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New Teacher Series Part 1: To-Do List

to do list

On my first day of teaching 22 years ago, my legs could not stop shaking. The adrenaline rush was overpowering, as were my feelings about beginning a brand-new career. Starting out as a teacher is exciting, invigorating, challenging, and downright scary. There is so much to remember, and so much that will invariably be forgotten. In these weeks of summer, the best way to feel a little more prepared about the upcoming school year is to think ahead. Proactivity tends to pay off, so checking any items off the endless list of things to do before students arrive can help all teachers (not just newbies) start the year in a calmer, more centered place.

To-Do List:

  1. Set up a planning method. When I first started teaching, I used the old school method of buying a brand-new teacher planner for that calendar year and writing everything down. Nowadays, my stack of planners spanning several years may date me, but I feel affection for a system that used to work. In these more advanced times, developing one method that works well and sticking to it helps us keep track of the unit progression. Online task lists like Trello can be helpful, and this website shares some specific tools that are designed for lesson planning. Since the better versions of these tools often require a paid subscription, teachers can also get a lot of free mileage out of online docs, apps or extensions that accomplish the same organizational goals. 

  2. Get contact information for colleagues. When we’re starting out, nothing is more helpful than having a trusted new colleague to approach with questions. School leaders may not always have the time to talk about the little details that arise as teachers prepare for a new year, so building a relationship with a fellow teacher (ideally, a future team member) is valuable beyond words. If they’re willing to be available via phone, text or email, opening a line of communication for getting information is a good idea. The only caution is not to contact this person too frequently, so it might make sense to gather questions gradually and ask them as part of one email or call. 

  3. Study the curriculum. The purpose of a curriculum is often misunderstood. It does not tell us how to teach so much as what we should focus on to maximize student learning. Once the year begins, the daily pace of teaching becomes so frenetic that spending a lot of time studying the intricacies of the curriculum becomes a significant challenge. To get one step ahead while things are quiet, spending time in the summer to look at the first few units in detail saves both time and anxiety in the months ahead.

  4. Ask about seeing your classroom space. It is hard to imagine teaching in a new space without a visual. Even if a classroom cannot be put together and decorated over the summer (rooms are often in use or being deep cleaned), seeing the space makes a huge difference. For one thing, it helps with thinking about the details like seating arrangements or technological access. It also feels reassuring to get a sense of the place (or with floating teachers, multiple places) in which we will spend so much time. 

  5. Check technology access. There is usually at least one person in the school (such as a media specialist) who can answer questions about technology, from what devices teachers are given to work with (laptops, smartboards, and so forth) to the apps or programs available as part of a school subscription. If possible, ask for access to any digital platforms in advance to aid with the planning process. 

  6. Make sure all required training and professional development is complete. In many districts, teachers cannot come to work until they have completed required training on topics ranging from curriculum to blood-borne pathogens. Schools typically share this information liberally to make sure everyone is ready to roll, but if the communication has not been clear, it is wise to check in with a school leader to ensure that there is nothing that has been left undone. 

  7. Plan the first four weeks, and then stay one week ahead. Before school starts, having one solid month of lesson plans (subject to change, of course) eases the pervasive sense that so many new and experienced teachers have that they are not quite sure of what is coming. With a concrete framework that spans the first few weeks of school, nobody will feel like they’re starting from zero. Even better, as we get to know students and see their needs, it is possible to plan a week ahead at a time with more knowledge about how lessons will be received.

All those joining this amazing profession over the next couple of months deserve both kudos and support, as do returning teachers. Whatever we can all do to help one another as instruction gets going or take care of in advance will make the start of the year so much smoother. Next week, Part Two of the New Teacher Series will explore some best practices for classroom management. Stay tuned!

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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