6 ways to make co-planning lessons more efficient

Lesson planning is too important, challenging, and time-consuming to try to do ALL of it on your own. This is especially true if you’re a new teacher, or new to the curriculum, standards, or grade level. It’s wonderful to utilize the experience of other teachers and time-tested instructional strategies so you don’t have to spend as long planning out your lessons.

Many teachers already plan with their grade level or subject area teams, but in many cases, it’s not working particularly well. Either the meetings consume massive amounts of time–I know teachers who spend five hours a week co-planning–or personality conflicts keep the endeavor from being productive. So, let’s look at some different ways to efficiently co-plan.

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1) Give each group member a clearly-defined set of responsibilities according to individual strengths

One way is for each teacher on the team to pick a unit or part of a unit and create the lesson plans. Another option (for elementary teachers) is for each person to pick a subject area to plan for. You can stick with the same subject throughout the quarter/semester/year, or switch it up.

The idea is for each team member to choose an area where she or he feels knowledgeable and has valuable ideas and activities to contribute. You may want to have each person be responsible for not only writing the lesson plans, but also for making all the photocopies and gathering materials as well.

Keep in mind that this approach can be helpful even if your team members each have very different teaching styles. You don’t have to plan the activities for one another; if your admin requires extremely detailed, multi-page lesson plans for every day, chances are good that you don’t use every word of those plans to actually teach your lessons, and they’re just for documentation purposes. So, co-plan the official lesson plans and then each of you can tweak the implementation to fit your personal teaching style. It’s a whole lot quicker than writing everything out from scratch yourself!

I do NOT recommend meeting as a team and creating each lesson together unless you are highly simpatico, have similar teaching styles, and a wonderful rapport. Otherwise, the process will take three times as long as it should. Instead, you should each plan out the subject or unit you’re responsible for, and then bring those completed lesson plans to a team meeting to tweak.

6 ways to make co-planning lessons more efficient

2) Keep co-planning meetings on track with a planning template and an effective leader

If you want or need to do the actual planning in the meeting itself, make sure you use a planning template in which each team member brainstorms a number of effective strategies/activities for teaching each skill in the coming week or unit, and comes to the meeting with that template completed. This prevents you from wasting time brainstorming ideas during the meeting: simply share out your pre-determined activities, and choose the ones you want to use.

You also want to try to empower an effective leader on your team to run the meeting. If the person who is responsible for leading your team meeting won’t redirect others when they go off on tangents or can’t make decisions, determine who is the most forthright, no-nonsense member of your team, and consider approaching him or her.

You might say, “We’ve been running out of time to plan lately. ___, I know you’re really good at working efficiently and managing time. Would you be willing to help us stay on track?” Or, volunteer to keep things moving yourself, “I’ve been thinking about how we can make sure we have enough time to plan for the whole unit. Do you want me to set a timer for each one of these discussion points?”

3) Collaborate more efficiently with the cloud

If your team doesn’t want to use a lesson planning website/app like planbook.com which offers a collaborative planning option, I’d highly recommend using the free tool Google Drive. You can create Google Docs or Google Spreadsheets for your lessons, whichever you prefer, and share them with your team. Colleagues can add comments or make edits if you allow them to, meaning each person can offer input on lesson plans at a time that is convenient for him or her, rather than all sitting down together in a meeting. With Google Drive, all changes are saved in real time automatically. You never have to worry about having the updated version, and you can write/edit at the same time as your co-workers if needed. I also like that you can easily see what each person contributed.

When using Google Drive with your team, you can either have one large shared Google Doc or folder or each keep your own individual docs that you share. If you have separate ones, make sure everyone agrees on a similar format so it’s easy to navigate, and you can quickly copy and paste the text into your lesson plans.

6 ways to make co-planning lessons more efficient

4) Share the burden for photocopying, laminating, and other material preparation

If your entire team is required to give specific benchmark assessments, unit tests, worksheets, etc., devise a system where each of you takes turns preparing those materials. On my grade level team, we each chose a month to prepare all the required photocopies and tests for the team. Since there were five of us, that meant I only had to handle that responsibility twice a year! Our team leader stayed on top of the system, sent out reminders, and followed up as needed. This was so much more effective than all five of us making the same photocopies!

5) Make the best of whatever your co-planners offer and consider their lessons a framework

Someone you co-plan with probably won’t pull their weight, or will provide lesson outlines that you would never dream of using in your classroom. Any energy you spend being resentful about this is completely wasted. Try to be as specific as possible about what you need from your co-worker, compliment him or her on a job well done (to reinforce the type of performance that’s helpful to you), and speak up for yourself if you’re being taken advantage of. Beyond that, remind yourself that you can only control your own actions, and don’t allow your energy to be drained by a less-than-helpful colleague.

Don’t resist the idea of co-planning just because you have a different teaching style than your colleagues. Stay focused on what you CAN use from them! There are very few times when it would be easier to create something from scratch yourself than to adapt what someone else has already done, especially in regards to formal lesson plan documentation that’s required by administration. Think of their plans as a framework for your own. Accept the lesson plans your team members provide and simply leave out the stuff you don’t want to implement, inserting your own ideas instead.

If certain team members are much stronger than others at lesson planning, divide responsibilities another way. This is especially useful for larger teams: there’s no reason for six, seven, or more people to all spend time writing lesson plans that they then must agree upon. Have half the team be responsible for planning the lessons, and the other half be responsible for preparing the materials and/or other tasks. Get creative! I once volunteered to run test copies through the Scantron for a colleague in exchange for her taking over my dismissal duty in the afternoons. We were both convinced we’d gotten the much better deal! If you’re great at lesson planning, ask your colleagues to take over something you don’t enjoy. If you don’t feel confident with your planning abilities right now, offer to trade this task for something a colleague would appreciate help with.

6 ways to make co-planning lessons more efficient

6) Create your own separate co-planning strategies apart from your grade level team

Many teachers love the idea of co-planning, but either can’t get their colleagues on board or don’t trust them to follow through and provide effective resources. However, if you have only ONE teacher you feel you can co-plan with, you’ve effectively cut your planning burden in half! Team up with that person for everything from gathering supplies to researching ideas online.

Co-planning with just one or two colleagues you respect is also an effective strategy when you officially co-plan with the whole team but end up finding your own activities, anyway. Partner up with a colleague whose teaching style is similar to yours and split the work of tweaking the official lesson plans!

You can also look for someone outside your school to team up with. Is there another teacher in your district or state you can co-plan with? I used to plan sometimes with a good friend who taught elsewhere in my district, and we learned so much from hearing about how teachers at one another’s schools addressed each learning standard.

Even if you don’t currently know another great local teacher in your grade or subject area, you can seek them out online. There are all kinds of Facebook groups for teachers, Twitter chats, Instagram hashtags, etc. that will allow you to find like-minded teachers and collaborate. With tools like Google Drive, Skype, Facetime, Voxer, and so on, you don’t have to meet face-to-face to plan, and there’s no reason for you to be stuck doing everything alone.

Next week: How to let go of expectations around testing so it feels less stressful

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 lmurrell February 7, 2016 at 7:13 pm

This message was right on time! It confirmed some conclusions I’ve come to because of a “difficult” co-planning situation that has arisen this year. While there’s nothing I can do with regards to the other person involved this still leaves me feeling positive about my decision to work on things within my control and let the chips fall where they may.

I’ve experienced the benefit of seeking out like-minded others when collaborative planning wasn’t available at my former school, the success of co-planning when the workload is split equitably with common grade level/subject area planning, and now the issues that arise when someone refuses to pitch in (when collaborative planning is mandated by administration). No matter what, ANYTHING can be a learning experience – even if it’s “what not to do.”

Your podcasts, including “guest speakers” are ALWAYS uplifting and helpful.

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2 Angela Watson February 14, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Thank you for the kind words! You’ve shared some great wisdom here. I appreciate your comment.

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3 Laura February 8, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Hey, anything you can do to decrease the amount of time spent lesson planning is going to free up time for you, your family, and for all those other school requirements and obligations.

Thanks for the article!

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4 Angela Watson February 14, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Exactly! Thanks for your comment.

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