As teachers, we all know that the classroom accommodations provided to us can differ greatly in size and comfort. Some classrooms are modern, spacious, and airy. Others are cramped, outdated, and crumbling. Whatever the space, you can improve it. You work hard to create rigorous learning opportunities for your students, you love the work you do, but sometimes the clutter and disorganization of your classroom space makes your teaching less efficient and becomes cumbersome for you and your students. The following suggestions can be applied in many ways and will hopefully bring some inspiration for lightening up, creating flow, and for helping the school day run more smoothly.
- Create a student-centered space. Your classroom is meant to be a workspace for your students rather than a storage space for you. The volume of materials required for all the subjects you teach and all of the great projects you do take up a lot of room, however, minimizing and organizing materials is essential for an organized, efficient classroom. Start the planning of your room with the perspective of your students in mind. They should have enough room to work, move around the classroom, access their materials, and there should be different seating options for them. Even if desks or tables need to be moved, hopefully you can find a way to create different arrangements for learning.
If clunky desks are taking up all of your space, consider if tables that seat 4-6 students could create more possibilities. If you make this switch, you may provide each student with a cubby or bin for storing materials. Although you will need to make room for a shelf for these bins, the tables may create more versatility than the desks. They also help to maintain more of a community feel than desks. Ask your principal or custodian if tables are available. (By the way, always maintain a positive relationship with your school's custodian! They are the ones who can pull strings for you and get you what you need if anyone can.)
- Out with the old! Teachers can be notorious for hoarding. Who can blame us? We need to buy materials when we come across them cheaply and we must save everything because often times the materials we need are paid for out of our own pockets. In addition, we are responsible for teaching so much and having a great variety of things for different projects and units. That being said, some of it must be sacrificed in the name of organization. Par it down. Save the irreplaceable stuff. Save the pricey stuff. But that box of outdated books or magazines that a generous parent dumped on you five years ago? It has to go. The materials that are bulky, old, can be borrowed, are only used once a year, or that you know that you plan to use someday but who knows when, need to go. Yes, that box of old-fashioned computer paper for a dollar from the rummage sale seemed like a great idea at the time, but it has to go! You are not making a sacrifice; you are creating space for you and your students to work more efficiently each day.
The best way to sort is to take everything out of cabinets and off of shelves. Sort all of your goods into piles. Make decisions. Decide by how much you need to reduce your collection in order to make your classroom space more workable. Is it by 50%? If so, that means every other thing, or half the bulk, needs to go in the ‘to go' pile. It can be hard, emotional even, to let go of materials. Take digital photos of your favorite old junk if it's what you need to do to let it go. Donate worthwhile materials to the thrift shop and recycle what needs to be recycled. In addition, get rid of bulky furniture or storage systems and replace them with more streamlined, portable ones. All the effort will seem well worth it when you and your students aren't tripping over boxes anymore and instead have a clear path and an unobstructed view.
- Store and label materials. After you have narrowed your goods down to a reasonable quantity, you will want to sort them before you cram them back in your cabinets. If you come across great materials that you forgot you had that would have really come in handy with last week's activity, then your treasures are not accessible to you. Uniform, clearly labeled plastic bins with lids that fit in whatever storage receptacles you have are a good way to go. Use name tag type stickers and permanent markers for the labeling. You could even color code the labels by subject. Stackable crates (some come with a ledge for hanging files) are quite versatile as well. Break things down in a way that works for you, perhaps by subject, unit, month, or season. By the way, if you wipe all of the dust off with cleaning wipes before putting it into the new bins, you will feel even better about the organization efforts.
Another option, especially if your storage space is very limited or impinging on the workspace, is to collaboratively store materials with your teammates in other classrooms or communal workspace. For example, they keep all of the Science materials and you keep all the Social Studies materials. This requires not only organization, but also coordination between two or more people so ask yourself if this is practical before proposing the idea to colleagues.
- Create a flow for incoming and outgoing materials and papers. Your classroom is not a static, unchanging place. It is an ecosystem of learning that requires inward and outward flow. Without it, the system gets clogged and unhealthy. Have a clear, simple place where homework goes. Have a doable system for how that homework gets graded, recorded, and returned or filed into portfolios.
Have a system for sending home completed class work. If the work is valuable in that it shows progress or a work sample, it may stay in a portfolio or working folder that you or your student maintains. Is the work just a practice page that can be brought home or recycled? Have a regular system for determining what category everyday papers fall in and where they go. Taking a few moments each day to do this with your students (perhaps having them do the sorting or filing) will save time and energy in the long run. If you are not doing this, it will initially feel time consuming. You don't want to spend too much of your valuable lesson time on this kind of housekeeping, but invest a little time at the outset to develop the habit and it will really pay off.
- Use classroom jobs to maintain organization. Once your classroom is organized, it will not stay this way unless there is a maintenance system in place. You could spend an hour each day after school getting everything back into tip-top shape or you could have your students work as a community for about ten minutes and accomplish the same task. It is such a great lesson for students. They will feel more invested in their classroom, they will have to work to solve problems to complete their task, they will learn to work together, and they will learn responsibility. They may even be more careful about the messes they make when they know that they need to clean them up.
Have them complete their activity at a time when they are restless and typically have a hard time sitting still anyway. At the end of the day or right after recess are great options. Try turning down the lights and have them do their task silently. If you can pull this off (and it is possible) you may actually marvel at what is being accomplished and how it is being accomplished. You may be surprised by which of your students will love completing their daily task. It may appeal to their kinesthetic nature.
Examples of classroom jobs include: librarian (straightens the classroom library or book baskets), hallway/locker organizer (picks up stray garbage and replaces fallen items), duster (uses wipes to clean surfaces), recycle bin monitor, plant technician (waters plants), school library delivery person (returns books to the school library), pencil sharpener, chair stacker, chalkboard/white board eraser. Some jobs may not be related to clean up and can be done at other times of day (such as line leader and door closer). See more specific information for implementing classroom jobs and a list of classroom jobs at the useful links below.
Depending on the age of your students and if they may have dust or scent allergies, using cleaning wipes may or may not be appropriate. Have students wash hands after using any cleaning supplies. If you have a chalkboard as opposed to a dry-erase board, cleaning of this may aggravate asthma or allergies in students. (This is one of the reasons that many schools are switching completely over to dry-erase boards). Always have them use a wet cloth for cleaning chalk boards, don't use dry feather dusters or cloths which just put all the dust into the air, don't assign asthmatic students to clean the board or erasers, and with more severe allergies, this may be one of the tasks that you need to do yourself after school when the air can clear out. Talk to the custodian or principal about having the board replaced (even with a smaller, temporary dry-erase board) or just avoid use of the board in your teaching when possible. Chart paper is a good alternative.
- Create an inviting place for visitors to enter. While creating a classroom space that is functional for you and your students, also keep in mind the perspective of a guest coming to your classroom. When an additional person walks into your room, do they have an unobtrusive place to sit and/or observe? You should expect the principal, specialists such as the special education and ESL teachers, visiting student teachers, visiting teachers or supervisors from the district, as well as parents and other volunteers to be coming into your classroom. It is disconcerting to walk into a classroom and not know where to go. If a student of yours is going to receive tutoring in your room, it can make them feel conspicuous if you have to stop what you're doing and clear a space. If you have morning meetings, leave an extra chair for guests. Your visitors will come away with a completely different experience if they have felt welcomed into your room. Just as you would always have an available chair or space for guests in your home, the same applies to your classroom. Space may be tight, but a multi-purpose desk, table, or corner for individual conferencing or visiting with guests is essential.
- Maximize use of natural light and air. Again, we all know that we're not guaranteed windows and fresh air in our classrooms, but when you have them, make use of them. Notice the times of day that natural light comes into your room and try to open the blinds to maximize its use and to minimize the use of fluorescent lights when possible. We know that natural sunlight is good for our health and our brains, so what better time to access it than when you expect your students to really be flexing those brain muscles? Use of softer light from lamps when possible is also a great alternative. You want to provide adequate lighting for reading, but if you ask your students, you might be surprised to find how much they enjoy having the lights dimmed for a while. In hot months, this can also relieve the temperature in your room as well. You may have a ‘down time' in your room when lights are dimmed and students have quiet game or rest time. After recess is a good time to cool down.
Opening windows can cool down a room, it can also raise humidity and bring in noise and air pollution, so you need to find what works best for your particular environment. Place fans strategically to improve air flow (which will also improve learning). This may mean directing them from the open windows or the hallway, which may be cooler. Use small fans that make less noise and be careful to keep cords out of the way.
If you use an overhead projector or LED projector, be aware of how much heat and noise these can produce. Turn off when not in use and maybe plan lessons so you are using them during cooler times of the day.
- Keep your classroom fresh and clean. Keeping surfaces clean in your classroom using multi-surface cleaning wipes can make a huge difference. Not only will your tables, desks, and shelves feel and look clean, but they will be sanitized of all the cold germs in your class and your room will smell fresh. Students really enjoy being in a clean classroom. I believe that it improves their concentration and focus. Your students will say, "It smells so good in here!"
You want to be sensitive to allergies that students may have, but I have found that a simple vanilla-scented air freshener (the kind that you raise to open) can be very comforting to students. Don't overwhelm the air with strong scents that may be irritating to some, but a fresh, clean smell can work wonders for classroom environment.
Straighten materials, keep things dusted (using at least a damp paper towel so the dust does not go into the air), put things away, and wipe up messes. If you have a daily or at least weekly routine, there won't be a lot of dust and mess to clean up!
- Ask yourself if your educational posters are educational or wallpaper. The way in which you utilize the materials on your walls constitute part of being organized. There are so many wonderful, colorful posters available that we tend to stock up on all of them when we go to the teacher store. You also have your favorite lessons, artifacts, and student samples that you laminate and show year after year. If you have your walls plastered with these materials, they may not be as effective as you think. When students see the same posters all year long, they don't really see them. It is preferable to take out and post these materials at the time that you teach them.
Of course, you have some reference posters that will stay up all year, such as the word wall, number and alphabet (or cursive) strip, and posters listing procedures or rules. But having some blank space on your walls is a good thing. Also having some artwork that is just decorative is soothing to the eyes. Visual clutter can be disruptive; be sure there are less 'busy' places for eyes to fall. Change bulletin boards regularly, take down materials from old units, and teach students where to refer for current information. Keep word walls and other reference information ‘alive' and functioning by referring to them frequently.
Storage of large posters can be cumbersome. Keeping posters flat makes them ready to use as opposed to dealing with curled ends by rolling up posters. There are special racks that store posters neatly, but these can be very space-consuming. Storing posters on top of cabinets, upright between furniture, or in an artist's portfolio (like a large envelope) can be practical alternatives.
Laminating posters may increase durability, but it also makes posters much heavier and more slippery. Besides, they eventually yellow and curl anyway. You may find that you get years of use from posters left unlaminated. You will save all that plastic as well. This may be a matter of personal preference; find what works for you.
- Help students to organize and maintain their personal space. Providing students with adequate time to store and care for their materials will help them to stay organized. At the beginning of the year it may seem like a tedious, time-wasting process to take ten whole minutes of time to monitor every student taking out their red Social Studies folder and neatly placing their handout on the left-hand side. However this is an investment of time; it will be a time and energy saver once it becomes a routine and an expectation. In the long run, you and your students will save countless hours of learning time if students can access their materials readily. You will also save the cost of replacing materials and photocopying so many extras of everything if students have what they need on hand. Let students know a regular time available to them to clean and organize their desks, lockers, coat hook areas, etc. Encourage students to take home old materials and personal items such as clothing that are cluttering up spaces. Perhaps have students bring in grocery bags or keep a supply on hand to tote home extra items.
Some student's desks and personal spaces will still grow messy and cluttered. If, when you start a lesson, a student cannot find the handout, book, or tool that they need, tell them that they will just need to share with a neighbor. Taking time away from all the other students in order to dig through their desk is unfair. For chronic students who are not making an effort with organization, maybe cleaning during their free time is necessary for sending a message of its importance.
Reward students by having the "Desk Fairy" come and visit while they are out. If your students have communal tables and therefore use cubbies, you can do the same thing. The ‘Desk Fairy" or "Cubby Fairy" will come around and peek in desks or cubbies and those that are neat and organized will get a special note or a treat. Less organized students will see an example of what their space should look like. For older kids, you can modify this by just leaving a note or treat from you, their teacher, rather than the ‘Desk Fairy.' Students will likely adopt life-long organization habits beneficial to their learning.
Kids and learning can be messy, but with an ongoing effort, your classroom can be not only a more efficient learning environment, but a more pleasant place to be. Your students will reap the benefits and visitors will be impressed. An organized classroom is one in which you will enjoy spending your time. Hopefully everyone will gain some inspiration!