Planning, teaching & marking: Creating inspirational lessons

Written by: Martin Matthews | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Before we get dragged under by the target driven Covid catch-up wagon, can teachers take a moment to put inspiration and energy at the heart of their practice? Martin Matthews offers some tips

If Covid-19 and its fallout in education has taught me anything, it is that there is increasingly a need for energy, enthusiasm, heart, soul, and inspiration in the classroom.

Surely what we all need now is the joy of learning. A reminder of the potential of actually being in the physical space with the students. The need for new thoughts, knowledge, ideas, and collaboration.

You’re on a journey with your students. Take them with you. Trust in yourself. Don’t be afraid. Enjoy yourself a little. Have some fun.

Over the last year or so, many of us have thought again about what we thought we knew about teaching. Can we now do that with our lesson-planning, delivery and marking – putting inspiration at the heart of our work?

Planning engaging lessons

For an act of teaching to take place, perhaps all that is needed is for two people to be present in a space together. Regardless of what is on the walls, the type of desks you have, the subject or the set you teach, the starting point is the space.

Each day it is a blank canvas for you to create an environment where people can be inspired to learn. Ask yourself two questions: what do you want the students to know by the end of the medium-term plan/unit you are working on? What do you want the students to know by the end of the next lesson you are planning?

Once you know that, then imagine how you will get the students there. Put yourself in the shoes of a student who dislikes your subject. How will you get them to come on the journey to the end-point of the lesson? What might inspire them to join you?

A colleague once told me that teaching isn’t “edutainment” – very true. It doesn’t mean that your lessons can’t be entertaining, engaging, inspiring.

A lot of what happens next will depend on the subject or content you are teaching. The resources we choose, or not, play their part. I have seen teachers create PowerPoints with a million images, all flying around with various text boxes appearing from multiple angles at terrifying speeds, or with a cheeky slow reveal.

All very nice, but what information does your PowerPoint, your worksheet your textbook of choice contain? Do you need all that? Sometimes it is worth going on a resources diet. Slim back the abundance of information to what is really needed.

If you look at your own lesson plan and are not at least a little bit excited, then is there a problem? If you are not at least a little bit inspired, then will the students be? Your plan, resources and delivery could all be bolstered by bearing that question in mind.

What next? The lesson itself

Put yourself again in the shoes of that student that doesn’t like your subject. How do they see you? When they walk into the room, where are you? At the door with a smile on your face? Or head down in a pile of marking behind the computer screen. The first few interactions of a lesson make a difference – make them count.

How do you inspire confidence in the students that you care about your subject? How do you set the tone for your lessons?

“Right, okay, get your books out. This is the boring bit – sorry.” Or something else? Have you got a big question to ask? An anecdote to share. Don’t make it a gimmick, a one-off – rethink how you begin your lessons every day.

When I reflect on my own time in the classroom as a fairly “average” student, I usually paid attention to the teachers who looked like they were interested and cared. This remains true for me now as a teacher taking regular CPD and INSET courses.

The ground on which you stand is your stage. It is a performance, hopefully driven by sincerity and genuine passion for what you do. It does not matter what subject you are teaching, that space at the front of the classroom, around the classroom, up the walls, outside the door, is your stage.

You are a teacher. One that cares and wants to take the students in front of you on a journey. You set the tone. Your performance is the starting point in support of the other performers: the students. They are not a passive audience. They have a role to play too, but they feed off you.

Your voice and body language are all part of the performance. They help to construct the narrative of the lesson. Story-telling is an art and it takes time and practice to become master story-tellers. However, human beings have told stories throughout the ages and the basic ability to craft engaging narratives glows inside us all. Each time a teacher begins a lesson a story begins. How the tale moves on and ends lies in large part with you.

I sometimes wonder whether we have lost faith in our ability to tell stories. Perhaps you don’t need that YouTube clip, that PowerPoint, that video – why not tell the story yourself to the class. Take a breath and read the extract from the play, tell the story of an ancient battle, or explain volcanoes relying on gesture and eye contact to tell the tale.

A quick example

I walked past a science lesson once. The science teacher was on a chair with his arms stretched wide, thrusting his body side to side with each arm out in a globed fashion. After I undertook a double-take in the corridor and reversed my steps to the doorway, it soon dawned on me that he was not having a break-down, but rather representing the human heart in action. His arms became the atria and his legs the ventricles. His arms billowed out and then came together, closely followed by his legs doing the same as he simultaneously narrated where the blood was flowing gesturing with his head and eyes. A YouTube clip could do the same, yet somehow does not have the same impact.

Your lesson plan gleams on the desk or in your mind. If it doesn’t work, can you deviate? Yes. You can. Trust in yourself, your subject knowledge, and your willingness to engage the students in front of you.


I popped into a colleague’s classroom recently. Four other teachers were trying to rescue her from under a pile of exercise books that she had decided to mark in one night. They got her out just in time, as the sink hole of marking swallowed half of the classroom.

Okay, it didn’t happen quite like that, but I did speak to a colleague surrounded by marking who looked thoroughly fed up and uninspired.

I doubt that a passion to mark exercise books and exams was what drove most of us to sign up to be a teacher, but it’s part of the job.

How you complete marking in your school will depend a lot on your school or department marking policy, but here are some points that work for me.

I started taking this approach after looking for ways to involve students in the marking process due to feeling a disconnect between my time spent marking a student’s work and what we then both took from it.

I teach an essay-based subject, but this can work for all subjects. At the end of a piece of work, students write “Reflection” or similar. They write out a few key bullet points of your choice – these could come from your objectives for the lesson or key aspects of a mark scheme. For example:

Students take highlighters and highlight each of the above in a different colour. They then go through their work and using the chosen colours highlight evidence of the focus you have selected.

This supports them in seeing how they may – or may not – have addressed the key points of the lesson or mark scheme. It might not show how well they have done it, but it is a way for them to see on the page if they have addressed what they should have done.

For many students, their target for next time is likely already emerging and they can see it for themselves.

Next, students write: “My target from last lesson/piece of work/homework.” They then look back to the last piece of work and write down what their target was. They should be able to see if they have completed it. For example, if they were targeted to apply more relevant theory but they haven’t, they should be able to see that on the page in front of them.

Next, students write: “My target this time.” Students write a new target based on what they can see from their own reflection/your guidance to the whole class.

Finally, students write “My question” and they ask you a question about their work (if they wish).

All of this means that when it comes to you marking work, you can see a student’s thought process on the page. Start with their question and consider it as you read the work. Their highlighting of key points can speed up your reading and usually, with year 9 and higher, students have a pretty good idea of what they have done and what they need to do.

Often it ends with you ticking or agreeing targets with a shorter comment than if you had marked it from scratch. The questions students ask can be quite illuminating and help with your feedback, planning and teaching for next lesson or the rest of the unit.

There is a personalisation to this marking too – students are more involved in the reflection on their work and the process becomes more collaborative. The next lesson begins with students looking back over their own work, their own reflections and finally looking at your comments. This can support a collaborative approach and links the learning from the previous lesson – it also makes marking that little bit quicker, engaging, and informative.

For more tips on effective marking and feedback practice, see SecEd’s recent podcast on this topic.

Final points

Inspiration could seem like a daunting word; a daunting thing to try to achieve as a teacher. Often, it’s the little things that can inspire and fire a student’s desire to learn. I guess, in the end, that starts within us as we search for inspiration so we can better guide our classroom and those in it.

The SecEd Podcast


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