't share the same knowledge of the curriculum, students, and the classroom, is something else entirely.
To understand why, ask yourself: What do the best teachers already do? What additional steps would they need to take in order to turn in lesson plans?
While it might be tempting to downplay the work involved, it can be substantial—far more than uploading a document to a folder or sending an email once a week.
The Hollowing Out of the Mid-Career Professional Core
While there is very little research on lesson plan submission, I have a hypothesis:
In schools that require lesson plans to be submitted, the majority of teachers are in either the first or last decade of their careers.
The mid-career teachers—with 10 or more years of experience, but also 10 or more years before retirement—tend not to work in these schools.
This is not a coincidence. In fact, it's the key to unlocking the entire puzzle.
Two self-reinforcing feedback loops are at work:
- Administrators in low-turnover schools have other sources of information about teacher practice, so they tend not to require lesson plans, resulting in lower turnover
- Administrators in high-turnover schools have less information about each teacher, so they increase lesson plan requirements, which results in higher turnover
Over time, these dynamics create two very different worlds—one world where teachers are granted substantial autonomy and aren't required to turn in lesson plans, and another world where autonomy is seen as a smokescreen for poor job performance, and lesson plans are required.
If you had a choice, where would you work?
Perhaps this state of affairs would be acceptable if collecting lesson plans was actually effective at addressing the underlying problems.
So now it's time to ask: what problem are we really trying to solve?
What's the Underlying Goal?
In high-turnover schools, requiring lesson plans seems to serve several goals:
- Ensuring that teachers are planning ahead
- Ensuring that teachers' plans are aligned with standards and district curriculum expectations
- Giving administrators a sense of what teachers are teaching
However, the primary purpose seems to be one of basic accountability: if teachers have to turn in plans, this will ensure that they actually plan. Without such an accountability measure, some teachers—perhaps many—will show up to work unprepared.
In low-turnover schools, this is an unfounded assumption, and one that most teachers would find insulting.
In high-turnover schools, it may be true for a number of teachers, but hopefully not a majority.
So what's the goal for teachers who genuinely need the accountability?
- Ultimately, we want every teacher to show up fully prepared each day.
- We want every class to have a well-articulated and ambitious scope and sequence.
- We want students to learn what they should be learning, not miss out because their teacher wasn't prepared.
- We want teachers to think about learning targets, success criteria, and how they'll assess student learning and ensure that all students learn what they're supposed to.
How Monitoring Lesson Plans Can Work
In some individual cases, it can be effective to monitor teacher lesson plans. Depending on the nature of the concern, it may be helpful to check for:
- Whether the teacher is planning at all
- Whether plans are appropriate to the subject, students, and time available
- Alignment between standards and instructional activities
…among other areas of focus. Let's examine what work this creates for the supervisor and for teachers, depending on the goal.
Basic Accountability: Are Teachers Even Planning?
The most basic level of monitoring creates accountability for planning, without addressing the quality of the plans.
Even at this level, effective monitoring is fairly burdensome for the supervisor, who at a minimum must:
- Put an expectation in place, which may be costly in terms of leadership capital and goodwill
- Create a system for submitting lesson plans
- Deal with emails or other resulting notifications
- Check that each teacher has submitted lesson plans
- Contact teachers when lesson plans have not been submitted
- Follow up with further measures for teachers who persistently fail to turn in lesson plans
This level of accountability is not necessary for many teachers, yet it's insufficient for others, who may need closer oversight of their plans' quality.
Monitoring Lesson Plan Quality
If quality is a concern, the demands on the supervisor are even greater, because they must also:
Review lesson plans in a timely fashion, so there's time for feedback and revision
Consult relevant resources such as standards and pacing guides
Provide feedback on lesson plan quality
Provide further support for teachers who are struggling with the requisite skills
All of these steps may be necessary for some teachers, but given the extraordinary workload involved, lesson plans should be monitored only for teachers who truly need the support and accountability.
But is it fair to have different requirements for different teachers?
Is It Fair to Require Some Teachers To Turn In Lesson Plans, But Not Others?
Requiring that all teachers turn in lesson plans, as a basic expectation of employment, may seem like the fairer course of action.
In districts and schools where plans have long been required, it may seem like an easy decision and a normal part of professionalism.
Here's where it's important to have perspective that extends beyond your district: across the profession, requiring lesson plans is not the norm.
When teachers move into a school or district that does require lesson plans, they are likely to see the requirement as unnecessary, insulting, and burdensome.
This norm across the profession turns the fairness question on its head:
Is it fair to require teachers to turn in lesson plans when they haven't done anything wrong?
Typically, enhanced scrutiny is reserved for those who have demonstrated that they need it—by falling short of some basic expectation.
Currently, teachers are living in one of two different worlds—one world where lesson plans are required, and one where they aren't.
Teachers prefer to work in the latter, where their autonomy is respected.
What Really Happens When Lesson Plans Are Required
Requiring lesson plans burdens all teachers with a mandate many of them don't need, and burdens administrators with oversight work that has little value.
Here's what typically happens:
- The teachers who are the most conscientious about turning in lesson plans are the teachers who tend to be the most prepared anyway, and therefore least in need of accountability—yet it still takes time and causes stress
- The teachers who struggle with consistency and may need other forms of support tend to slip through the cracks—in other words, accountability isn't enough
- Supervisors are overwhelmed with the paperwork and follow-up involved in managing plans for hundreds of lessons each week, and may fall significantly behind in holding teachers accountable
- Feedback on lesson plans is minimal to non-existent, given the huge number of lessons supervisors would have to review each week
It's important not to “punish” other teachers by instituting a school-wide requirement. They may not complain, but they will leave in search of the autonomy they deserve as professionals.
Fortunately, we can achieve our goals via more direct means. Let's examine a few alternatives.
Alternative #1: Start with Curriculum
When teachers are “winging it” from day to day, often it's because there is no clear district curriculum.
Or, perhaps there is a textbook or other adopted curricular materials, but no clear scope and sequence or pacing guide.
While developing curriculum is a rewarding professional endeavor for teachers, there's usually not time during the school year.
Teachers who seem not to be planning adequately may in fact be in an untenable position: having to create curriculum on the fly. This tends to lead to inadequate preparation, random activities, and a reliance on spotty resources like Teachers Pay Teachers.
If that's the case, adopting a curriculum, rather than asking teachers to write their own as they teach, is the best approach.
When a clear curriculum is in place, there's little point in asking teachers to copy and paste into a separate document each week.
Alternative #2: Look for Department & Grade-Level Alignment Across the District
Most teachers aren't singletons within the district—other teachers teach the same subjects and grades.
Teachers who are truly “winging it” from day to day probably aren't following along with what their peers are doing.
If a teacher is struggling with planning, instead of requiring lesson plans, look for ways to align what the teacher is doing with what other teachers of the same courses are doing across the district.
Perhaps teachers could share resources via a learning management system, a regular PLN, or even a shared folder.
Alternative #3: Visit Classrooms Regularly
One major reason administrators tend to collect plans is to get a sense of what each teacher is teaching.
But teachers often wonder: “Are you really looking at all those plans?”
It's a fair question: an administrator who supervises 30 teachers who teach five subjects per day will have to review 30 * 5 * 5 = 750 daily lesson plans per week.
Teachers are doing the math—they know this isn't feasible.
Instead of asking teachers to send you their plans, go and see what they're doing.
See my book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership for detailed guidance on visiting classrooms every day.
Classroom visits that are frequent (3 a day) and brief (5-15 minutes) can give excellent insight into what teachers are doing, while actually taking less time than reviewing lesson plans.
To get started, download our classroom visit index cards.
Alternative #4: Lean on PLCs
In many schools, teachers work together in some form of professional learning community (PLC), grade-level team, or department.
These settings should be the primary setting where teachers discuss what they're teaching and how they're teaching it. In schools following the PLC At Work model, these meetings are already being documented.
If you want to gain insight into what teachers are teaching and how they're approaching it, visit PLC meetings, or review existing documentation instead of requiring lesson plans.
Alternative #5: Look at Student Work
Another way to get a sense of teachers' planning is to look at the end result: student work.
If students seem to be producing little work, or if assignments seem random and disconnected from standards and learning targets, that may indicate a planning problem.
Student work may appear in a number of places:
- In the hallways and on the walls of classrooms, on bulletin boards or other displays
- In portfolios
- In projects and exhibitions
- In the teacher gradebook or learning management system
If an individual teacher seems to need much more support and accountability for planning their lessons, an individual improvement plan may be in order.
Alternative #6: Require Lesson Plans via Individual Improvement Plans
Individual staff members may indeed need to be placed on a Plan of Improvement that involves writing and submitting lesson plans on a regular basis.
In some schools that have experienced high turnover, a number of teachers may need similar plans, but that does't mean a blanket requirement is necessary.
Improvement plans should be on specific areas of practice where the individual teacher is in need of improvement. Some teachers may need help with the quality of their plans, while others may need only the accountability.
For teachers who need help with plan quality, consider looking “upstream” for the root causes of the difficulties. Is the teacher struggling with planning due to:
- Weak content knowledge?
- A lack of appropriate curricular resources?
- A lack of training on adopted curricular materials?
- Excessive teaching load, e.g. 4 or more different preps at the secondary level?
- Excessive extracurricular duties, e.g. coaching a major sport or sponsoring an after-school activity?
Whatever the cause, address it directly. Provide both accountability and support, and minimize the amount of information that teachers must submit and that you must review on a weekly basis, and you'll create the focus it takes to help teachers improve.
About the Author
Justin Baeder, PhD is Director of The Principal Center, where he helps senior leaders in K-12 organizations build capacity for instructional leadership by helping school leaders:
- Confidently get into classrooms every day
- Have feedback conversations that change teacher practice
- Discover their best opportunities for student learning
He holds a PhD in Educational Leadership & Policy from the University of Washington, and is the host of Principal Center Radio, where he interviews education thought leaders.
His book Now We're Talking! 21 Days to High-Performance Instructional Leadership (Solution Tree) is the definitive guide to classroom walkthroughs.