School’s In!

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A back-to-school checklist

By Charity L. Preston

No matter how many years you have been teaching, the start of a new school year brings an onslaught of emotions: nervousness, excitement, and-without question- stress. Whether you have diligently been planning and working on projects over the summer or spent the whole summer relaxing, the reality of back to school often comes faster than expected. Be prepared and don’t leave anything out with this easy-to-use back-to-school checklist.


Making sense of paper and virtual files is one of the most challenging organizational hurdles teachers face. Many teachers tend to stockpile resources throughout the years- thinking “I might use this next year”- until the amount becomes overwhelming. Here are a few things to keep in mind when getting paper items under control.

  • Organize! It takes a lot of time up front, but you will be so glad you did it. Label your materials and files as well as the drawers on file cabinets and other storage areas. Group related lessons and curriculum in labeled binders or in folders on your computer.
  • Have forms ready. Do you have your parent form ready, including details such as transportation arrangements? Do you have a sign-up form for parents who want to volunteer? Do you have a form on which parents can share details about their child? And don’t forget to have the preprinted school forms ready to hand out as well.
  • Class lists. Make sure you have plenty of copies of your class list, at least 3-4 copies. They are handy to use as checklists when you need to make sure that all students have done a certain thing.
  • Write and send welcome letters. Nothing gets a student more excited about the first day of school than hearing from their teacher personally. It makes a good impression on the parents too.
  • Get some student insight. Read through those files you get on each student in your class. Pay special attention to behavior issues, learning issues, and other notes. If possible, discuss the students with their previous teachers. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel if another teacher has already discovered some solutions. (Note: Some teachers prefer to leave this until after the school year has begun so there are no preconceived notions about a student right off the bat. Act according to your preference on this one).
  • Newsletter. Have your classroom newsletter ready to go home the first week. Include topics you will be covering, upcoming events, helpful reminders, and requests for help.
  • Plan the first week of lessons. How will you welcome the students, build a community, teach classroom rules and procedures, and assess learning styles and skill levels? Make sure the first morning’s activities are flexible since you will most likely need to field parent questions, hand out administration welcome messages, or accommodate school tour schedules. A welcome packet of activities and games tends to work very well.


Once your paper items are organized and ready to go, stop for a moment and think about how your ideal classroom will be run. Have procedures in place before they are needed for how to collect assignments, what to do when a student is absent, and how to collect the lunch money. Being prepared with some of these things will make for smooth sailing even if you are a brand-new teacher.

  • Determine your classroom management strategies. What system will you use this year? Make sure you have all the supplies for that system. Don’t forget rewards too.
  • Classroom rules. How will you decide on classroom rules? Have your materials ready to record and post them, even if that is something you will do with student input.
  • Classroom helpers. Do you have jobs available for students? How will you choose your student helpers? How often will they rotate? Will their names be displayed on a poster with moveable cards or perhaps on a magnet board?
  • School lunch choices. Choose and set up your system for keeping track of student lunches. This can be simple marks on the board or clips/sticks moved to a choice area. This makes a great classroom job for older students.
  • Decide on your homework policy. How much, and how often? Will it be graded? How will you track it?
  • Parent communication. How will you communicate with parents this year, and how often? Will it be on a daily calendar in a folder or binder, or will it be weekly? Have those forms and supplies ready.
  • Determine classroom procedures. This is one of the most important things to think about. You should have a procedure in place to let the students know what to do upon arrival, where and when it is appropriate to go to the restroom, and how to get students’ attention. Set procedures for handing out papers, turning in papers, lining up and walking in the hall, going to lunch, asking questions during class, transitions, packing up at the end of the day, etc. The more procedures you have in place, the more smoothly your classroom will run. Don’t forget that all these procedures must be taught. Teach them a few at a time so as not to overwhelm the students. Plan on spending an entire month reviewing the procedures. Anything less and you will be frustrated later when having to repeat yourself over and over again throughout the school year. Put the time in upfront and it will come back to you tenfold. Decide how you will handle such common situations as dealing with students who consistently do not complete work, make-up work for absent students, students going to pull-out classes, interruptions during small group activities, working in centers, and the like.
  • Have filler activities ready. You never know when you will have a few minutes to fill. An index card file box with filler activity ideas is great to have handy.

Classroom Prep

Choosing a classroom theme or selecting decorations and hanging up posters really is a chance to make sure that the classroom is a home away from home that expresses who we are as teachers and our personalities. Many teacher evaluations these days do include some sort of classroom criteria on which the classroom environment will be evaluated, so make sure to put your best foot forward and prepare your classroom in the right way for your students from the very beginning.

  • Decorate and set up your classroom. Hang up all posters. Decorate bulletin boards and your door. Put student nametags on their desks. Stash extra items in closets, cabinets, or extra tables so the room looks inviting and neat to welcome students and parents.
  • Storage. Where will students keep their belongings? Label and designate any storage areas.
  • First week books. What books will you read the first week of school? The titles and genres should vary depending on the age and ability levels of the students.
  • Supplies. Decide how you want to set up supplies. Will they be community or individual supplies? How will each folder and notebook be labeled? How will student binders be set up? Having preprinted labels and examples of how each should look makes the set up much easier.
  • Make a daily schedule poster. Be sure to include your rotation schedule and any special times such as library or guidance.
  • Emergency bag. Do you have your emergency bag ready for drills and true emergencies? Inside should be any signaling system your school has; a copy of the emergency procedures; class list; flashlight; basic first aid kit; and a read-aloud book, crayons, pencils, and paper just in case you are stuck out of the classroom for a while.
  • Design your room. Think back on how you have set up your room in the past. What worked, and what did not? How will you arrange the desks? Will you need to make room for an overhead or interactive white board projector? Make sure cords are not a tripping hazard. Decide and plan out the arrangement.
  • Personalize your own desk. Make sure you have any personal items you may need such as snacks, medicines, water, hair ties, slippers for after school hours, lotion, etc. available in your desk. Decorate your desk with things that make you happy, such as photos and drawings.
  • Student birthdays. Create a poster of student birthdays. Decide on the “present” you will give your students. Make sure parents know the birthday snack policy at your school.
  • Do a technology trial run. Make sure all computers and other devices are hooked up and working properly. If not, put in a work order so they will be working when students arrive.
  • Student mailboxes. How will papers go home, and how often? Many teachers use a mailbox or file folder system and assign “postal worker” as a classroom job. Usually graded work goes home once a week.
  • Set up/update your classroom website. Update all information on your classroom website if applicable. For many families, this is a great way to communicate.

Putting It All Together

Once you have everything organized in and outside of the cabinets, desks, and closets, it is time to put a personal touch on the final preparations. Get ready for open house/Meet the Teacher Night, prepare some icebreakers for the first day, and even share some fun facts about yourself with your new students and parents. Check out these ideas:

  • Prepare icebreaker activities. Many times students will know each other, but sometimes not. Icebreaker activities such as Find Someone Who and others can be great introductions.
  • First-day activities. Choose an All About Me and at least one team-building activity for the first day. Students of all ages love to share information about themselves. This can be done through a Me bag, posters, T-shirt design, puzzle pieces, or something similar. It is very important to instill in students early on that your classroom is a community and that working together is important.
  • Open house. Have your open house and/or Meet the Teacher materials ready. Usually teachers create a presentation for the parents along with some sort of handout. Brochures for the parents to take home work well and can be stored easily for the parents’ reference.
  • Share about yourself. Parents and students want to know more about you too. Make sure you have some information ready to share.
  • Tour your classroom. How will you show students where everything is in your classroom? You could create a fun scavenger hunt or act as a travel tour guide. This is also important to do for the whole school for little ones, new students, or in a new school building.

The bottom line is you want to make sure you are ready for that first day and beyond. You also want your students to feel happy, welcome, and excited to be at school. By having your papers, procedures, classroom prep, and welcome presentation materials ready and waiting, you will put your mind at ease and have a great first day. Enjoy!

Charity L. Preston is an author, teacher, and parent; most importantly, she is an educator in all roles. Visit her at

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