What to do when a lesson goes wrong – A Survival Guide for NQTs

The first thing we need to get clear is that lessons will go wrong from time to time.

Lessons will go wrong for teachers with 20 years, 2 years or 2 months experience in the classroom.

Even the very best practitioners have lessons that go wrong. Even the most meticulously planned lessons can go wrong. And, often, lessons go wrong through no real fault of the teacher.

Lessons are like life. Sometimes things go right: sometimes things go wrong.

And, just like life, with lessons you need to take the rough with the smooth.


Any NQT knows, although only in the infancy of their career, that teachers need to be resilient, to have a thick skin and to take things on the chin. A resilient and reflective nature are crucial.

But, you already knew that – and, importantly, you’ve also already proved that you have the necessary qualities to succeed. You wouldn’t be where you are today without them.

All of this is great – an acceptance that things will go wrong, inevitably, and a realisation that you need to dust yourself down and ‘go again’ is all very well – but it’s small comfort when you are actually in the thick of it, in front of a class of students and things are going wrong right in front of your eyes.

Spot the warning signs

The key to survival is to recognise the warning signs that a lesson isn’t going well. Like the old adage that ‘teachers need eyes in the back of their heads’, they need to have their ‘warning antennae’ up at all times too.

The signs that a lesson could go wrong are sometimes evident before the lesson has begun and even before the students have entered the classroom. Students bring baggage to lessons and they don’t leave it at the door. If something has happened to a student – or between students – in the playground, the corridor, or the night before, it can seriously affect a lesson.

Meet and greet

Meeting and greeting at the door is good practice and it allows you to assess the mood of the class. Look for signs of anything being amiss or the dynamics appearing different. Potential issues can often be nipped in the bud and prevented from escalating with a quiet word on the corridor.

Other warning signals

Other warning signals include students becoming distracted or chatting instead of working or when several students ask similar questions or answer them incorrectly, showing that a task or concept has not been fully grasped. Sometimes tasks take students much less or much longer time than you envisaged – a tell-tale sign that the work is either not challenging enough or is too challenging.

Acting on the warning signs

Of course, simply spotting the warning signs is nothing without the ability and confidence to take assertive action.

Pause for a moment

Sometimes when a lesson is going wrong, it’s all too easy to get flustered. Pausing and taking stock of the situation enables you to gauge students’ understanding and to establish what the root of the problem is. Stay calm and you stay in control.


Mini-plenaries are a good way of chunking a lesson and are useful as for teachers to ascertain where students are at with their learning. They can be useful prompts for you to adjust the course of a lesson too.

Adjust activities

Sometimes revisiting the lesson objectives and approaching them in a different way can save the day. This could mean simplifying a task, or skipping tasks to move onto more challenging activities.

Flexibility and versatility

Sometimes flexibility and versatility means adapting and adjusting approcahes. Sometimes it means having a bank of back-up activities to draw upon when needed. Especially useful when students are speeding through the tasks you have set, they can also be useful in just providing an alternative approach. In fact, back-up activities can sometimes mean that your entire lesson plan can be ditched without anybody noticing!

Activities usually reserved as ‘starters’ can be used at any point in a lesson. And, just as they focus minds at the beginning of a lesson, they can help to re-focus a class at any point in a lesson.


It’s important to recognise that when a lesson goes wrong, it can prove to be an excellent learning curve and experience for any teacher. The thing is, it’s these learning experiences that ultimately help you to provide even better learning experiences for the students you teach.

It’s perfectly okay when a lesson fails, just reflect on what happened, what you did and what you might have done differently. Avoid the temptation to pin all the ‘blame’ on the students though. Focus more on whether you could have done things any differently.

If you learn from the experience, your confidence will grow and you will be an even better teacher for it.

Mark Richards

Mark Richards has 18 years of experience working in secondary schools. As an English and Media Studies specialist, he has held positions such as Literacy Coordinator and Head of English – leading departments in two schools. With significant line management and senior leadership experience in three schools and having been an Assistant Headteacher in two schools, he has had a wide range of areas of responsibility. These include Behaviour, Attendance, Literacy and Teaching and Learning. With experience of working both in outstanding schools and a school in special measures, he is also an experienced examiner from KS2-KS5. An experienced presenter, he has written and delivered a variety of courses, training and professional development opportunities for teachers, teaching assistants and examiners – both face-to-face and online.