How the Experts Prepare for Back to School

The new school year is almost upon us, and teachers are doing their best to prepare for the new influx of students. It is a challenge that few understand; between “summer slide” learning regressions, and curricula and classrooms to prepare, many teachers start the planning process early to facilitate the best learning environment and ensure their students can become the best versions of themselves from the moment they walk into the doors. Learn how industry experts prepare their classrooms and students for success from the first day.

How Experts Prep for Back to School


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Coming Back from the Summer Slide

The phenomenon known as the “summer slide” is real. On average, a student loses a month of learning during the summer months. Economically disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience higher levels of summer slide, particularly for reading. A comprehensive review of the literature found that the higher the grade level, the greater the amount of summer slide. Another study, assessing over 500,000 students between grades 2-9, found that students lose 25-30% of their previous school year, on average, learning over the summer months. Teachers must prepare themselves to address this slide and think about how they facilitate each student’s learning from the first day in the classroom.

The summer slide doesn’t just apply to students. Teachers may feel like they are just getting into the groove of summer, only to find it is time to prepare for another year. Taking a few actionable steps before school starts can make an otherwise busy time of year run as smoothly as possible.

Jessica Wertheim, Chief Learning Officer at Dearest, Inc

Jessica Wertheim, Chief Learning Officer at Dearest, Inc.:

“Historically, summer learning loss has the biggest impact on students’ spelling and computational math. And while most teachers do encourage students and parents to take just 15 to 20 minutes per day to work on those skills, my initial back-to-school activities do heavily incorporate remediation for those skills specifically.”

Annette Durbin, Ed. D. Author at The Digital Teacher

Annette Durbin, Ed. D., NBCT MC/Gen, Author at The Digital Teacher:

“One of the most important steps to prepare for a successful year is to engage in a reflection of the prior year.

End each year with a reflection of learning, curriculum, projects, technology, etc. before heading out on summer break. Reflect upon what worked well, what needs improving, and suggestions from students/parents provided on an end of year questionnaire. Also look at student assessments to determine common trends that need attention. Based upon this information, I also take time to make games, learning units, research technology integrations, etc. If you didn’t have a chance to reflect, now is the time to prepare for the new school year.

At the end of July, I pull these notes out and read my thoughts. I find that if I wait until July or August to reflect on the prior year, I often don’t remember everything that I need to review. I get my teacher notebook/planner ready and begin mapping out the curriculum with my reflective adjustments. If I know my students, then I can tailor the curriculum map; however, oftentimes this doesn’t happen until a few days before school starts. Therefore, as I get to know my students the first couple weeks of school, I tweak my curriculum map as needed.”

Dr. Aaron Smith, The Innovative Catalyst Speaker

Dr. Aaron Smith, The Innovative Catalyst Speaker:

The Innovative Catalyst Speaker

LinkedIn Profile

“I always start by reflecting on the school year. How did things go well, what should I have done different, and what projects need to get developed before the start of the school year.

Part of this concept includes grant writing, visiting with parents, seeking input from our business partners, and thinking about how can I make the operations better and more efficient.

Having a task board helps me to remain focused on what needs to be completed before the start of the school year.

The board gets updated daily. I remove tasks when I’ve finished them while there are things I have to add.

Another thing I do is peruse blogs, LinkedIn, and other sources for trends or ideas to build upon for making the new year enticing for staff and students.”
Michele D'Errico Campbell, 7th Grade Teacher

Michele D’Errico Campbell , 7th grade

English teacher at Samuel L. Wagner Middle School in Winterport, Maine:

LinkedIn Profile

“As a middle school teacher who needs a summer break as badly as my students by the time June rolls around, I have a rule. Well, it’s not really a rule so much as a way to be sure that I fully enjoy the precious family, friends, and relaxation time that summer affords me as an educator.

It’s a simple “rule” really:

I do not think about school until August 1st.

Then, it’s go-time. Time to use all of that recharging time and start thinking about how to make the upcoming school year the best it can be for my incoming 7th graders.

How do I do that? Well, a few ways. I start thinking about how to make my classroom space feel safe and welcoming and I take a closer look at what I already do in my actual teaching that worked well the year before (and maybe what didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped!).

Admittedly, as a veteran teacher, it’s quite a bit easier for me to plan for the school year than it used to be. I’m no longer needing to create brand new lessons, but rather tweaking what I did the year before, making sure that what I do is still relevant and engaging for my students.”

Where Teachers Go for Inspiration

When reflecting on the previous school year and looking onto the new one ahead, teachers can find inspiration in a variety of places. On a practical level, there are several tools that help teaching professionals make the most of their time and effort. Others find inspiration and advice from leaders in the field, peers, conferences, and even nature.

Each teacher must find the process that works for them and include it their ritual for each academic year.

Jessica Wertheim offers further advice for her colleagues. “My fellow teachers, co-teachers, and assistant teachers are incredibly knowledgeable, both across grade levels and subject matter, and are fantastic inspiration thought-partners. Also, my students’ interests (and suggestions) are always at the forefront of my mind when thinking through lesson plans and potential activities for the school year.”

Annette Durbin offers these words of inspiration about how to be inspired from her blog.

Inspiration comes from everywhere – the students’ ideas generated from the end of year/back to school questionnaire, my summer activities, Pinterest; Teachers Pay Teachers, and conversation with colleagues are great for starters. More inspiration to guide the year will come from day to day interactions and relationship building with students throughout the year.”

Dr. Smith also offers places he goes to find inspiration. “My favorite place to go for inspiration is the beach – Nags Head, NC. It’s here where I get my therapy. Hearing the waves crash on the beach with the Sun in my face allows me to get away from it all.

After spending a few days permits me to feel refreshed, stress-free, and ready to return.”

Rising Above the Noise and Practicing “Freedom to Teach”

Across the country, returning to school can mean more than just lesson planning. Teachers, particularly those districts with less funding, are experiencing a war on their profession. The important work of fostering the next generation is becoming ensnarled in the current political climate, and teachers are facing shortages and uncertainty for the future.

In fact, teachers are leaving public school systems at the highest rate ever in history. Last school year, there were 110,000 teachers fewer than needed, and all 50 states started the academic year in a teacher shortage.

To make matters worse, enrollment in teaching programs are also down, dropping 38% between 2008 and 2015.

Several factors may drive the trend, including lower funding and teacher salaries that do not keep pace with increased cost of living. President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, says that teachers can become empowered when they can exercise the “freedom to teach”. Free from bureaucratic rules and regulations, free from the stress and worry of performance-based metrics, and freedom to speak and advocate on behalf of their profession and students.

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers:


“Developing a culture of collaboration doesn’t happen magically. It requires trust, leadership and pioneers—all of which are in abundant measure in a district that has become an exemplar for school collaboration—the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County.

ABC’s labor-management partnership is grounded in a set of principles like ‘we will solve problems, not win arguments’ and ‘we won’t let each other fail.’

They know if teachers and administrators help each other succeed, they help students succeed. This is the ethos guiding other places, as well, including Meriden, Conn., and New York City, with its new Bronx Plan.

Teachers in countries that outperform the United States on international assessments have more time for collaboration and planning each day and for visiting each other’s classrooms. That’s because these countries understand that preparing to teach is as important as actual instruction.

By contrast, half of the teachers in the United States reported in an extensive survey that they have never observed other teachers’ classes. They spend more time teaching than educators in higher-performing countries and average an hour less per day for planning and collaboration.

So here’s an idea: Build more teacher time into school schedules in addition to individual prep periods to observe colleagues’ lessons, to look at student work, and to plan collaboratively.

What else does collaboration do? Collaboration fosters trust, and vice-versa. One of the largest scale long-term studies of school improvement showed the most effective schools have highest degrees of trust. How do you do that? Sharing information, discussing issues and solving problems with teachers, which gives them voice and respect as integral parts of a learning organization. This is every bit as important as having a credible system of teacher development and evaluation. So here’s another idea: Trust teachers. Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—WITH teachers, not TO teachers.”

As Weingarten suggests, collaboration in the teaching profession must occur on a nationwide scale to prevent burnout and attrition in the profession. In the meantime, however, teachers can take a few steps to prepare themselves for the busy year ahead by collaborating with one another and using collaborative tools that make the job easier.

Here are more thoughts on collaboration and ways to engage with it from our expert teachers.

Michele D’Errico Campbell finds help from the site, Teachers Pay Teachers. “Teachers Pay Teachers is an awesome website for both veteran and new teachers alike. It’s a great way to plan for your year without having to reinvent the wheel and to find new, fresh ideas as planning occurs. As I find units and lessons, I adapt them for my own needs. It’s not just for planning lessons either! I found a great bulletin board (I’m terrible at creating fun and engaging bulletin boards for my students) called “InstaGrammar” with funny grammatical errors in real places using a fake Instagram-like account. Students love reading that board and feel connected socially to something English-related! Imagine that!

While it’s important to do all we can for our students, my one BIG piece of advice for all teachers, new and veteran, is to take care of yourself.

You cannot be a great teacher if you don’t feel happy and healthy yourself. And summer is not enough of a recharge to get you through your school year.

So, while you plan for the upcoming year, do something for yourself in your classroom. Personally, I’m excited to purchase a rolling laptop cart for myself. I’ll be able to stand more when I do things that involve my laptop like conferencing with students, discussing grades, and entering assignments into my grading system.

Most of all, enjoy your students and make every school year better than the last. Your students will remember you and be grateful for it.”

Incorporate Technology and Tools to Make the Job Easier

One tip veteran teachers and leaders have to make the job easier? Take advantage of tools and technology that can facilitate student learning. The right student setup, for example, can foster student discussion and make your lessons run by more smoothly. Research shows that student arrangements can impact student learning, even by subject and grade level. Student learning outcomes, for example, improved when elementary students had access to age-appropriate furniture. Even for the veteran teacher, seating arrangements and collaborative tools are worthy of careful consideration before the school year starts.

Annette Durbin, who has real world experience with teaching both live and digitally, describes how to craft a comfortable learning environment. “Providing an engaging learning environment includes the materials, classroom layout, and furniture. Using flexible seating options and tables provides an inviting and homey feeling in my classroom. I’m always looking for more flexible seating options for my students to meet their individual needs.

I have found that when allowing students choice and varied seating options, behavior and work completion increases.

This results in more learning and higher achievement – research supports flexible seating, too.

Teaching 21st century skills is paramount; therefore, using a variety of methods to teach these skills is a focus. I use 3D printer and engage students in critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity via STEM lessons, maker space, math exemplars. I am also always on the lookout for more items that will engage and motivate students while differentiating instruction to personalize learning.”

Colleen Wildenhaus, Founder Good Bye Anxiety, Hello Joy: Supporting the Anxious Child

Colleen Wildenhaus, Founder Good Bye Anxiety, Hello Joy: Supporting the Anxious Child:

“Creating a classroom environment that supports all learners is the best way to create engaged, successful students. If I have students with special needs or going through a rough patch in life, I can find activities and literature to help create a community of understanding and acceptance from the first moment we come together as a class.”

Dr. Smith explains a tool that he’s exciting about using this year. “One item that I’m excited to use this year is the Oculus Quest. Our magnet is bringing VR on-board, and this will be a game-changer where students will get to use them in their lessons.

We’re researching the features while the teachers are out and will have the configurations done so teachers will get a brief training on what we’ve discovered.”

Preparing Students for the Year Ahead

Teachers are not the only ones who need to prepare for the school year. While educators are hard at work preparing their classrooms and creating lesson plans, parents should ideally be preparing students to return to a busy schedule. A robust body of research supports the notion that parents are, and should be, a child’s first and most important teacher. Parental involvement has a positive effect on motivation, social and cognitive development, and academic achievement. On a practical level, parents can also be involved in the process of starting their children off on the right foot.

Dr. Fran Walfish, Family & Relationship Psychotherapist and Author

Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS TV, and co-star on WE tv.

“As summer winds down, back-to-school anxieties are in high gear. After months of playing, vacationing and spending time at home, it’s completely natural for a young child’s nerves to be on overdrive as the first day of class approaches.”

Dr. Fran recommends the following tips to parents to get their students ready for the new school year:

“Implement a regular bed time and routine beginning 10 days before school starts. This will help your child’s body get into the groove of winding down and waking up at an earlier hour.  When school begins, your child’s body, energy, and focus will be prepared for school’s physical and mental expectations and demands.

Talk with your child about what to expect. Find out their grade level’s schedule. For example, ‘First, your class will gather on the yard and all of the children will say ‘I Pledge Allegiance,’ then you will walk to your new classroom,’ and so forth. Include talking about feelings. You might say something like, ‘You may feel excited or even a little nervous or scared. Those are natural feelings that everyone feels on their first day at school or in a new job.’ You want to normalize the experience.

Include your child in shopping for school supplies. Encourage him to choose his own backpack and lunchbox. Make it personal and specific to your child.

Visit the school campus with your child before school resumes. If possible, allow her to see her new classroom and play in the schoolyard. Familiarity breeds comfort.

Arrange play dates with two or three of your child’s classmates. Ask the principal for a class roster with contact numbers. If your child can make one or two friends before school starts, he will be so much happier to go to school.  This is a sure antidote to school loneliness and feelings of isolation.”

Relax, Enjoy, Have Fun

The back-to-school grind brings a flurry of activity, and with it, stress. Teachers, students, and parents alike can feel overwhelmed with the responsibilities that August and September can bring. While teachers can do their best to prepare by creating lesson plans and making adaptations to the classroom that foster learning, sometimes the best advice is to relax and enjoy the process.

Remember your training, remember why you went into the profession, and remember to take care of yourself, both now and throughout the busy year ahead. Enjoy the good moments as they come, and don’t allow yourself to become overburdened by the bureaucratic burdens that can sometimes come with the profession.

Think about these words of encouragement from those in the field:

Dr. Aaron Smith, “Take at least one week where you ‘off-line.’ Spend time with the family where they are your focus.”

Randi Weingarten, “Teachers are drawn to this profession because of their love for children and their passion for teaching. Let’s reignite that passion, not extinguish it. So, to America’s teachers, my heroes who ‘inspire, encourage, empower, nurture, activate, motivate and change the world,’ I say keep fighting. And keep caring. You are making a difference not only in your classrooms but in reclaiming our profession.”

Adam Cole, Jazz Musician & Teacher

Adam Cole, A Jazz Musician Who Writes Books:

“This year I’m starting at The Willow School of Georgia to create a brand new music program. The director has kindly agreed to purchase a variety of musical instruments. It’s going to be a great year!”

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