Even the best-prepared teachers with the most meticulously-crafted lesson plans are going to encounter the unexpected on occasions. This can happen for a number of reasons: it might be that the students get through the teaching material quicker than anticipated; perhaps an activity simply doesn’t work with that particular class; or maybe the students have no interest in, or an active dislike of, the prepared topic and want to discuss something else. However, it is to be hoped that few have experienced the ‘unexpected’ in quite the same way as Richard McNeff describes in our main feature. His tales of weeping, traumatised students, classroom equipment crashing down on teachers’ heads and quizzes scuppered by over-enthusiastic colleagues are enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone about to enter the classroom, thinking that they’ve got it sorted.

On the other hand, there are many teachers who embrace the unknown, and positively welcome the challenge of whatever surprises a new lesson may bring. One brave soul is Charlie Ellis, who uses that most unpredictable and exposing of art forms, stand-up comedy, as an inspiration and resource for his teaching.

With luck, we don’t have to go it alone when we step out into the unknown. Iain Maloney is not only willing to go into uncharted territory himself, he even makes efforts to persuade his colleagues to follow his lead in conquering their fear of the unfamiliar – in this case, creative writing in academic English courses.

Adam Miller admits to being a poor reader and writer as a child, which made him reluctant to face the challenges posed by a world of books. However, his mother’s care and persistence succeeded not only in turning around this unpromising beginning, but also engendering in her son a lifelong love of reading and literature.

The sense that we are not on our own is a great help when facing the unexpected, in whatever form it takes. The relationships we establish with classmates and colleagues are key to overcoming problems together. Patricia Barzotti finds that getting students to cooperate with each other is an important ingredient of successfully managing large classes. And, as Chia Suan Chong points out, how to build relationships with others is one of the things that language teachers teach in addition to English.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being well prepared, and a good lesson plan with the flexibility to allow for unscheduled events is a vital tool for any teacher. In this issue’s instalment of their series of tips for novice teacher trainers, Beth Davies and Nick Northall address how best to help trainees construct such a plan.

As we step into the unknown with our students yet again, let’s follow Richard McNeff’s lead in seeing whatever happens as an opportunity rather than a source of anxiety – but watch out for that heavy vase on the shelf above your head ...