The Summer To-Do List for First Year Teachers

The Summer To-Do List for First Year Teachers

You’ve probably got 80,130 things swirling around in your head about things you want to do before the school year starts.  It’s such an exciting time!!  I remember the summer before my first year teaching obsessing over EVERYTHING.  What’s up, anxiety.  I thought I needed to make my plans incredible and my classroom looking absolutely perfect before the school year started, OR ELSE…and I had no idea where to start.

Real quick reality check: your ability to work on your classroom and your plans won’t end once school starts.  You can always organize your classroom library, put up decorations, or create that newsletter for parent night.  Also, the number of Pinterest decorations you put into your classroom is not going to change the life of your students.  Your teaching is.  

That’s good news. Because you’re ready–you’ve got spirit, enthusiasm, and passion.  You’ve got training from your program and student teaching lessons under your belt.  So, what’s most important to do before the school year starts is to design systems that will help as many things in your classroom run on autopilot as possible.  That way, you can focus on the reason you’re there: HELPING KIDS LEARN THINGS.

I keep seeing first year teachers say that they don’t know where to start in preparing this summer, so I decided to put together a list of priorities.  You won’t get everything done, so it’s important to keep priorities straight and spend time where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck later.

Priorities for the Summer before your First Year Teaching:

  1. Design your Classroom Management Plan
  2. Overview your curricula, but only plan your first two weeks
  3. Select and plug-in get-to-know-you activities
  4. Organize your paper-flow and material systems
  5. Create some data documentation systems
  6. Buy all the school supplies

Let’s talk about those in more detail:

1. Design your Classroom Management Plan

First of all, I’m going to give you an overview here, but I HIGHLY recommend Wong & Wong’s book, The First Days of School for any first year teacher out there.  It was a complete game-changer for me before my first year.  I spent hours listing out my ideas and plans for every conceivable behavior that would happen in my classroom, and designing efficient ways to handle routine classroom needs like bathroom passes, paper flow, and grade and behavior documentation.  Once the school year started, s*** still happened, kids still were kids, and my life was crazy, but I had a plan for EVERYTHING.  Compared to many other first-year teachers, very little caught me off-guard.  And at the end of the school year, administrators told me they couldn’t tell that I had been a first year teacher.

I tell you all of this just to impress upon you: classroom management planning is WHERE IT’S AT before your first year.  It’s the key to unlocking your sanity and the freedom to do all the awesome, life-changing lessons you’ve been dreaming about this year.  It will also save you so much hair-pulling down the road.  

So, what to plan out?

Again, check out The First Days of School but in a nutshell, here are 6 aspects to brainstorm and design:

1. Procedures

What will your kids need to know in order navigate in your classroom?  If you don’t tell them how to do things, they’ll invent their own way.  By instating procedures, you’re minimizing the number of bad inventions as well as ensuring everything is done in a way that maximizes instructional time.  Some examples of procedures to brainstorm and teach are:

  1. How to get a pencil
  2. How to sharpen their pencil
  3. How to ask to go to the bathroom
  4. How to come into or leave the classroom
  5. How to know when to become quiet
  6. How to ask for help
  7. etc…
2. Routines

Your lifesaver of lesson planning.  The more you can place on auto-pilot, the more energy you can place into awesome things. Routines can be within a lesson: what a typical lesson structure looks like, or even within the week: every Wednesday is ____ day.  Some examples of routines to think up are:

  1. Typical lesson structure
  2. Typical week structure
  3. Expectations for transitions
  4. Beginning and end of the class expectations–these are your true head-ache savers
3. Rules:

Despite what they say, kids feel safer when they know what the boundaries are.  Knowing your limits before school starts help you communicate them before problems arise, and deal with them in a fair way.

I recommend coming up with 4 non-negotiable rules–these are the rules that, if broken, will send a child down your pre-communicated discipline plan.  I kept my rules broad, and kept it at 3 to keep it simple.  Mine are:

  1. Listen and follow directions and school rules.
  2. Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
  3. Respect your classmates and your teacher.

Now, rules need to be explained and modeled, so expect to plan that in to your first week or two of teaching. Many administrators and teachers recommend creating class rules with your class–and I fully support that.  However, you need to know where you stand, especially since these are the grounds you’ll use for more serious discipline measures: like calling home or writing a referral.  It might be a good idea to explain these three are very important to you to set the tone for your own boundaries in the classroom, and then have students brainstorm adjustments or additions together.  Another idea would be to have students come up with rules, and during your discussion of them, guide them towards something similar to your 3-4 non-negotiables.  

4. Discipline Plan:

This is your plan for when someone disobeys the rules.  Your rules are useless without a way of enforcing them, and you want to put off sending kids out of your classroom for as long as possible.  I’ve seen several first-year teachers lose the trust of their principals right away because they had no plan in place to handle the behavior in the classroom, and used the principal as their first line of defense.  No reason to be nervous.  You just want to take an attitude of expecting misbehavior to happen, so you’ve got a plan and can execute it calmly when it does.

You want to keep your discipline simple, fair, and versatile.  Mine has ended up to be something like the following:

  1. 1st Infraction: Warning
  2. 2nd Infraction: Loss of privilege (something that makes sense for the behavior: move seats, lose item, etc.)
  3. 3rd Infraction: Contact home and individual work (in the hall, if appropriate)
  4. 4th Infraction: Write-up or sent to principal’s office

I used to include a conference with me as a step in the plan, but it was too difficult to coordinate at a specific step.  So unofficially, I have a private conference with the student when I can, usually in the hall, if the behavior gets beyond the 1st infraction.  

Most of these cover the bases of interventions, and very few kids would ever get to the 4th step in the plan.  And when they did, I was able to communicate to administration every intervention I had already tried.  Boom.  Organized.

5. Policies

The parameters for your boundary-testing students. Kids will cross the line, so it’s just best to know where it is, communicate it right away, and then expect someone to cross it anyway.  These aren’t so much about your non-negotiables, but about the simple, day-to-day expectations. Where are your lines, and what will you do when a student crosses them?  Examples of policy questions are:

  1. How many times can students go to the bathroom during the day?  
  2. What happens when students don’t bring in their homework?  
  3. Will you take off points for late work?  
  4. What happens when students don’t bring their materials to class?  

These are just a sample, but if you check out the book or even Pinterest search it–you’re sure to find a list.

6. Rewards and Incentives

Kids love to work towards things, and they can boost your classroom morale in the beginning of the year.  One awesome first year teacher I worked with started off the year with playing Beat the Teacher, and she’s played it all year ever since.  

It’s great to have a list ready to go at the beginning of the year with incentive ideas and reward ideas that go beyond candy and cookies.  Again, search for lists on Pinterest and make a list of what you’d be comfortable with, or might be interested in right at the start of the year.  Then give yourself a reward for being a proactive teacher.  

2. Plan your first couple of weeks

This will both ease your nerves, and put your energy towards what will really make the biggest impact on your year: how you launch your classroom.

What to do in your first few weeks?

If you’ve already completed all 6 parts of your management plan, you know that you have many of things you will need to communicate to kids at some point.  You won’t communicate every single thing you’ve brainstormed, but believe it or not, getting-to-know-you activities, pre-assessments, and your procedure/routine/discipline lessons will take up your first few weeks completely.  

This was mind-blowing to me as a first year teacher, and almost felt wrong.  But, TRUST ME.  You’re spending a few weeks now so you don’t lose MONTHS of instruction playing classroom management catch-up later in the year, going home and crying yourself to sleep after glasses of wine.  You’re going to spend the time on teaching kids expectations either way, and the easiest way is to set the stage from the beginning of the year.

Here’s how I recommend going about planning:

  1. Collaborate: See if you can talk to anyone teaching the same as you, or a mentor teacher, over the summer.  They might have materials and tips that can give you a bunch of direction before you start.
  2. Skim and get an overview of the year’s curricula (if available): where are you trying to get kids to be by the end of the year in each subject?  What things might you do in the beginning of the year to help you figure out where they’re starting?
  3. Backwards plan first couple weeks:
    1. Set learning goals both for yourself and your students:
      1. “By the end of 2/3/4 weeks, I want students to know [insert procedures], _[number]__ of peers, and understand ___ about the year.
      2. “For myself, I want to know _____, ____, and _____ about my students, and have contacted ____ guardians.”
    2. List out steps that would help you accomplish those goals (getting-to-know-you activity ideas, specific procedure lessons, specific pre-assessments)
    3. Break up that list of items across your first few weeks of school.  You may be surprised how much time it will take up, and that’s ok!  
    4. Start at the first week, and start creating your scripts and materials!

3. Select and Plan Get-to-Know You Activities

I make this its own step to make sure you go back and include some good ones–because it can be easy to get carried away with procedures and curriculum.  There are so many ideas for this online, and you seriously cannot do enough of it.  If you’re nervous, think about how nervous your students are walking into a classroom with a couple dozen peers they may have never met before.  Providing some low-stress activities to help them ease into it and find some friends–and you with the opportunity to start your relationships–will go a long, long way.

4. Create Paperflow and Material Systems

Decide where students will turn in papers, where you’ll put stacks to grade, where you’ll file away important paperwork, and where your “to-do” pile will be. Angela Watson has got some ingenious systems for this.

Figure out what resources you’ll need to make available to students, and systems to make them independent, but accountable, with using them.  Extra paper? Textbooks? Classroom library?  How can your students interact with all of these in an organized and productive way?

5. Create some data collection systems

What kind of data do you want to track with your students, personal, academic, and behavioral?  How will you track it, where will you track it, and where will you keep those papers?  Pinterest has a zillion ideas for this, though it might be helpful to sit down and think about your priorities.  In my Writing classroom, I wanted an efficient conference log, behavior log, and way to record progress towards standards for all my students.  I also wanted some information about my students’ home life, for which I created a “Class Application” at the beginning of the year, and kept the information electronically.  Your system will morph as the year goes on, but it’s good to have something in place from the beginning so that when you’re in front of the kids and realize “Oh! I should remember that about them.” You can pull out a binder with a place to write it down all ready to go.   

6. Bonus: Shop school supply sales like mad

During the year, you’re going to have kids that either never brought a notebook and pencils, or run out. You are also going to go through Expo markers, most likely, like there’s no tomorrow. The summer before my first year teaching, my beautiful teacher of a mom showed me the ropes in buying BOXES of school supplies for less than $10 by shopping all the penny sales.  If you have the sanity to look for the sales, or find yourself in office stores, BUY ALL THE CHEAP MATERIALS.

Things to De-prioritize this Summer:

1. Pinterest-Perfect Classroom Decor

I know it’s beautiful.  I know you’ve been dreaming about this classroom for forever.  But that stuff also takes a lot of time and energy, and won’t affect your kids’ learning as much as the priorities above.  You are anxious right now, so you are going to be especially vulnerable to perfectionism. Don’t channel that perfectionism on things that aren’t going to help your kids learn.  

You’re not going to be going home each day pulling your hair out about non-coordinated stool covers.  You’re going to be worried about why Danika isn’t getting it, or why Nick won’t stop blurting out during class.  So put your energy towards getting ahead of those problems.  

The kids are going to love you for you and your amazing lesson plans, not your polka-dot theme.  Besides, wouldn’t it be an awesome way to get to know some of your students to have them help you design and put things up over the first couple weeks?

2. Planning out ALL the units

You’re going to get to know your kids and your colleagues during that first month, and your ideas for what’s best will change.  I recommend focusing on your first month (which will probably be mostly procedures/get-to-know-you and your introductory content), with a cursory understanding of the rest of the year, and wait until you know your kids better before planning the rest.

3. Anything else that distracts you from the task of setting up a smooth-running, welcoming classroom or getting to know your students

I know it feels like you have the weight on your shoulders right now, but the reality is–if you’re reading this post right now, you are in GREAT shape.  It means you care and that you’re proactive.  It means that you are resourceful.  And it means that you are well on your way to an AMAZING first year.  I wish you all the luck in preparing, and stay tuned for more posts about classroom management and beginning of the year! I’ve got several more lined up.

If you found this post helpful, you might find these helpful, too:

Classroom Management Toolbox here, which can help you brainstorm classroom management ideas.

New Teacher Resources Pinterest Board, where I pin resources I wish I had seen before starting teaching–including innovative lesson strategies as well as lists of tricks from seasoned teachers.

Classroom Management Pinterest board, where I’ve been curating some of the most clever management ideas I see on Pinterest.

 <–This book, ya’ll.  Seriously, check it out.

What to Do for Writers Who Refuse to Write

Why Your Self-Care is More Important than Your To-Do List

And PLEASE, feel free to drop me a line. I would love to hear from you–whether about a question you might have or about if something was helpful to you.  It helps me churn out more resources to help teachers like you!

2 thoughts on “The Summer To-Do List for First Year Teachers

  1. Hi. I’m a first-year teacher going into 4th grade, and I’m required to have all my lesson plans outlined and turned in for the entire year before the kids even arrive to school. They’ve given me a format for very vague, concept-oriented lesson plans.
    In this article, you say only to plan out the first couple months and not to worry about the whole year, but I’m kind of freaking out.
    Advice?

    1. Hi Rosalie,

      Wow! It’s no wonder you’re freaking out! That’s a tall order for any teacher, especially one that hasn’t been able to meet the student population yet (and is trying to set up their first classroom!). I do not teach elementary, but I asked a friend who does and has a district that requests lesson plans a week or so in advance throughout the year. Here are some tips:

      1. Ask whoever will be looking at the lesson plans what they want to see. Do they want them just to know your scope and sequence and standards for the year, just to make sure standards are being covered? Or is it to make sure you actually have detailed plans for every day (that would be crazy)? Knowing WHY they want them will help you stay focused on what details to focus on for these concept-oriented plans.
      2. Reach out to a teacher in the building or in the district that teaches the same subject as you and see if you can sit down go over the year with them. Chances are, they already have this ready to go, and since you need it vague and it’s going to change anyway, it may be that you can use much of their stuff (and learn about your curriculum in the process). You can find teachers by asking your administrator and/or instructional coach, as well as by looking for emails on the school site. Even if you can’t find anyone that will respond from your grade level at your school, usually you can from another grade level or at another school.
      3. Approach planning from a backwards planning mindset. Look at what guidance the curriculum gives (if any) over the standards and units, and break it up across months, then weeks, then days. I teach 6th grade Writing, so my months would look like units, like “Personal Narrative” or “Information Books.” Weeks would be something like, “How to add details.” Each day would be something like, “Lesson: adding sensory details.” and “Lesson: adding dialogue details.” Backwards planning will help you pace and come up with lesson ideas. Your days will and should change as you get to know your kids, but it will be helpful to get a rough idea on what skills you hope to cover and how long it might take.

      I hope that gives some ideas. Hang in there! That’s an intimidating request from the school–remember that you are certainly not the only one overwhelmed at the thought of it. Usually by talking to other teachers at the school you can figure out how people make admin requests manageable. I know I found myself overshooting the bar many times, and if I had just asked what other people were doing, I would have relaxed. No matter what, I’m sure you’ll do GREAT. Once school starts, you’ll be rolling.

      Let me know if you have follow-up questions!

Leave a Reply