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Teaching Strategies when you Have No Lesson Plan

No Lesson Plan? No Worries. Here’s How to Keep the Class On Track

As a casual teacher, chances are you can think of at least a handful of times where you have arrived in a classroom only to discover that no work has been left for your students. Whether it’s due to a breakdown in communication, an unexpected absence, or tech troubles, these situations do happen so it’s important to know how to roll with the punches.

When you find yourself in a situation like this, it can be tricky to think on your feet and come up with an appropriate lesson, particularly if you don’t know the students or the subject matter. To help you prepare for the unexpected, we’ve put our heads together and come up with some strategies to help you devise lessons on the fly that will keep your students happy and engaged.

Start by Breaking the Ice

When you first enter a classroom, a great way to get to know the class—or stall while you wait for say, a jammed photocopier to be fixed—is to get your students to do an icebreaker exercise. Not only will this give you an opportunity to get to know the class, but it will also keep them occupied while you finalise the plan for the rest of the class. Here’s a few good options:

  • (Attempt to) learn your student’s names

If you are teaching a new class, start by playing a game to help you learn the names of your students. You can try turning this into a memory exercise like “I had a party and I invited…” where each student adds a new guest from the room but must remember and say the name of the previous students invited in the correct order.

  • Let the class get to know you

A fun way to do this is by playing “two truths and a lie”. You can get the ball rolling by making three statements about yourself where two a true and one is false. The class can take turns voting which statement is a lie, with the winner taking the next turn.


Ask the Class What they are Working On

We know, we know. Leaving the direction of your class up to your students can be a risky move, and sure, if you ask the class what they have been working on, you will always have a clown or two that will do their best to derail this conversation before it even begins. That said, using this strategy, you will always be able to get some idea of where the class is at to use as a jumping off point. Here is one strategy to get an understanding of what the class is working on:  

  1. Ask each student to write down or share a question that they have from a previous lesson. You can then work through these as a class.
  2. From here, create a mind map on the topics that your students contribute most about. Begin to formulate some ‘I think, I see, I wonder questions.
  3. Have students choose I wonder statements that they would like answered and research as individuals or groups. If you don’t have access to iPads or computers, ask students to write their questions down on a piece of paper and send it around the room or place on a table or wall space for students to move to it. Other students can write what they think the answer may be on the page (encourage everyone to write what they think- this could be done in small groups). Collaborative activities like this can be great discussion generators and really get students thinking.
  4. The theme, once discovered and built upon, can be the basis for imaginative or informative writing tasks, mathematics word problems, vocabulary/spelling activities and games.
  5. Students could build on sentence stems derived from the investigation with So, but, because connectives. E.g., Echidnas have pouches so…. Echidnas have pouches but…… Echidnas have pouches because…

Plan Some Back-Up Activities

For those days where it’s not possible to have the class working on task, it’s good to have some backup activities up your sleeve. The goal here is to have activities that get students engaged, focused and thinking. Here are some favourites:

  • Pass the emotional clap

With the whole class sitting in a circle, start by clapping the hand of the person sitting next to you. They in turn clap the hand of the person sitting next to them and so on. The clap that is ‘passed around’ the circle begins as ‘happy’. Everyone must show a happy face as they clap. The emotion changes either when you or a student decides. They can copy the person before them or choose a new emotion to demonstrate.

  • Word review

Split the class into two teams. Sit a child (#1) from each team with their backs to the board. Write a word up on the board and the teams must describe or mime the word to #1. Use words you have already used with the children in previous lessons, or that you know they have learned based on anchor charts around the room and information you have gleaned.

  • Chinese whispers

With the class split into two teams, whisper a word or sentence to one student from each team. When you give the go-ahead, they have to whisper this to the person sitting next to them until it reaches the end of the line. The team to finish first gets a bonus point if the end word or sentence is the same as the one you began the game with.

  • Back drawing

Draw a simple object (e.g., the sun) on a piece of paper. Split the class into pairs (A’s and B’s). Ask all the A’s to come and have a look at your picture. You could ask the B’s to close their eyes while you display your picture quickly. Then A’s must draw the object onto B’s back who in turn must try and guess the object.

  • Noughts and crosses

Draw a grid on the board and in each square write a tense, simple grammar points or draw a picture. Split the class into three groups: noughts, crosses, and triangles. The concept is the same as with normal noughts and crosses except that they must make a sentence to win a square.

Once the first team has chosen which square they want, they have a minute to come up with a sentence. The other two teams decide if the sentence is correct or not. If they think it is incorrect, they can offer the correct version to win the square.

If there is a picture in the square, the team must describe the scene. ‘The girl is playing football’ for example. The tense squares must be correctly placed in a sentence.

  • Sentence auction

While this activity is easier if you have prepared the sentences in advance, once you have lead a class through this once or twice you will have mastered it. The aim of this activity is to hold a mock auction where the class works in teams to “bid” on the different sentences on the board.

Start by writing ten sentences on the board where six are correct and four are incorrect. Ideally the sentences should be in line with the topic of the class, but any topic familiar to them will do. Once the class is split into groups, allocate fake money to each group for them to bid with.

When you’re ready to go, start reading each sentence out loud and ask each group if they would like to bid on each sentence. Together, each team will use their knowledge of the subject area to decide which sentences are correct and choose which ones to bid on.

At the end of the auction, announce the correct sentences to your class and tally up the amount of money that was spent. The winning team is the one with the most correct sentences and the most money left.


Teaching without a photocopier

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that things like printers and photocopiers tend to break down when you need them most. If you find yourself in this situation when you’re hurrying to cover a class, use these tips to keep your students on track:

  • Always carry a USB with digital resources with you. Most classrooms, these days, have an interactive Whiteboard. You can use interactive slideshows and games, worksheets and Smart Note lesson plans and sequences to ensure you always have an engaging activity on hand.
  • Have digital copies of activities to display on screen. Things like number of the day, maths quizzes, handwriting, writing stimulus images and grammar worksheets are all great options. Be sure to check in with students, you may have to help those students struggling with fine motor co-ordination, pencil grip, vision or attention issues. Never just sit at your desk in a classroom, especially when you don’t know the students or their abilities.
  • Read the room. If they need a break why not play a quick movement game, set a challenge, say ten burpees or push-ups or find a brain break dance, fitness or yoga activity online.

Be smart with prep time

For all teachers, planning time easily adds up and can lead to feelings of overwhelm. To help minimize this, there are a few things you can do in class to make life easier for future you.

  • Start taking notes of what you do in class. Put a tick or a cross next to everything indicating whether it went well. Write down the time it took to do the activity. This will help you a great deal for future lessons.
  • When you first start teaching, you can spend hours preparing a one-hour lesson, often only using a fraction of what you plan for. This is still better than standing in front of a class with nothing left to do, but you can learn many no prep activities to extend lessons if they fall short.
  • Time yourself when preparing lessons, allow no more than half an hour of planning for a one-hour lesson. There are so many exciting ideas out there that you could spend forever on just one lesson, but it simply isn’t feasible.
  • Be sure to plan where you can, never go to the other extreme and try not to use any time preparing or planning your lessons.

While no one enjoys being thrown in the deep end, that occasionally goes with the territory as a casual teacher. The good news is, these sorts of situations are the exception, not the norm, and by taking a little time to plan for the unexpected, you can ensure you’re ready to go whatever the day throws at you.

Check out some of our courses that will prepare you for when there's no lessons plan

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Each module of the course is set aside to deal with specific scenarios you might encounter and pass on winning strategies and resources whether you have access to classroom technologies, textbooks or even nothing at all!

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