Secondary Teacher's Checklist for Planning in Unprecedented Times: 12 questions to ask as you prepare for a new year

Jul 09, 2020

Use this teacher's checklist to make sure you (and your instructional units!) are prepared for this unprecedented school year.

This is going to sting a bit when I say it: we talk a lot in education, but rarely do we keep pace with our walk.

Classrooms are quick to claim 'student-centered', but with the mounting pressures of standardized assessment, our dreams of student-voice and choice get deferred by compliance-based systems.

Schools wear 1:1 tech capabilities like a badge of honor, but when COVID-19 struck, teachers were positively paralyzed in a digital sea of 'what to do?'.

And while plenty of campus mission statements ooze with 'college and career' -ready promises, the truth is, most students are groomed exclusively for a college-bound path, leaving practical skills and application to sit on the sidelines of our curriculum.

In short, instruction in today’s schools is far from optimized.

But there's hope yet, friends.

Many have said that 2020 would be the Year of Clarity. For teachers, especially, hindsight is proving to be 20/20 in 2020.

In working through this crazy season of crisis response, in our efforts to emergency-teach from a digital distance, we've learned a LOT.

And as we work in solidarity to re-wire our curriculum and flush out racism, we're UN-learning a lot, too.

Looking back now, we've been pretty uncomfortable at one point or another, haven't we?

But here's where the 20/20 comes in...

We've grown more as educators in these past few months than we likely have in our professional development over the years.


Because at one point or another, we've been totally uncomfortable as we stare down the challenges before us in this unprecedented year.

And while we might dis the discomfort, this is where our growth is being born (and born again!).

So now that we've broken *that* bread, here's a little tough love from your fellow teacher friend...KEEP GOING.

DON'T head back to your classrooms and fall into familiar patterns this fall.

(There's a reason for the season! The reset button is being pressed for a purpose!)

And if I top it off with my Truth today...

Who you are right now--as gracefully as you've grown--is NOT good enough for who you need to be next year as an educator.

Virtually everything around us is seismically shifting, and at a rapid rate. It's time we stop settling for the status quo and start optimizing our instruction for new-era challenges.

Too often, we assign activities for which we know the exact outcome.

We maintain activities from year to year because they're already built out.

We brush aside big ideas because we get busy, and we see other teachers doing awesome things with their students, but sell ourselves short: ‘There’s no way I’LL pull that off.’

It's time to stop assuming we CAN’T:

  • (a parent might complain!)
  • (my department chair might come after me!)
  • (the principal might reassign me!)
  • (there's no time for that!)
  • (that'll never work for MY kids!)


And start presuming we CAN.

In this post, I'm giving you your teacher's checklist for optimizing, so you can give your students the *best* possible learning experiences upon our return to the classroom (no matter where that is). 

So get ready to check yourself (and your lesson plans!) with these Top 12 Teacher's Checklist items for teaching in unprecedented times!

First, let's work on,


Progress--or change--is an inside job. Let's first consider what it's going to take for us to optimize our teaching *mindset* before we ever try to upgrade our instruction. Use this first set of questions in the teacher's checklist to focus on getting your mindset ready!

Checkpoint #1: How comfortable are you with NOT knowing the answer? 

What does it mean to be uncomfortable?

To me (and in the words of Amon Shea), it means 'failing to follow the expected script.'

Right now, the 'expected script' is that we walk into our classroom as the experts. (It's the reason we have our degree, right?)

But here's the tough love...

None of us...are experts right now! In what is shaping up to be a pretty intense modern era, we can't hardly pin down the new normal, let alone pose as an expert in it!

Now don't get me wrong. I get it.

Not knowing the answer when you're in the center of the classroom and you've got thirty sets of eyeballs on you can be *pret-ty* intimidating.

It's uncomfortable. It can be scary. And it sure as heck feels like you could lose all your credibility in half a second if you don't find a recovery strategy quick.

But if there's one thing I've learned about being strong, it's that moments of weakness and vulnerability aren't the nemesis to that. They're part of that growth pattern!

Have a conversation with your kids. Let them know you haven't downloaded the entire Internet into your brain. You don't know all the content ever, but you DO have the problem-solving skill set to figure it out.

The very same brand of ninja skills you hope to pass onto them, in fact.

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Because what happens when you step down from the proverbial pedestal of all-knowing greatness?

You become the ultimate model for the modern era. You show them what we responsibly do when we don't know the answer. You teach them resourcefulness

(Welcome to the new normal ;-) )

Resourcefulness is 'the' skill the workforce needs. One that innovators need. A skill of tomorrow our learners undoubtedly need. 

Checkpoint #2: Are you okay with NOT knowing the outcome? 

Now I'm going to speak from a guilty conscience here. You ready? Maybe you can relate. 

I was that super-structured teacher. 

I designed my lessons from top to bottom, not a screw left loose. I knew all the levers that were going to be pulled. I could easily anticipate the output.

I knew forwards and backward what we were going to do from end-to-end.

Knowing all the outcomes made me feel good: super prepared and ultra-efficient. I was showing up for my kids. I was doing good work. 

Little did I know?

I was playing small.

When you know all the outcomes, you're giving your students something that already has a prescribed answer and waiting on them to give you the answer you already know. 

And what kind of *actual* learning is that?!

What does it look like when we let THEM get in there? When we let our learners decide which levers to pull? What work is to be done?

Are you willing to really do that?!

It's a lot of letting go...(I literally know.)

But in letting them do so--even if they mess it all up--we're inviting them to practice creative problem solving, quick thinking, and how to be resilient humans no matter what comes their way.

In what ways can you challenge yourself to put your students up to something and not necessarily know how the outcome is going to pan out? 

Put it on your teacher's checklist of 2020 mile-markers to hit, and push the pavement in getting there.

Checkpoint #3: Are you focused on your students finding the right questions--or just the right answers?

Finding the right questions optimizes instruction because creativity, innovation, and progress are literally built on these. 

Rather than solely seeking answers, pivot class work towards the more beautiful question. It'll lead to an answer, of course; but if it's a good question, that answer will lead to yet another question. It's this ongoing cycle of inquiry that moves the wheels of progress and innovation. 

It's not settling for what is (i.e. the tried + true).

It's seeking what is yet to come that'll take learners in the 21st century to higher ground.

Checkpoint #4: Are you willing to welcome a lil' controlled chaos?

We tend to think a quiet classroom is the best classroom. If you can hear a pin drop or whatever, everybody must be totally engaged...not necessarily.

In a swiftly changing era, where solutions arrive just in time, our learners need to be able to literally 'move' with these times. They need license to be creative, messy, loud, and collaborative. 

To pivot, disrupt, and adjust.

Checkpoint #5: In addition to set content (or in lieu!), are you inviting students pursue their own interests?

Once again, I was that teacher who spent 12 hours a day designing my units from end to end. I was the girl who was at her teacher's desk at six o'clock at night perfecting my lessons. 

Here’s the problem: if you design the learning experience from end to end, and you grade all the things inside of it, the only person who’s doing the learning is you.

Jill Pavich

Students need to have clear ownership over content and skills. Especially in these unprecedented times, our students need to be more self-directed than ever. 

(In a digitally-driven society, self-direction is more valuable than ever!) 

There are thousands of job opportunities that focus on freelancing, working from home, or working remotely. Like the freelancer, our learners need experiences in content creation. Like remote workers, our students need to take responsibility for how they structure their work.

In doing so, we are preparing them for a changing career landscape that will be available to them as they enter this brave, new workforce.

Checkpoint #6: Are you willing to open up your classroom walls to real audiences?

I recognize the pain point of this one. 

This is scary. It's a safety issue when you take students--and their work--online. 

There's cyberbullying, and trolls, all kinds of crazy out there.

There's a lot of stuff we worry about as educators--things we don't want to expose our students to, or we don't want to be responsible for. But the truth of the matter is, these kids are exposed to those audiences--unfiltered--whether they're with us or they're not. 

If we continue to ignore that global audience is a 'thing' for this era, we're kidding ourselves and we're underserving them. So what role can we play to help them safely engage with authentic audiences?

This is a question worth checking ourselves against.

In my digital courses, we tackle the tough talk about exposing our learners to real-deal audiences.

It's not something you can do right out the gate. Rather, it's a matter of scaffolding and simulating first with digital resources, using tools like Padlet and Flipgrid which can mimic the idea of public forums and social media platforms.

Little by little, your students can batch their work with you for initial 'approval' before dripping it out into the real world for open feedback and genuine iteration. 

Just keep in mind: we can't simulate what it looks like to communicate with authentic audiences online forever, hoping these contrived scenes are enough to translate.

Our students' motivation is completely different when the walls open up and their voices are heard outside of them, which is why it's so important we leverage that in real ways now.

Checkpoint #7: Are you chasin’ big (instructional) dreams through small steps? 

When we're working with projects and dealing with authentic audiences, and going through a number of different mediums, things are going to go wrong, and some ideas (or whole projects!) are going to straight-up fail. 

For the brave teacher, this is fact.

We certainly can't flip a switch on our instruction overnight, and I don't recommend we throw all our current plans into a dumpster fire, either.

But we can start small, fail forward on that small scale, then work our way up to larger-scale implementation.

Are you willing to play the long game? Are you willing to fail while you do it?

It becomes a question of pride, really. Are you willing to screw it up enough times in front of others--your students, their parents, fellow colleagues--in order to move forward?


To make changes as a teacher, you have to be a vulnerable leader, so if you are starting from the inside out, you have to start with those first 7 checkpoints first.

Once you’ve reflected on your own mindset, then you can start optimizing your units and lessons by working through the latter teacher's checklist items I've outlined below. 

But let's make sure you've reflected back before you move ahead with the whole planning for unprecedented times process, i.e. let's audit before we optimize.

If you have not done so yet, check out the Audit Your Instruction resource by clicking the image below!

(An awesome professional development activity to complement today's post!)

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In doing the self-audit, you're looking back on your previous instructional practices...expending the time to decide, is this good enough? How can I improve it? What needs to be improved? 

Once you get those answers, you can double down on what's working.

And for what isn't working, it's a matter of updating resources and units to better reflect the identities, interests, and experiences of our learners in the here-and-now.


So the next section of our teacher's checklist includes some questions to ask against those materials you plan to hold onto and/or those updated materials you're currently creating.

Checkpoint #8: Can your students see their reflection in the project?

When you create learning experiences for your classes, can your students see their own reflection in it? When they peer into your lessons, activities, projects, or unit plans, can they see their own identities and experiences staring back?

Our kids are figuring out who they are. Some of those identities we can identify directly with, which makes things a lot easier to teach. But some of the things they're going through we can't directly empathize with for one reason or another. Or maybe our community can't, either.

Are you going to steer clear of that discomfort?

If you hope to grow alongside your students (i.e. if you don't plan to be the same person this time next year!), you'll need to lean in a bit and create a safe space amidst the awkward.

It's all about getting them to feel their identity and to understand themselves and how they fit into this world that we're living in.

At the end of the school day, you are your students' number one advocate. 

If they see somebody else is standing up for them, whoever they are inside and out, it's a sure bet you're optimizing the learning experience for the times we're entering into, in 2020 and beyond. 

If you are looking to represent more identities on your bookshelves in this coming school year, check out our Summer 2020 book lists. We’ve got one for teachers and another for young adults to help you #buildyourstack this summer.


Checkpoint #9: For this activity/lesson/unit/experience, what voices/perspectives are centered, missing, or marginalized? How can I fill the gaps or balance the scales?

First determine:

What voices or perspectives are present in this particular unit, or what voices are centered in this particular activity?

Now identify: what voices are missing?

What voices are marginalized? And, how can I work to balance those things in order to optimize this experience for all my students? 

As I ask myself these questions, I likely don't know what I don't know. So instead of trying to pretend like I do, I'm better off asking fellow colleagues to review my choices with me. Or hopping online and using the digital space to my advantage.

As I audit and optimize my existing plans for the coming year, it literally requires perspective from other people and it is essential we lean on professional development and our community of colleagues. 

Jill Pavich

Checkpoint #10: Can students feel a sense of genuine ownership in what they’re learning or creating?

Is the unit regarding something that actually matters to your students? Are they getting a chance to actively create inside of it, and are they creating in the name of something that matters to them?

And if we're going to optimize the learning experience for the 21st-century learner, they're going to need to feel like they’re directing their own experience rather than it being dictated to them.

If we can help our students better understand who they are and what they value, they can more readily identify what it is they care about.

The minute your kids figure out what they're passionate about in this world, they are going to be persistent about chasing that passion.

(Where there’s a will, there's a way, right?!)

And here's where the magic comes in.

When we are driven to do something, genuine skill-building naturally follows. We organically seek out the skills to make that goal or dream happen.

Passion projects are one way to give students space to explore their interests. And they're also a great way for our students to fall in love with that *process*.

But a word of caution here.

Projects are NOT an afterthought. It's not ‘read the book, take the quizzes, do a couple of group activities, take the test, then let’s do a project if there's time.

(Do not do that!)

Projects are the main event.

That's how we pivot away from the product and pivot toward the process.  

# 11: Am I being flexible?

Next, ask yourself this: as I create deadlines, am I leaving room for open exploration?

Does the concept of white space exist for the UNplanned and UNexpected?

Give consideration as well to whether you're giving your students flexible enough options to demonstrate their skills, when they share out, and how they showcase work.

This might mean you let your students work with different mediums, or with other programs, you're not necessarily familiar with. And that they share control over checkpoints and deadlines.

Checkpoint #12: Does this learning experience invite students to create, test, and iterate--and are these actions naturally spurred by feedback offered by someone other than themselves?

We've chatted 'process over product' in this post, and we've also addressed the need for authentic audiences as a part of this teacher's checklist. It's on our teacher's checklist twice because not only do we need to ensure our learning experiences include this, but we have to be comfortable with these concepts ourselves.


My Kickstart Kit, a rather robust (and very free) resource, will expose your students to authentic audiences as well, and it'll get them writing because they want to, not because they have to!


To wrap it all up…

This is the year 2020, and that means we need to have a clear vision as we move into this new, unprecedented school year.

We need to use this teacher's checklist to check ourselves and our units and make sure that we are growing through our discomfort. 

We must look for holes in our instruction, and seek out better ways to build community in our classrooms whether that is in the assignments and projects we create, the books on our shelves, or the processes we use to reflect.


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PS...Some of the book links in my posts are affiliate links, which means I can make a small commission from them.  There is *zero*, additional cost to you, of course.  I only share and affiliate myself with resources I believe in: I’ve either created them myself, tried them for myself, or they’re simply in line with my values as an educator.  So rest easy on that laurel, ma’ friends ;-)


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