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A back to school to-do list for science teachers

Every year in late August I return to school to prepare for the start of the fall term. I usually have big plans for organizing my classroom, updating my curriculum, and preparing amazing lessons for the first week of school, but between administrative tasks and way too many meetings, I'm stretched pretty thin. Sound familiar? Well, having a detailed to-do list has helped me maximize the limited prep time I have each year and I think it can help you, too.

A back-to-school checklist for science teachers, school supplies on a desk

Who is this for?

Maybe you're a new science teacher. Maybe you're an experienced science teacher starting a new job in the fall. Maybe nothing is new to you at this point and you just want to compare notes. Whatever your situation is, everyone stands to benefit from having a strong plan for the new school year. You may be panicking as school approaches wondering how you are going to get everything done. If so, don't freak out! If a serial procrastinator like me can do this, you can too!

Below you'll find the to-do list I use for every back-to-school season, including an explanation of how and why I prioritize each task, but first...

...The ideal situation

Let's back up a little bit. The best thing you can do to prepare for the fall term is to start planning for it before or during your summer vacation. I know. Blasphemous as that may be, it really does put you in the best position to start the year on the right foot. It doesn't require a ton of work, either, but I recommend getting things done sooner rather than later. I always find that I am most productive at the beginning of the summer for a couple of reasons:

  1. I'm still in work mode - I'm used to my work routine, and the challenges of the previous school year are still fresh in my mind. This helps me work efficiently and generate solutions for next year. Seriously, nothing kills your productivity like a relaxing summer holiday. Take advantage of your school year momentum and get some things done in June.

  2. My other responsibilities start to disappear - In the last few weeks of school, DP students have graduated, clubs and activities finish, assessments are done and report card comments are submitted. There's little else to do in the last week or two but entertain students and clean up. While you might be tempted to chill out, a bit of effort here will save you a ton of prep in the fall.

So what can you do in June to get ahead?

  • Clean the lab

  • Organize your files/folders (print and digital)

  • Collect textbooks and check for missing copies

  • Conduct an inventory of science materials (check chemical stocks, locate missing resources, and make a note of broken items)

  • Make an order (books and supplies)

  • Plan major unit changes (topics to add, remove, or reorder)

  • Take down old student work

  • Research PD opportunities for the summer (both free and paid)

  • Confirm your classroom/course assignments for next year

  • Meet with current teachers to find out about the students and/or courses you will teach

female teacher freaking out with too much work to do

Let's assume you didn't do any of that...

Summer's over, you're back at work, and you've got maybe a day or two of planning (if you're lucky) before the kids arrive. For whatever reason, you haven't had a chance to do anything listed above and now there's too much to get done in the time you have. Where do you start? No worries. I've been there. You just have to accept that some things are going to get done and some things are going to have to wait.

Back-to-school science to-do list (in order of importance)

The following list is based on my own experience teaching science. This is likely to differ from yours, so personalize it as you see fit. I prioritize the items at the top of the list and then work my way down.

The Essentials:

1. Print your timetable
School timetable planning

Seriously. Get this done first as it takes very little time and you'll use it almost daily for the entire school year. I start by creating a simple Excel spreadsheet that lays out my Monday to Friday schedule, including meetings, extracurriculars, and of course, the classes I'm teaching. I colour code it for quick reference, but really there's no need to spend any more time on this than absolutely necessary. After all, no one is likely to see it but you. Print that thing and plaster it anywhere you might need to refer to it - on your desk, in the prep room, in your office, etc.

2. Prepare your first week of lessons

Immaculate bookkeeping and a fully stocked lab won't impress your students. Instead, plan a couple of really exciting and interactive labs, games, and activities to kick off the term. There may be a lot of other items on your to-do list, but you're here to teach, so make that your priority.

3. Stock your classroom
Teacher school supply drawer filled with markers, pencils, and pens

Here's another task that's quick to complete and will make you feel like you're being really productive. Simply head to the supply closet and load up on whiteboard markers, rulers, pencils, and whatever else you use in your classroom regularly. I have labeled bins in my room for everything that students have access to. Then I have a secret stash in the filing cabinet near my desk with the supplies that I don't want anyone else to touch (whiteboard markers and quality pens/pencils, mostly).

I make a point to write my name on everything that isn't bolted down with a permanent marker. Sometimes I just write 'SCIENCE!' all in caps. Then no one can walk off with my TV remote or tape dispenser without a constant reminder of where it came from.

4. Set up the lab

I have a science lab separate from my usual classroom that we use for experiments. If that's your situation as well, you'll want to get it ready for whatever activities you have planned in your first week. If you won't be needing it right away then by all means put this off until later. If your lab and classroom occupy the same space, however, then you have no choice but to get it ready now.

Setting up the lab involves cleaning, disposing of expired items (check the fridge and freezer, if you dare), preparing reagents (you can never have enough dilute HCl and NaOH on hand), and checking supplies. If cost is a concern, use these tips I wrote for teaching science on a budget.

5. Test technology
Classroom projector technology

You don't want to be fumbling around with projector cables or dealing with Wi-Fi issues on day one in front of a new class of kids who are sizing you up. Check everything you might use in the first few lessons, including lab tech, and identify any potential problems. If a particular issue seems like it's going to suck up an unacceptable amount of your time, drop the part of your lesson that depends on it and come up with an alternative. You don't have an afternoon to waste explaining your troubles to the IT department.

6. Check for safety

While you're testing technology, take a few precious moments to inspect your emergency systems to ensure they are functioning correctly. This is especially relevant if you plan to hold one or more labs in the first week of school. Things to check include the fire extinguishers, eye wash station, safety shower, spill kit, fire blanket, first aid kit, and so on. This might be the only time you verify the condition of these items all year, so make it an annual habit at the very least.

7. Prepare your class rules

I think it's important to establish the expectations for your classroom and lab immediately if you hope to have a safe and productive year. In my opinion, spending class time on this is far more valuable than going over the syllabus with your students. It doesn't have to be boring, either. You can gamify it in any number of ways, but just be sure that your students are exposed to it one way or another right from the get-go. If you are feeling ambitious, get your students to help determine the class rules (and the consequences for breaking them). Once you have decided on a set of guidelines, print and post them around the room so you can refer to them throughout the year.

8. Make a seating plan
Organized classroom seating plan, desks and tables

This one could go up or down on the list depending on your situation. If you're familiar with your students already, absolutely make a seating plan and have it ready to go on day one. If you don't, it's ok to wait a week or two until you get to know them before changing the seating arrangements. In either case, I still recommend setting up the desks/tables in a pattern that makes sense based on the space and your preferred teaching method. As with the class rules, you want to establish a routine right away.

Do it if you have time:

9. Write out your scope and sequence
Man staring at a wall trying to plan scope and sequence

You might be surprised to see curriculum so far down on my list, but I really think it's secondary to having good classroom procedures and an organized space to work in. As long as your first unit is more or less ready to go you can plan the rest of the year as you go (which is exactly what I did for my first two or three years of teaching).

There are a number of things to consider when deciding on the order of your units. Think about the complexity of the content and the accompanying skills that students will develop throughout the year. For example, a chemistry unit involving ratios and algebra might be best kept for later in the year after students have had a chance to work on those concepts in math class. If in doubt, check with other teachers to see where your content might align (this has the added benefit of creating interdisciplinary opportunities).

You'll want to keep seasonal changes in mind as well. I like to start the year with biology topics such as botany and ecology that let us take advantage of the weather. There's still plenty of time to grow veggies in the fall in most parts of the world.

I also tend to do my longest units at the start of the year as events, holidays, and responsibilities begin to take time away from lessons as the year progresses. Put the least critical unit at the end of the year in case you don't quite get everything done.

10. Prepare a course outline

When I was in high school nearly every teacher gave us this on the first day of class. I listened quietly while the teacher explained what we were going to do for the year and ended up with a stack of course outlines at the end of the day. Then I filed them away in my binder and never looked at them again. Your students likely don't care much more than I did, so don't waste a lot of time on this. However, if you have your scope and sequence planned anyway, you might as well make a student/parent friendly version (limit yourself to one page) so you can share it with anyone who might be interested. Save some trees by keeping it digital. You can post it on your Google Classroom page, Managebac, course website, or whatever else you use. You can also email it to students and their families, but that's likely to be as ephemeral as a paper handout. Make it more useful by including your contact info, class rules, required materials list, and so on. Don't forget to remove all educational jargon.

11. Introduce yourself to parents
Man selecting method of communication

Since we're on the subject, you might as well send out a notice to parents using whatever communication platform you and your school prefer. Keep it brief and professional. Introduce yourself, describe your course (focus on skills and goals rather than detailed course content), and welcome them to contact you with any questions or concerns they may have. Also include a photo of yourself so they can put a face to your name (choose wisely).

12. Beautify your classroom

I think a lot of teachers put this near the top of their priority list as they feel that having a welcoming classroom space will improve learning. I'm sure it makes at least some difference, but I think the effect is greatly exaggerated. For some students, your colour-bombed classroom might actually be the kind of sensory assault that distracts them from whatever you're saying (it is for me). Try to make your displays purposeful or interactive in some way, and make them relevant to the whole year so you don't have to change them all the time (unless you enjoy that sort of thing). Reference posters and diagrams are great, like a periodic table or world map. Word walls and student work are great too, but I like to add those as we complete them. A bit of barren wall space is fine (cue the horrified gasps from elementary teachers).

Anyway, I'm definitely a minimalist in terms of classroom displays, although last year I went a little nuts after I raided the elementary school stock room (our elementary school closed and we absorbed their supplies).

13. Meetings

Not a fan, to be honest. I wrote a whole article about meetings and you won't be surprised to know that most organizations are having far too many of them. As they say, a lot of what goes on at a meeting could just be an email anyway, so if you aren't discussing or deciding anything, don't waste your time or anyone else's. If someone wants to schedule a meeting with you during your first few days of prep, just tell them 'no' by politely suggesting a later date. Very few back-to-school meetings are so critically important that they can't wait a week or two.

Other things that can wait:

14. Get familiar with the course content and class materials
lesson plans and course materials, binders and notebooks

In a perfect world you would already know your course content inside and out, including all materials and texts you will be using, but let's be honest - plenty of teachers are taking on new courses they aren't qualified to teach (through no fault of their own). Most are professionals and they'll do the best they can, but the reality is that they will likely be only a lesson or two ahead of their students throughout the year. If this sounds like you, don't feel bad about it! You play the cards you're dealt. I personally think it's ok to be honest with your students and tell them you are new at this. Most will be forgiving if they see that you're trying. My point is that you don't need to be a master of your subject or have the entire text memorized in order to be a good teacher. That said, you'd better learn fast! Also, you can't fake lab skills, so if you're going to invest your valuable time on something, make it trying out experiments before you attempt them with your students.

15. Make an order

Since you've set up your classroom and lab already you should have a pretty good idea of what supplies are running low. Looking through catalogs and writing purchase orders can be a very time-consuming process, however, so save this for a later date if you can manage it. Don't wait too long, though. Orders have a tendency to take weeks or even months to arrive so the earlier you submit them the better. Resist the urge to purchase supplies with your own money unless you absolutely have to.

16. Update curriculum documents

I keep daily, weekly, and monthly plans with notebooks and calendar apps, but these are somewhat cryptic and not at all the sort of official documents departments like to have. Therefore you also need to keep curriculum records that other humans can decipher too. I like to update my curriculum files after teaching each unit rather than before. Of course, the risk is always that you'll prioritize the upcoming unit and not the one you just finished, but if you make some time for this it will almost certainly improve your teaching the following year.

Every two to three years I do a complete curriculum review during my summer vacation. I typically spend a couple of weeks updating everything, but I'm HoD so you probably won't be expected to do this (unless you are too, in which case, enjoy that additional responsibility without additional pay!).

17. Random administrative tasks

A catch-all term for anything that doesn't directly relate to your daily teaching, these tasks can almost certainly be put off for a while. Still, keep a list of admin tasks handy as it can be very satisfying to scratch a bunch of things off your list when you find yourself with an hour or two to spare.

18. Deep clean
woman holding cleaning supplies getting ready to deep clean her classroom

I can't imagine a situation in which you'd be so bored that you want to scoop out the gunk in the corners of your drawers or scrape gum off the bottom of chairs. That's why I put deep cleaning at the absolute bottom of my list. As long as your room doesn't violate health and safety standards, I say forget about it.

That's all, folks!

If you made it this far, you're probably well-prepared for the upcoming school year (or you're simply procrastinating by reading this list). Anyway, I hope you're excited for the kids to return, but for now, just rest up and re-energize yourself for another hectic back-to-school season!

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