Counting Down to the First Day of School: A Ten-Day To-Do List for New Teachers


You may have already had your first totally-unprepared-teacher dream. I still have this dream near the end of every vacation, and most teachers I’ve discussed it with know exactly what I’m talking about. It changes, of course, but it always goes something like this…

(Scary music begins.) You have somehow slept through a week’s worth of alarm clocks and it is now your first day of school. You get lost or stuck in traffic, so you show up late, and have to walk past your principal in your pajamas/underwear/clothes-you-went-out-in-last-night. Your classroom/subject/class list has been changed without warning, so you walk in completely unprepared to teach a huge rowdy class that includes every bad child you have ever seen—even bullies from your own school days. Then your principal walks in to observe you. . . .

You wake up sweating and realize it was just a dream, but then a thought hits you: school starts in two weeks, and you’re not prepared. (Scary music returns.) Your to-do list swirls into a mental tornado. How will you find time to finish all this stuff?

Ten-Day Countdown to the First Day of School

Every district has a different timeline, but the following example will help you plan your own schedule to make the most of the time you have left.

Ten . . . Plan your discipline strategy in as much detail as possible, including rules, incentives, and consequences. Type your rules poster and expected classrooms procedures. If you feel you don’t know exactly what to say, force yourself to type anyway. Revise later. Start avoiding people who say you chose the wrong career or want to explain why they didn’t become teachers themselves. 

Nine . . . Write lesson plans for your first week. Once again, they don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be done.

Eight . . . Start preparing other classroom forms you think you will need: checklists, signature sheets, and so on. Print your rules poster, along with quotes or pictures you want on your walls.

Seven . . . See your classroom before the weekend if possible, and find out what supplies your school provides. Check whether you have a working computer and printer in your room and plan accordingly. Be sure you have the teachers’ guides for the textbooks you will be using, and ask for the curriculum you will need to follow, if any. Meet your principal’s administrative assistant, who you will probably deal more often than the principal. Check with him or her to be sure you are on a 12-month pay schedule, unless you have another way to support yourself over the summer. Meet the other staff who will affect your quality of life: custodians, zone mechanics, and security guards. Start arranging your furniture and think about how to organize and decorate. Then head to the stores with your first-day shopping lists.

“I finally made it to room 19, where I flipped the ‘call office’ button instead of the light switch three times. I found the lights, apologized to the irritated voice coming over the speaker, and looked around the room. It seemed both huge and tiny at the same time, like the length of the school day: huge when I thought about how I would be responsible for filling it, tiny when I thought about how much I would have to fit into it effectively.”

Six . . . Finish shopping. Laminate your posters. Make sure the room is arranged the way you want it, and request any furniture you still need. Then start planning. Add specific textbook pages to your lesson plans. Gather and set up materials for your first week’s lessons. Use a marker to fill in school holidays and testing dates on a calendar – preferably a giant, paper desk calendar that matches the months of the school year. Then, in pencil, try to map out a very basic unit plan for your first month.

(Weekend): Try on your first-day outfit. You probably already know you should dress like the professional that you are, but if you are just starting to buy teacher clothes, there are a few other things you should remember. First, find comfortable work shoes!!! Really. You might not sit down for seven and a half hours. If your feet have blisters on them after 20 minutes, it will feel much longer. Second, make sure your clothes cover what you want them to at all times. Lift your arms up and check your reflection. Do you see stomach or back? Lean forward in the mirror. Is this what you want showing when you bend over to help? If you teach, say, kindergarten, imagine sitting on a chair while the children sit on the floor listening to you read. Change outfits as needed.

Five . . . If you hoped to get lots of productive work done today, the joke’s on you. School districts often schedule new teacher orientation in the week or two before school starts. This means instead of working in your classroom, you will spend two days in a downtown auditorium listening The Wind Beneath My Wings on repeat and learning about the various ways you can get fired. A continental breakfast will be provided.

Four . . . Continue orientation. If you can’t get to school afterward, prepare as much as possible at home. This is a good day to create the behind-your-desk filing system described in the Piles and Files chapter. Once school starts, setting up files won’t feel like much of a priority.

Three . . . Prepare to be blindsided with at least one meeting or training session, but you should still have several hours to work in your room. The good news is your school is now full of veteran teachers whose ideas you can beg, borrow, and steal. You should meet your mentor teacher and the rest of your department today. Ask coworkers about their supply lists, forms, and first-day plans. Make copies of these or revise your own work as needed. Also ask about department-wide discipline systems and procedures.

“I had some plans in mind for class discipline, but I wasn’t quite sure how to get started. I went next door and found other teachers on my grade level preparing discipline folders and cutting out tickets for a department-wide system they had used for years. All I had to do was join the group and prepare my own folders.”

Two . . . Allow time for a few meetings. Finish any forms you haven’t finished yet. Make as many of your first-day copies as you can; then start decorating. You may notice your classroom seems empty compared to those of other teachers. Don’t feel bad—they’ve been collecting decorations for years. 

One . . . Finish your copies. Allow time for a few more meetings. You will probably get your class list today, along with some information about what the school requires from teachers on the first day. Revise your first-day plans to include those requirements. Arrange all planned assignments and paperwork to help your day run smoothly. Finish making copies, if possible (the machine will be busy today). Assume any textbooks or furniture that is not in your classroom when you leave today will not be there on Monday morning, even if someone has reassured you that it will be delivered over the weekend. Plan accordingly.

(Final weekend): If you weren’t able to get your copies done at school, head to a copy shop so there’s no room for first-day surprises. It’s also possible you will want to go back to school at this point. Many schools are open the last weekend of summer for all the people who need more than ten days to complete their “ten-day” countdowns.

You won’t have the totally-unprepared-teacher dream the night before school starts—that’s because you won’t be able to sleep until 20 minutes before your alarm clock rings. You’ll probably be running on caffeine and adrenaline your first day, but to be responsible, I’ll also pass on some good advice: The best thing you can do is get up early the day before school starts, exercise during the day, and wind down early so you have some chance of sleeping through the night. At least one of us has to.

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