I could have titled this post “How To Be A More Organized PERSON This Year”, because the two basic organizational truths I’m going to share apply to everyone regardless of profession.
But, I’m a teacher and it’s almost back-to-school time here, so I thought I’d hone in on my teacher peeps. If you’re reading this and you’re not a teacher…
Oh my goodness! I’m joking! Stay!
I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to make it weird.
There have been times in my life when I’ve wondered if I’m adopted. I mean, I have a physical resemblance to both my parents. But one of my more defining character traits is my
fixation interest in all things organization, and that definitely did not come from their gene pool.
At the sweet age of 3, I would empty all the clothes out my bedroom cupboard, only to put them right back in – differently. I did this with the dried goods cupboard in the kitchen, too.
Basically anything within reach was subjected to my re-organization efforts.
I think my parents’ amusement with my…er…interests, eventually morphed into mild concern, because they spoke to my Grade 2 teacher about it.
Mr. Dunkley allayed their worries. He told them an organized space is the sign of an organized mind.
Organization of stuff and spaces comes naturally to some people.
To others, it can be a real struggle. Nowhere is this more evident than in schools.
When I became a literacy coach for my school board, I had the privilege of working closely with teachers from a variety of schools. It was my role to discuss student data with them, but secretly I was more interested in observing how they organized their stuff and their spaces. Some rooms were organizational works of art! Others made me wonder how the teacher – and students – managed to think, let alone find anything, in all the chaos and clutter.
Organization is a challenge for many students, too. Several years ago, perplexed by the level of disorganization that the majority of my fifth graders were demonstrating, I created a resource to help them understand why being organized is something they should care about and strive for, and how to become more organized. After all, it’s great to expect students to be organized, but if no one has ever actually taught them any organizational strategies and benefits, how would they know what to do?
teachers people I know are living in a state of perpetual overwhelm these days, myself included. But I know that being organized allows me a little more space – both physical and mental – and that extra space acts as a buffer between my calm and my overwhelm.
The two organizational truths I’m going to share with you aren’t rocket science. You might even roll your eyes at how obvious they are. Obvious, yet often overlooked or ignored.
Truth #1: Have Less Stuff
Teachers, by nature, are hoarders.
Everything – every thing – has a possible application in the classroom.
While it may feel good (maybe?) to hold on to every little item so it’s there in the unlikely eventuality you need it someday, I’m here to challenge how you think about all the stuff you save in the name of good teaching.
Yogurt tubs and take-out containers make excellent paint-distribution vessels for art activities, but is it necessary to hold on to every single one from now until the end of time? (Or until you retire…whichever comes first.) What about the teacher resource books from the 1900s or early 2000s that a kind colleague gifted you when they were preparing to retire? Are those resources really informing your program these days? Do you really need 27 binders of worksheets and blackline masters? What about all those duty textbooks on your bottom shelf? Still need those?
I know letting go of things can be hard. Really hard. A couple years ago, I was one of two Special Education Resource Teachers at my school. My then-partner was a binder fanatic. I counted 42. There was no shelf space for anything else. When she retired, I had the fun job of going through said binders to determine if any of their contents was necessary to my role.
In the end, not a single piece of paper was spared.
There were staff meeting agendas from over a decade ago.
Is all your shelf and cupboard space devoted to storing stuff for some possible future use?
Ask yourself these questions:
- How long has it been there?
- When did I use it last?
- If I let it go, would I be able to find that information or thing again without much difficulty?
All those dusty binders are taking up valuable real estate in your classroom. Space that could be used to house a few current, relevant resources, or just space that could be blissfully empty.
It’s nice to have empty shelves. It’s good to have space to grow into as the need arises. It’s good to have space. Period.
Stuff pulls at our attention, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s like phantom power. Even when the toaster isn’t…er… toasting…it’s still using a bit of electricity simply by being plugged in. Your overstuffed classroom pulls on your mental energy just like that unused toaster pulls power.
A classroom packed with stuff can have a negative impact on students, too. Stuff is distracting. A colleague of mine likes to collect funny magnets. She filled one third of her whiteboard with magnets she had been given as gifts. And then one day, a student asked if she could take them down because he found it really difficult to concentrate during lessons.
That student had both self-awareness and courage to bring that to his teacher’s attention.
Think of all the students who were bothered by the magnets but didn’t speak up, or who didn’t even realize that the magnets were preventing them from focusing.
The struggle to maintain focus in a cluttered classroom becomes even harder still for our students with ASD or ADD.
A classroom full of physical clutter and excess stuff benefits no one.
And to be clear, uncluttered doesn’t have to mean stark or austere.
Your classroom can still be a very warm and inviting space. Actually, it’ll probably be more warm and inviting without all the
crap old and unused resources occupying every nook and cranny.
What it won’t be is overstimulating – for you or your students.
So, Step 1 to becoming a more organized teacher this year is to whittle down your stuff.
Grab a friend – and some boxes and garbage bags – put on some tunes, and get busy culling your classroom. No shelf, drawer, cupboard, or binder is exempt from your purge process. Keep the things that provide a function now.
A few things to recycle/throw out/donate/take home:
- Old construction paper – I’m talking about the faded, brittle stuff that no kid will ever want to use
- Old paint
- Old magazines
- Old textbooks
- Anything broken
- Incomplete decks of cards
- Novels and board games that your students don’t show any interest in
- Your personal knick-knacks – a few are ok, but your classroom isn’t an extension of your house
- Teaching resources that you haven’t used in the past 5 years
- Anything that was left in your classroom by the previous teacher (full filing cabinet, anyone?) (Also, there should be a law against leaving a full filing cabinet for another teacher to empty. It’s just not cool.)
- Excess containers
- Excess/unneeded furniture
Depending on your personality, your time commitments elsewhere, and how much stuff you have, the process of purging your classroom may need to be ongoing for awhile. Just take it space by space, and eventually, it will get done.
If you’re struggling with the sentimentality of stuff, or just want more tips on how to simplify, check out this site.
Truth #2: Every thing needs a home.
If you were to walk into my classroom, it wouldn’t take you long to find… well, anything. Not only is there very little superfluous clutter competing for your attention, but there is also a clear and intentional home for every single item I have chosen to keep.
One of the most important organizational principles I teach my students is that every thing needs a home.
According to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing, we spend one year of our lives looking for lost items. One year, Friends!
(And yes, there is actually a National Association of Productivity and Organizing.)
Keys, phone, sunglasses. More than likely, you have a special drawer or shelf in your home where you toss these important items after use.
And if you don’t, pause here for a moment and think of how many minutes you’ve spent in the last couple days looking for any one of those things. Five minutes? Ten? Half an hour?
Not only do you lose precious time when you have to search for things, your focus also takes a hit. Each place you look for your keys will remind you of something else you need or want to do. Now instead of just trying to find your keys, you’re also thinking about how you really should vacuum the stairs and how you need to take a picture of your cat lying in that sunbeam and oh man! You need to tell your kids to turn the volume down on the Minions before you go well and truly crazy.
You’d already be out the door if only your keys had a home.
All the classroom things need homes too.
Teachers are great at using plastic bins. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if the, er, bin industry, went bust were it not for teachers. We use bins to store students’ notebooks and duotangs (such an odd word), to keep work that needs to be graded, to house the enormous supply of pencil crayons we’ve collected over the years.
Bins make awesome homes for many classroom items that we keep on shelves, at the ready for student-use.
What about everything else? We literally have thousands of items in our classrooms. We can’t have thousands of bins.
Every piece of paper, every extra box of Kleenex, every spare Chromebook cord needs a home.
This is one of the reasons it’s so important to rid your classroom of all the stuff that isn’t serving you and your students anymore – you don’t need to be creating homes for that stuff.
Homes should be logical.
In an ideal world, you would take all your classroom resources and supplies (after your purge, of course), put them in the middle of the room, and begin the task of assigning homes. Items that students need to access regularly would go on a shelf or table. Extra paper towels rolls and Kleenex boxes would go in a cupboard together. Logical.
Slap on some labels and you’re sailing, baby!
But…what about all.the.papers?
We manage and move papers all the live-long day as teachers.
Here are some of the tried and true homes for paper in my classroom:
|Anecdotal notes/observations of students||Google Doc*|
|Student work samples and grades||Assessment Binder|
|Long range plans, parent contact information, IEPs, curriculum for my grade/subjects only||VIP Binder |
(Very Important Papers)
|Day plans||I recently switched from a paper daybook to this amazing free online planner|
|Notes/forms that come in from students’ parents||Classroom INBOX until I’m ready to process them|
|Staff meeting agendas||The nearest recycling box (as soon as I’ve recorded any pertinent)|
|Most things in my staff mailbox||Recycling box|
|Things I need to read/copy/prepare for upcoming lessons||In the file rack that sits on my desk|
|Student workbooks||In bins labelled with the subject title (ie: Writers’ Notebooks, Readers’ Workshop, Social Studies, etc.)|
Random things like extra cords, student treats and rewards, and my impressive personal collection of Sharpie markers live in a plastic storage tower beside my desk.
Naturally, each drawer is labelled.
The Moral of the Story
I think a lot of people underestimate the power of an organized space when it comes to calming the mind.
You don’t need lots of stuff to be an amazing teacher. In fact, I would argue that the less superfluous stuff you have, the more effective you will be. To paraphrase Mr. Dunkley, a calmer, more organized space is a sign of a calmer, more organized mind.
What student wouldn’t benefit from having that kind of teacher?
*I didn’t get into digital clutter, but getting on top of that situation is life-changing and invites even more calm into your teacher life. Hands up if you’d like me to do a post about how I cleaned up my digital act. Or…you know…let me know below in the comments.
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