How Planning Lessons a Week Ahead Changed My Teacher Life

Last Updated on August 16, 2022 by Stephanie

Anyone who has been teaching for any number of years has encountered all types of teacher planners as their colleagues. You’ve got the day-by-day planner who is a day ahead in what they are doing. There are the 15 minutes before the kids walk in I’m trying to figure out my life and planning lessons on the fly planners. There’s the loosely planned for the week, but I don’t really have anything ready planner. I’ve also seen (my husband) the planned until Christmas and it is only October planner. All mixes of the above are also around. Planning Lessons is hard work!

In my years of teaching, I have learned to love all of these types of planners. I have personally spent a little time as each during my career. Guys… I figured out what I think is the best one though. I know, I know… everyone is different and I shouldn’t say this is the best. I’m going to tell you why in a minute.

Plan everything… and I mean everything (down to the copies you’re making) a week ahead. I’m saying planning lessons, figuring out groups, making copies, linking videos, and getting your Google slides ready.

Keep reading to find out my favorite online lesson planner, why I made this shift, and how it can work for you!

My Background and Where This Came From

I KNOW I’m not the first teacher to suggest this. I know this. None of us are the best teachers in the universe and know everything. However, I have learned throughout my career that you should ALWAYS share what works for you. You should ALWAYS share your a-ha moments because it could help someone else!

I am a K-5 elementary music teacher. I have taught anywhere between 21 and 26 sections (classes) of students during a school year. As of this blog post writing, I have just finished my 16th year in teaching. My Bachelor’s is in Music Education and I’ve got two Master’s degrees (one in teaching and one in Educational Technology). I tell you all this because I’ve been around the teacher block. I’m not a newbie on the job for a year (more power to those of you that are!) and I’ve tried a million different things.

Planning a week ahead with everything done came out of necessity during the year of COVID. For our 2020-2021 school year, we were remote as specials all year. We never had students in our classroom. We went through 3 different types of schedules that year. The first one was where this came from. Our students met with us as a grade level virtually once a week on live, but we had to have these videos/activities published for them for the week by Monday that tied to our live lesson. This meant that all materials for everything had to be done the week before so I could post everything for the following week. Seriously, this was me, hanging out in my basement planning and teaching for hours on end.

Me Smiling while sitting at my computer planning lessons

When our schedule shifted again and we started seeing the kids more live, I kept planning lessons like that. Then when it shifted a final time, I did the same thing. Back to school for the 2021-2022 school year, I remembered how much I loved that, so I did it again. Holy crap was it amazing.

Planning Lessons a Week Ahead With Everything

When I say planning lessons a week ahead I mean that I would have absolutely everything ready for that lesson. This includes the lesson plan, copies, media, groups, and anything.

What this means is I’m not writing down a few random things like “lesson 1.1” in my planbook (unless all I really need is to know what lesson it is). I’m going to think through what I’m doing during that lesson. Do I show them a video? Are they doing a worksheet? Is there a cooperative structure they are using during the lesson that I need to have things for? I think through all of it.

Using “Catch-All” Slides While You Are Planning Lessons

I have found that my favorite thing to do for this is to create Google Slides that have everything I need. Since I’m music, these are typically unit-based for me. For example, I have rhythm slides that have different embedded videos I use, different images I use to teach from, etc. My friend who teaches 4th grade has daily slides with things linked in. Here’s an example of what my slides for rhythm clap-along videos look like:

This is not in and of itself life-changing… but here’s the thing. Next year, when I go to teach that content again I have it all ready. For this reason, I HIGHLY recommend creating catch-all slides and documents – preferably in Google Docs. For example, if you like to do daily slides, make sure you take that science unit and create slides with your images and embedded videos for the whole unit.  Then, as you plan, you can grab from those and copy and paste them into your daily slides. This may seem absolutely tedious at first, but holy crap does it save time in the coming days and years.

Here are some other examples of great “Catch-all Slides” to create:

  • Topical videos or seasonal videos you like to show.
  • Brain break videos.
  • Graphic organizers you use all the time.
  • Scanned examples of student work for projects to show as examples.
  • Kagan/AVID/Cooperative Learning structures
  • Early finisher ideas.
  • Journal prompts.

These will help inspire your planning in the coming years and are easily sharable with teammates as well.

What If I Change My Mind or Have to Change my Pace?

All the freaking time this happens, right? All. The. Time.

You think that something will take your kiddos 4 days to do and it takes them one. Or you think that they will catch on to something really quickly, but they don’t and you spend an entire lesson on directions when you thought it would only take you 10 minutes (raising my hand and widely waving it over here).

In my experience, I’m putting this out here:

I would rather be totally planned out and have to take something out or re-arrange something than fly by the seat of my pants a half hour before the students walk in.

If the first happens and it takes kiddos a lot less time than you thought… aren’t you lucky that everything is planned for the week? You’ve got your plan time to figure out how to fill things in! If later happens and they take longer… sweet! That means you bump the lessons forward and you are half planned for next week. Is My Favorite!

With how much I talk about, you would think I’m getting money to talk them up, and I am absolutely not. I just love them. They have a pretty awesome setup, it is super budget friendly ($15 a year as of this posting), makes copying and pasting and moving lessons SOOO easy, and it can be configured for MANY different schedule types.

The bump button is my favorite button in my teacher planner of choice,  You click on the lesson and hit bump and it will move the lesson you want forward or backward AND all the other lessons you have planned! You can also Extend a lesson and it will do the same… sooooo amazing! Oh, how I love it! lesson planner for planning lessons online.

Planning Lessons Ahead One Week Though? Why One Week?

This is a super-loaded question, but I do have an answer for this. One week is manageable. One week is also not too much time. Planning lessons a month in advance is a bit too risky in my opinion and is honestly promoting a more fixed mindset. One week allows for the flexibility of teachable moments and differentiation in your classroom.  Here is the real reason though:

What did you sign on to do? To Teach.

What did you NOT sign on for? Managing email, dealing with parents, having to do a MILLION managerial tasks for your school district, and assigning grades to everything under the sun.

blocks with the word teach on them

Yes, we all knew going into teaching that we would be dealing with these things. I don’t think we knew HOW MUCH we would be dealing with these things though. Planning lessons ahead a week allows for the random that pops up. It allows for that half-hour plan time that gets completely taken by a parent phone call you thought would be 5 minutes. This allows you to keep your head when they decided to schedule that emergency meeting before school on Thursday when you were going to plan for science that day.

Simply said, planning lessons ahead allows you to be more stress-free and able to deal with the crap that pops up during your week. Being a productive teacher means that you have to plan to be able to not plan. If you’re already teaching, you know exactly what that means!

How I Structure My Plan Time For This

I am a social butterfly… I talk a lot and probably too much. In the past few years though, I’ve learned that I can only do that when my work is done. That is number one on the list of structuring your time. You have to use your plan time to plan! Choose to make your life easier in the day-to-day, close your door and get stuff done.

Email Sucks

With that said, I have done a series about something called Inbox Zero and totally believe that it is something that teachers need to follow. Want to sideline your ability to be a productive teacher? The best way to do that is to keep your email open all the time. Again, you signed on to teach kids. You absolutely need to check your email right before the kids come in because any last-minute reminders for the day or from parents might be in there. Either right before lunch or after lunch is another great time to check it. Then right before the end of the day. Any other time during the day, close that tab on your browser. Yup. If there is an emergency, you will know. I can think of a few different times in my career that we have gotten the all-call to check our emails.

Most contracts that I’ve seen have something about professional and timely responses to communication. Unless it is absolutely urgent, you’ve got 24 hours to respond.

Let’s use this example: Bob’s mom emails you about his math grade and how she’s angry because she didn’t know he was struggling (even though she saw all the poor quizzes coming home the past few weeks). Give Bob’s mom and yourself a minute and don’t respond right away. Don’t do it. If that conveniently happened during your plan time and you shoot that email off right away, chances are mom, who’s still hot from sending the first email, is going to still be hot when she reads your response. Give it a moment and email her in the morning. “Sorry Mrs. so and so, Mondays are a packed schedule here and I wanted to make sure I took time in my response and double-checked to make sure that all of his quizzes were in fact sent home with him.”

My principal, the secretaries, and… that’s about it. That is who deserves my immediate attention because they are sharing something with me that may affect my day.

Priorities – Be Realistic

I love that people consider teachers heroes, and I fully believe that all are. However… we are NOT super-heroes. We do not have the ability to slow down or speed up time nor can we create hours in the day that are not there. The way this works is to be realistic with what you are doing and to actually do it. A productive teacher has a plan in place and is able to adjust quickly to the unforeseen.

To plan the week ahead, I like to set priorities for my daily plan time. My first priority is to get plans for the next week done, to clean out my “inbox” (not email – more on that later), do my to-dos, and act on my email.

To do this, I pick a topic (for me it is a grade level) to tackle and get it all done. Do NOT plan by days of the week. Batch planning is where the time saving comes in. When you’re in math planning mode, you are in the math planning zone. Stay in that zone until you are done with everything for the week. Chances are if you are searching for things, you might find ideas for later in the week. If you are creating things, you already have graphics, and videos pulled up for it. Stay in that topic until it is done for the week!

After this, I flip over my inbox.

An inbox is Awesome

I keep an “inbox” on my desk. This inbox has anything in it that needs attention (grading, anything from my mailbox, etc.) Ideally, on Monday morning, that inbox is empty, but that is not always the case. Right now my inbox has some signs I need to hang around my room, my empty sub folder, and some IEPs I need to sign.

Here is an AMAZING rule that David Allen (productivity guru) says:

If it takes less than 2 minutes to do it. Do it. Don’t put it on a list for later, don’t put it in the box. Just do it.

For everything else, there is the “inbox” on my desk. At any given time, my inbox has crap I pulled out of my mailbox in the office, laminated things that need to be cut, papers to grade, drawings kids gave me, extra copies from a group of lessons that are done, etc. I flip it over (because essentially anything at the bottom got in there first) and I process it first.

What does it mean to process it? Let’s take each example I mentioned:

  • Crap from my mailbox – Papers to file or forms to fill out. If it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it. Or, I “file” it and put a task in my ToDoist to do it later.
  • Laminated things – hand it off to a parent or aide that can do it if they’ve offered in the past or put it in my cabinet and create a task in my ToDoist for when I’ve got more time.
  • Papers to grade – file in class to grade cubby and create a task in my ToDoist.
  • Drawings kids gave me – hang it it up or put it in my smile file.
  • Extra copies – This takes less than two minutes… file it or trash it.

Awesome! Now, depending on the time I have left in that planning time, I will choose to either start planning another topic or grade level or I might do something on that to-do list. I’ve already completed at least one topic. Eat the frog and get something meaty done when you are most productive. For me, that is the morning when there aren’t any kids or adults in the classroom. Save the mindless to-dos for times when you have a fleeting moment here and there.

Organize Your Notes and To-Dos

You may have noticed that I mentioned ToDoist several times in the above list. ToDoist is my task management system of choice. I put all my to-dos in there! I also like to use digital notebooks to keep everything in one place as well. If you haven’t heard about digital notebooks, check out this post about 10 Ways That Digital Notebooks Help You Get Things Done.

I have used a digital notebook for the past several years to keep all meeting notes, checklists, schedules, class lists, student information, etc. and it has been a game-changer. I love that everything is in one place. This YouTube video is of my setup for the 2022-2023 school year and shows how easy it is to use digital notebooks yourself. After years of making one for myself, I made one for y’all! Check it out by clicking on the image below:

Digital Teacher Notebook for planning lessons and putting all teaching materials in one place.

Whatever you use, just make sure you’ve got yourself organized so you aren’t searching for that random piece of paper on your desk where you wrote something down last week to remind you about something. Being a productive teacher means that we are always looking for ways to get things done more easily.

It Will Get Easier

The more you stick to planning lessons out in larger chunks, the easier it will get. You will get a lot faster at it as you do it as well. Here are a few tips to help you even more with this idea.

  • Plan your least favorite subject to plan somewhere in the middle, but NEVER last.
  • Knock out something that will take you a lot of concentration first, then follow it with something quick (something that has a prewritten curriculum or is easy for you to teach.)
  • If you use Google Drive, use Workspaces to save all the things you need to send to the printer for that week in one spot.
  • If you don’t use a digital filing system, have a running list of the copies you need to make for the following week as you plan.
  • Don’t stop to print or create something while you’re planning – save that for once all plans are done.
  • Put digital media like videos and images into a master slide on the topic to save you a LOT of time!
  • Use a digital planner like planbook to save from erasing and rewriting things… copy and paste is a beautiful thing.

Final Thoughts

I am just one teacher. There are thousands of us. It is my belief that we should always share what’s working for us though. You may help out another teacher who is struggling, and in this profession, we need all the help we can get. That’s where this post is coming from.

It took me 15 years to figure out that this was the best way to work for me. I’m sharing this in hopes that it doesn’t take you that long to figure out a system that works for you. Take a few of these tips for yourself, share them with others, or do your own thing!

Either way, happy teaching!

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