How I prepare for a new semester (teacher edition)

Hello, yes, I have a combination of mental illness and neurodivergence that makes me over plan everything. Nice to meet you.

I don’t think I need to try and convince you that teachers have to work hard. At this point, I think it’s a bit gauche to try to argue that we only work during teaching hours and that we get the school holidays free for vacations and pedicures. Obviously there’s a lot of thought and preparation that goes into teaching; preparation that carries a mental cost as well as a physical and financial one. That preparation usually happens before we even get into the classroom.

This post does what it says on the box: it’s a checklist that I use at the beginning of each semester to make sure that I’m going into it as prepared as possible. It quiets the anxious thoughts if I know that I’ve done everything I can to brace myself for the sudden influx of expectation that comes with teaching at universities. You are welcome to take some or all of these checklist points for yourself.

In 2020, I wrote a post about preparing for a semester online. Now, universities are returning or have already returned to campus. I think this checklist would be useful whether you’re online or on campus, since it’s mostly administration, though some elements definitely would need to be tweaked.

  • Write down all the due dates for each class
    • Assessments, important reminders, everything that has a date attached to it needs to be written down in one place – all of this information should be in the class syllabus, so it’s easy to find. I write down the date, as well as what I will need to do (take assignments, grade submission, etc).
    • I put these dates in my calendar but I also write them down on post-its and put them in my office so that I will see when they are coming up and prepare emotionally. If you don’t have an office on campus (as most teachers nowadays don’t) then you can put them up in your home office, or wherever it is you that do your work at home.
    • You could also set electronic reminders on your calendar if that’s your jam (it’s not mine – I don’t like the notifications).
    • This list of dates should also include a list of misc. deadlines (research deadlines, submission of funding requests, faculty meetings, etc)
    • Also, don’t forget public holidays/non-teaching days. Nothing more embarrassing than forgetting that a day is a non-teaching day and showing up to an empty classroom. Trust me.
  • Set up the filing system
    • Each class gets its own little box in my office where I keep the syllabus, student list and workbook (more on that in a bit) that I bring with me to every session. I also keep the activity resources in each class box so that I don’t have to think too hard about what I need to bring – I can just grab what I need as I head to the classroom. It cuts out a lot of anxiety and panic that I might forget something.
    • Even if you just get a shelf in a communal area, you can put one of those little divider thingys in there and separate each class. Just so that you don’t accidentally show up to General English with all of the references and resources ready to teach British Lit 101.
    • Don’t forget the electronic systems. Each class gets its pwn folder in my Dropbox, where I keep electronic versions of everything ready to forward to students who can’t seem to access that information in the usual channels. There’s always a few each semester.
    • I also set up a folder for each class in my email inbox so that I can sort student enquiries by class. That makes things much easier to search for and helps me clean the inbox quickly.
  • Introduction videos
    • I teach a lot of ESL students. They can have varying levels of English ability, and some will be much more comfortable reading information in English than listening to it. That’s why I provide written resources as much as possible. Other students have much stronger listening skills. For them, we have the Introduction videos.
    • In these videos, I basically tell the students who I am and explain the syllabus in about five minutes. These can also help by letting the students know who to look for when they arrive on campus, so that they’re not surprised when they see a young female walk into the classroom and claim to be the teacher (which has happened).
    • These videos can also be quite useful when students can read the syllabus but choose not to. Send them the syllabus and a five-minute video, and usually they’ll go with the video.
  • Prepare all of the classroom resources
    • As I said above, there’s a box for each class and each box has whatever I need to do the class activities.
    • At my university, they expect us to submit the curricula for the classes ahead of time, but they don’t force us to prepare each week’s lecture notes etc in advance. This is something I picked up working at my previous job, where everything – powerpoints, grading rubrics, etc – was prepared and scrutinised well in advance.
      • While that approach did mean extra work at the beginning of the semester, it also meant that during the semester when mental strain was high, I didn’t have to think too hard about what I would do for each class. Past Jess had already prepped all of that and I just had to do what she had planned.
    • Most of my classes do not require a lot of resources but sometimes I will need a deck of cards, a hat full of examples that students can draw from, or even a ball to throw around. When I’m running to the classroom, I doublecheck the class agenda, grab the necessary nonsense, and go. Very helpful.
  • Send the workbooks out to the students
    • My university doesn’t really have a culture of lecturers bringing laptops and powerpoints to class (some classrooms have VHS players, which is adorable). That means that we either have to lecture and hope that the students take good notes, or we have to write everything on the board, or we can use our small yearly budget of photocopying credits to print the lecture notes and bring them to each class.
    • I put my lecture notes into little notebooks – with exercises and homework tasks, as well as extra credit for those students who really want to impress – and make the students print them off and bring them in. This saves me the time, stress, and money that printing lecture notes costs, and it also means that students won’t fall behind if they miss a class.
      • Again, it’s extra work outside of my usual obligations, so this step isn’t something that everyone can do. But if your university makes you prepare in advance anyway, then it’s just an additional step of putting everything in one document and converting it to a pdf.
    • Before the semester starts, I email the students with the url for the workbooks and remind them that the workbooks are compulsory for the classes. During classes, I refer to the workbooks and make students read from them to practice their Reading, Speaking, and Listening skills, and then do the exercises to check their comprehension.
  • Check my wardrobe
    • When I’m at home, I invariably wear some combination of singlet, button-up and jeans (or leggings if the weather permits). At some universities, it is absolutely acceptable to teach in a t-shirt and jeans. That doesn’t fly in Japanese universities.
    • There’s an unofficial uniform that all lecturers wear here. While men can get away with a suit and tie (or collared shirt and jumper and if they’re feeling frisky) the women have a bit more variety. Most wear suits with skirts, never pants. Heels and opaque beige tights are expected. Some of the women I’ve met go for a more business casual look, wearing pants or skirts with more colourful tops and accessories. I’m a foreigner, so I can get away with leaning more towards the ‘casual’ end of the business casual spectrum, but the fact is I still have to be more presentable than I would usually prefer to look.
    • I have a capsule wardrobe of sorts with specific pieces that I can get away with wearing in a Japanese university and still look like a ✧・゚: *✧・゚:* teacher *:・゚✧*:・゚✧ Before the semester starts, I check that these clothes are clean, unstained, and ironed. I also plan out the first few weeks of what I’m going to wear in a spreadsheet because a) it cuts down on decision fatigue, and b) I’m a walking parody.
  • Prepare the emergency kit
    • The emergency kit is a little picnic basket that I bring with me to each class. It has flowers on it, and I’m told it’s very cute. It’s usually for my personal use but I can also hand some stuff out to students if they need it.
    • The emergency kit can include:
      • Spare chalk (or whiteboard markers, if your university has fallen for the whiteboard trend). Also, pencils, erasers, pens, etc
      • Hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes, and spare masks
      • Tissues, sanitary products, a handtowel
      • At least two snacks
      • Staff ID (since I never remember to wear the dang thing)
      • Painkillers and Antacids (true story: once, a student complained that my class was giving him a headache so I threw a packet of panadol at him and told him to get back to work)
      • Phone charger
      • Spare cash (about five hundred yen in change)
      • Safety pins and a tiny little sewing kit
    • The emergency kit is tailored to my specific manifestation of anxiety, so I imagine that not everyone needs a sewing kit and antacids in theirs. Feel free to include whatever sparks joy

And voila! A checklist of things that seem like they should be common sense, as well as things that border on obsessively controlling. Enjoy!

PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  🙂

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