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To-Do List Magic – How to Prioritize Your Teacher Tasks This Summer [episode 131]


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Overview of episode 131:

We’ve been discussing lately how to have a well-balanced summer as a teacher. There needs to be equal parts relaxing and preparing for the next school year. But if you’re anything like us, your summer to-do list is so long and scrambled that you don’t even know which tasks to start with to make the biggest impact. So, in today’s episode, we’re sharing some practical steps to help you prioritize your teacher tasks this summer. 

Just like when we plan for how we want our school year to go, we start with our goals for the year. The same applies when prioritizing your teacher tasks this summer. We discuss how the goals you set for summer always refer back to the tasks you want to complete in the summer. However, we also know your to-do list can be filled a mile long, which is why we share a simple and effective way for you to prioritize your teacher tasks to show you which ones need to be completed first and which ones you can hold off on. 

Summer is definitely a time for teachers to relax and take a break from the demands of school. But we also know the avalanche of tasks that await us when we return in the fall. By creating a summer to-do list and knowing ways to prioritize your teacher tasks, you will find the balance of feeling prepared for the next school year while also enjoying your summer break!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:48] Today’s morning message: Which school lunches would you willingly eat as a teacher?

[04:57] Adding specific goals and clear boundaries to your readiness plan.

[06:40] Steps toward an effective summer to-do list.

[08:47] Distinguishing the difference between urgent and important tasks.

[13:44] Identifying which tasks to start with first.

[17:23] Quick suggestions for getting tasks completed.

[19:54] Today’s teacher-approved tip for making an end-of-year playlist.


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Read the transcript for episode 131, To-Do List Magic – How to Prioritize Your Teacher Tasks This Summer:

Emily  0:37

Hey there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’ve got some practical steps for prioritizing your to do list and a teacher approved tip for a little end of the year fun.

Heidi  0:48

We start our episodes with the morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is which school lunches would you willingly eat as a teacher? Emily did you brave the school cafeteria as a teacher?

Emily  1:04

Almost never. Like I mean, probably less than one hand ever. Just not not my jam. But I think there were a couple times when I was desperate. How about you?

Heidi  1:16

Yeah, same I feel like the lunches we grew up eating were really good.

Emily  1:20

Oh my gosh, thinking about school lunches had made has made me realize like how good we had it growing up. And those lunch ladies were so nice. And they’d be in there making those peanut butter bars like so good cinnamon rolls.

Heidi  1:34

And now it’s all just like prepackaged stuff that they just reheat.

Emily  1:37

Which is not the lunch lady’s fault. It’s the whole system, of course, but some of our community members are getting some decent lunches at their school. It sounds like Natalie said that all of their school lunches are fire. Jealous. Amanda said my school has oven fried chicken that is really good. Also chicken patty chicken nuggets. And she says I’m a child. And cheesy garlic bread. We have some decent options most of the time.

Emily  2:05

Yeah, that doesn’t sound bad. Just lucky. Angela say that our ladies are the best. When kids eat squash at school you know they’re doing something right. That’s incredible. I know. Holy cow. Abby said all of the ones that my former school were really good. I especially loved our beef nachos. If there was something I didn’t like the amazing cafeteria staff would make me and others an absolutely delicious chef salad. I love that taking care of the teachers. So nice.

Heidi  2:31

So nice. I feel like that used to be an option when I was like a new teacher. But it was something that didn’t last.

Emily  2:38

Cindy said our district has amazing apple crumble made with oatmeal. And we have a farm to table day in September when fresh corn on the cob and watermelon is served. That is remarkable. I know I want to go to I want to teach at Cindy’s school. Lots of other people said no meals. Absolutely not. Everything is disgusting. And Tim even said I have never eaten a school lunch in my life. And I clarified even as a student he said, Never.

Heidi  3:06

Crazy. What does he do when he forgets his lunch? Maybe he has restaurants close by I guess my school was not situated.

Emily  3:12

Not options at either of our schools. Well, we’d love to have you join the conversation over in our teacher approved Facebook group.

Heidi  3:19

One of my personal end of school year traditions was the launching of my summer to do list and please know, I have turned that into a proper noun in honor of the reverence it deserves. And that list with all of its many pages became my constant summer companion. My link to sanity and also my jailer.

Heidi  3:43

My mood in the summer was completely determined by how much progress I was making toward checking everything off that list. I happened to land on this particular approach to school prep because I did not always have a productive summer. And I learned the hard way that I would pay for it when school started. If I wasn’t using my summer well.

Emily  4:02

Hopefully this is coming across as a cautionary tale listeners, and not what we would suggest you emulate. Yes, you have things to get done. But enjoying your unpaid summer time should be your main focus.

Heidi  4:15

In last week’s episode, we talked about the different types of recovery you might need this summer. Make sure to go back and check out that episode if you want some ideas on planning your summer.

Emily  4:25

We only get one summer a year. We want to make sure we’re using that time intentionally instead of just drifting through it and hoping we get around to the things we want to do. So we need to make sure that fun stuff is getting scheduled.

Heidi  4:39

But besides plans for lounging and long lunches, we also need a readiness plan so we’re in good shape when school starts.

Emily  4:47

Right. The last thing we want is for a blissful summer to turn into a terrified chaotic school year. That’s why we want to add goals and boundaries to our readiness plan.

Heidi  4:58

You won’t be ready to start the year without having specific goals about what readiness looks like for you. The first step is to imagine how you want to feel as you head into the new school year. And then identify specific goals you can set for the summer to help you get there.

Emily  5:15

Setting clear goals for your back to school readiness will guide you to make the most of your summer work time. Imagine is the end of the summer and you are starting school feeling more prepared than ever, what tasks would you need to accomplish to give you that feeling?

Heidi  5:29

But you know, we don’t want to lose our whole summer to our work goals. So we need boundaries. For example, you may decide that you’re not going to do anything for summer in the month of June and instead you’re going to prioritize recovery.

Emily  5:43

Or you may decide that you’re going to work in your classroom only on Wednesdays. Setting clear boundaries about when, where and how you will work on school related tasks will prevent work life from overshadowing your beautiful summer life.

Heidi  5:56

Okay, we’ve just thrown a bunch of ideas at you. But don’t worry, we have a free resource to help you keep track of it all. Emily has helpfully renamed it the end of your roadmap. And all you have to do to access it is to click the link in our show notes.

Emily  6:11

Yeah I didn’t think our like 20 letter acronym was working for the name of that. This roadmap is designed to bridge the transition between ending the school year and starting your summer. There are pages for reflecting on the last year, pages for planning your summer, and there’s a great page for starting your summer to do list.

Heidi  6:30

So let us dive into the wonder that is your proper noun summer to do list, and discuss how to make it your friend instead of your foe.

Emily  6:39

The first step is to write everything down in one location. You can use the handy dandy Google Sheet we included in the roadmap. Or you can use an app or a notebook or any other method that is useful for you and that you will not lose.

Heidi  6:54

One advantage that digital list making has over paper and pencil lists making is that you always have access to it. If you happen to be brushing your teeth before bed and you suddenly remember you need labels for your book boxes, you can easily just add on your phone. If you have to go find a notebook and 11 o’clock at night that is just not a walk anyone wants to take.

Emily  7:16

And if you write it down on some random piece of paper that you have handy, trust me, you will lose it or come across and be like what is this even for? Once you’ve got a central place to gather all your tasks, it’s time to be pop on over to our end of your roadmap file. And make sure to answer the two guiding questions at the top of the to do list. My goal for back to school season is to feel blank. And in order to feel that way I need to prioritize blank.

Heidi  7:44

When we are faced with dozens of tasks and inflexible deadline late the start of school, it’s so easy to feel like every single task is top priority. But a mindset like that makes it really easy to waste a lot of time on tasks that are not moving the needle. Ask me how I know. There is no sadder wasted time than summer wasted time.

Emily  8:09

If we’re going to sacrifice our free time for unpaid work, let’s make sure that the work we’re doing will give us the greatest benefits. And the key to doing that is to recognize the difference between urgent and important.

Heidi  8:23

I have got to admit that this is a chronic struggle for me like a daily issue. Everything to me feels urgent, so it makes it hard to prioritize which task is most deserving of my time. I am getting better at recognizing the difference now. But when I was a young teacher, it was just an indistinguishable blur of panic.

Emily  8:47

I have definitely been there. And I’m sure we can’t be the only one. So let’s see if we can find a better way. An urgent task is tied to a deadline. An important task is one that moves you closer to your goals. And a tool that can help tell the difference is the Eisenhower matrix.

Heidi  9:04

Oh, you sound so smart. This is gonna be a little tricky to describe. But there is a page for this in your end of your roadmap. So next time you’re on line, open it up and this will just be immediately clear.

Heidi  9:17

But in the meantime, picture a two by two grid. The two boxes in the top row are labeled important. And the two boxes in the bottom row are labeled unimportant. So we’ve got important and unimportant. And now let’s label the column so the left column is urgent and the right column is not urgent.

Emily  9:36

That makes the box in the top left urgent and important. The box in the top right is important but not urgent. Then the bottom left is urgent and unimportant and the bottom right is not urgent and unimportant.

Heidi  9:50

The tricky trap is that tasks that are urgent often feel important, because there will be consequences if you do not follow through. But just because there’s a deadline doesn’t mean the task is important.

Emily  10:03

And these types of tasks crop up more often than we realize.

Heidi  10:07

Especially when there are so many outside people who like to have a say in how teachers use their time.

Emily  10:13

Yeah, it happens all the time. For example, imagine you have a mandatory training on a district initiative you’re already familiar with.

Heidi  10:21

I’m sure this has never happened to any teacher anywhere, course not.

Emily  10:27

So do your best to imagine you’re required to attend a useless training. How do we categorize this task? The training is urgent, because there are negative consequences if you don’t attend. But it’s not important because you already have the information you need.

Heidi  10:42

Ideally, with a task that is urgent, but not important, is one that you can find a way to get out of either you delegate it to someone else, or you kind of push back against the person making that demand on your time. However, we have all learned that school systems are not always that flexible.

Emily  10:59

No, there’s often not a lot of wiggle room with the expectations handed to teachers. So when you find yourself voluntold, to do something, you can’t get out of the keys to do the minimum and unimportant tasks, no matter how urgent is not worthy of your highest efforts.

Heidi  11:15

Right. There is zero advantage for going above and beyond with this task. So just do what’s required to make your administration happy.

Emily  11:23

So how does this help you get ready for the school year? Let’s get back to the goal you wrote, how do you want to feel in back to school season? If you want to feel relaxed, any tasks that will help you feel relaxed fits the category of important. Maybe that means having your first week prepped and ready to go by the end of July, so you’re not stressed.

Heidi  11:42

Or if your goal is to feel excited about teaching, maybe you want to create new science units because you have taught the same thing for the last seven years. Or maybe you want to get all new classroom decor. It might be easy to think that classroom decor tasks aren’t important. But if it is a task that genuinely support your goal, then it is important.

Emily  12:03

Once you’ve identified your urgent and important tasks, you have a good idea of what to start on. Next, you can work on your important but not urgent tasks.

Heidi  12:13

If a task is unimportant, but it still needs to be done, like I said, do what you can to delegate it. And if it is something that is neither important nor urgent, then delete it. Your time, especially your summertime is more valuable than that.

Emily  12:28

Now I don’t know what your summer to do list looks like. But I imagine it’s pretty lengthy. You’ve got giant tasks like set up your classroom and tiny tasks like get a box of tissues.

Heidi  12:39

So the Eisenhower matrix can be helpful in identifying which tasks need your attention first. But it doesn’t tell you which of those urgent and important tasks are urgent and important task. And again, because we’ve got that hard and fast deadline of school starting, it can feel like everything should be top priority.

Emily  13:00

This is why having a clear goal is so important. We need a standard against which to judge our dozens of tasks.

Heidi  13:07

If my goal is to feel prepared, I might have urgent and important tasks like prepare for meet the teacher night, get my classroom set up and plan for the first day of school. So where do I start?

Heidi  13:20

Let’s see what kind of impact each of those tasks has a my feeling prepared. Getting the class set up would probably be the most useful. But I can’t control when my room gets cleaned. And I don’t want to wait around to do that first. And then by comparing meet the teacher night and the first day of school, it’s just a no brainer. Feeling prepared means having the first day of school ready to go. So that’s what I want to work on first.

Emily  13:44

Alright, so we used our goal to identify where we want to start. Now let’s dial in and get clear on what we want to start with.

Heidi  13:52

Earlier in the episode, we mentioned that you need a central place to gather all your tasks. When you know where you want to start, in this case, I want to start with prepping the first day of school, I need to start listing every single task that will meet the goal. So to prepare for the first day of school, I need a daily schedule four dozen sharpened pencils and you know about 200 other things.

Emily  14:17

Turn off that little part of your brain that just started to panic. I promise we’re going to make this manageable. After you’ve listed all the tasks we’re going back to our goal of feeling prepared. Which of those tasks is going to have the biggest impact on feeling prepared?

Heidi  14:32

For me, I am tempted to say that it is physically setting up my classroom. But again, we ran into the barrier of not knowing when the room will be cleaned.

Emily  14:40

And it was always my room last one I was the only one on the team in there working. You know what I mean? It’s just so frustrating. Please come clean my room.

Heidi  14:49

So let’s consider all of the physical first day of school setup as a separate task. And let’s just focus on what we can control right now which is the planning.

Emily  14:59

If planning is your top priority, the next step is to go through and identify any tasks that relates to planning. Circle them, star them, highlight them do whatever you need to make them easy to pick out in your sea of tasks.

Heidi  15:13

If you are using the to do list and our end of year roadmap, we have included a handy feature. For each task, there are two drop down menus, use the first menu to mark all of the tasks on your list that support your biggest goal. So if my biggest goal is to get my planning done, I want to start with making a schedule. So I’m going down my list and I am marking any schedule related tasks with the letter A.

Heidi  15:40

So next to find out what time second grade lunches this year I mark a. And when I do that, something fun happens. And I was really proud of this feature, the whole row turns red. So any task I mark with an A as my top priority turns red. So then I can easily see what I need to be focused on.

Emily  16:01

Once you’ve identified all your top priority A tasks you need to decide which of those tasks should be done first. That’s where the second column comes in handy. Assign each of those A tasks a number. Top priority must do first task is A1 important but I’ll get to it in a bit is A12.

Heidi  16:20

If you are someone who would like to start back to school season feeling prepared, calm and ready to take on the new year, we have good news for you.

Emily  16:28

Very shortly we are launching a brand new course so that you can still prep for school without having to be chained to your computer all summer. We designed this as an audio course so you can listen while you’re hiking or lounging at the pool.

Heidi  16:42

If you want to be the first to know when we open the course so that you can make sure you have a seat, head to

Emily  16:51

In this course we’ll walk you through everything you need to do to set your intentions, identify your priorities, create systems and actually get things done so you can meet all of your back to school goals and keep your sanity.

Heidi  17:04

Plus, we will go step by step through how to build a happy and protect the first day of school. So we have already done all the priority ranking for you so you can get started on getting things done.

Emily  17:16

Actually getting things done is indisputably the trickiest part of having a to do list. So how do we make sure that happens?

Heidi  17:23

This could probably be an episode on its own. But here are some quick suggestions. First, go back to your readiness goals. What work boundaries did you set? Do what you can to ensure that you’re following through with the work time you scheduled. Then plan your work time around your top priority tasks. So you’re making sure that the tasks that will have the greatest impact are the ones that are actually getting them.

Emily  17:48

Second, manage your energy, not your time. We all have 24 hours in the day, but not every hour in a day is equal. If you have the most energy in the morning, do what you can to schedule work time in the morning. If you’re a night owl like us do what you can in the evenings.

Heidi  18:03

Third, try batching similar tasks. We talked about this in Episode 128. But as a refresher, batching is when you group similar tasks together. So if you’re already making copies for the first day of school, why not also make your copies for meet the teacher night and your first week of math lessons?

Emily  18:21

Batching might mean that you’re doing some of your non urgent tasks alongside your urgent tasks. And that’s okay. The point of prioritizing your to do list is to be more efficient, and batching any similar tasks is boosting your efficiency.

Heidi  18:35

Another tip is to kiss your frog. Our mom used to say that if you know you’re going to have to kiss a frog just kiss it and get it over with. And in this case, kissing a frog is not about finding a prince, but about getting a dreaded task out of the way. If there’s an unpleasant task looming in your future, just do what you can to tackle it now.

Emily  18:56

This tip is not so much about efficiency as it is about keeping your morale up. It’s much easier to be productive if you’re not fighting the knot of dread in your stomach.

Heidi  19:06

And our last tip for getting things done is to be realistic. Even if you spent every day at school, you just could not get everything done So be realistic with what you are expecting of yourself. That’s why prioritizing your tasks is so important. If you can check off the most valuable tasks you know that you are starting the school year from a place of strength, even if some of your non urgent tasks are left unfinished.

Emily  19:34

Make sure you check out the link in the show notes to access our free end of your roadmap. This will help you reflect that goals and prioritize your tasks.

Emily  19:34

And it will set you up for the best back to school season ever.

Emily  19:36

We’d love to hear about your back to school goals. Come join the conversation in our teacher proof Facebook group.

Emily  19:54

Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is make an end of your playlist. Tell us about this Heidi.

Heidi  20:08

I would love to. If you still have a few days left of school, a fun activity might be to have your class, make an end of your playlist. You can have your kids submit songs that relate to the past year, and write why they think that that song deserves to be added to the playlist. Just make sure you listen to everything before you add it. Yes, then you will have the perfect background music as you know everyone’s cleaning out their desks or you’re finishing up the last of your projects. It just can be a happy little memory time.

Emily  20:38

I love that.

Heidi  20:39

To wrap up the show we are sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Emily, what gets your extra credit?

Emily  20:45

I’m giving extra credit to the book Funny Story by Emily Henry. And it does seem a little silly to give extra credit to an Emily Henry book because if you’re into that kind of book you probably already know about it.

Heidi  20:56

I have a confession. I’ve never actually read an Emily Henry book.

Emily  21:00

I am a shooken.

Heidi  21:02

I can see Emily’s face, she almost fell off her chair. I know it’s not been intentional. It just has not happened. I don’t know what my problem is.

Emily  21:11

Well, you should either start with this one or Book Lovers. Those are my two favorite of all of hers.

Heidi  21:16

I think I’ve seen a lot of people say that with both of them. So I’m glad this new one ranks so high though.

Emily  21:21

Yes, I think this one is worth picking up. It’s difficult to sum up the plot of this book, but I’ll tell you what the summary says about how it starts.

Emily  21:29

Daphne has always loved the way her fiance Peter told their story how they met on a blustery day, fell in love over an errant hat and moved back to his Lakeside hometown to begin their life together. He really was good at telling you right up until the moment he realized he was actually in love with his childhood best friend Petra. And then we follow Daphne’s journey for figuring out her life after that, which happens to involve Petros ex boyfriend Miles. So add it to your summer reading list if you haven’t read it yet. I really enjoyed it.

Heidi  21:59

Well, maybe I’ll have to have the summer of Emily Henry.

Emily  22:01

Yeah, you since you haven’t read any, there’s like five. So it would be fun. Okay, Heidi what are you giving extra credit to?

Heidi  22:09

I’m giving extra credit to the sun, of course. Someone with freckles, the sun and I have not always been on good terms. But getting the Northern Light show we got the other night was a real treat. And I appreciate the sun’s efforts and making that possible.

Heidi  22:24

So Emily and I were lucky enough to get to go out by the shores of the Great Salt Lake. And we had a beautiful view. The mosquitoes were calm. So that was an extra treat.

Emily  22:34

Yes, we were very lucky that night and my kids were chill. It was a it was very enjoyable.

Heidi  22:40

Yeah, it was fun. It was a lot of fun. It was a good memory. So hopefully the lights were visible where you live. But if you missed it in person, I am sure your Instagram feed is full of everyone else’s hazy purple photos. So you can feel like you were there.

Emily  22:53

If not, we’d be happy to show you ours.

Heidi  22:56

And we were all watching it on our phone. So really, you are getting the experience.

Emily  23:01

You need the phone or the camera to really be able to see the lights either way, so.

Heidi  23:07

That’s it for today’s episode. As you get started on your summer to do list don’t forget to prioritize your most important tasks first, and try this week teacher approved tip for making an end of the year playlist.

Emily  23:21

And don’t forget to grab our end of your roadmap for free. The link is in our show notes and sign up for the back to school course waitlist at

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.

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