Are there really classroom management strategies that will help you create an organized classroom? You bet your soy latte there are! I’m not a naturally organized person, but over the years I’ve peppered questions at colleagues who were really good at this skill. After implementing their strategies through new habits, I finally got the classroom I always wanted: a beautiful, organized haven.
Which isn’t to say that you won’t find disorganization throughout the day in our room — the kids get astoundingly messy when they learn. It also doesn’t have a museum-like sterile quality. But there is a strong sense of order that makes me smile with satisfaction as I turn out the lights at the end of the day.
Perhaps you too are not naturally gifted at organization. Or maybe you are uber-organized and you continually look for new strategies to streamline the functioning of your room. Either way, the following habit changes that I gleaned from others can transform your room into an organized, calm refuge.
1. The Best of all Classroom Management Strategies: PURGE
This one can be the hardest change for some people and the most fun for others. But it is crucial. Get rid of the stuff you do not need. This includes outdated curriculum and teaching tools or those little workbooks you thought you’d use. The bins of yarn that seemed great for an art project. Posters that no longer serve you. Look at every area of your room with a critical eye and think, “Does this really help my students? Does it really help me?”
Often we hold onto things because we think we might use them someday. That day never seems to come, though, does it? I once found an unopened bag cotton balls at a yard sale for $.10 and grabbed it, thinking, “Oh, we can do something with this!” That was ten years ago. Last year, I called it quits and put it outside my classroom in a box of free things for other teachers. One aide took it and was able to put it to immediate use with one of her students. That stuff you’re holding onto might indeed have a use — it just might be for someone else.
The best way to begin? Start with a small area, such as one shelf. Do you need those textbooks from grad school or could you sell them? How about that binder from your training two years ago? Do you really need four packages of envelopes? After purging one small area, there is an undeniable rush one gets from seeing order, even in such a small space. It’s a bit addictive, actually.
Resources to light that fire
For some people, there can be charged emotions with purging. If that sounds like you or if purging is something you naturally resist, here are two outstanding books that can spring you into action. Both train you to look at your stuff in a more efficient way.
It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh
Why purging is one the the best classroom management strategies
So what happens after you purge? You can find things, number one, because you finally see what you have. But more important, it lends a clarity that spills into your teaching. Suddenly, with all that stuff gone, your brain feels clearer and you can zero in on what your students need and on your lesson objectives. It’s a bit like a fog lifting.
When you get rid of what’s not essential, you’re much more likely to notice and use the things that are of value to you. Same goes for your students. If your bookcase is overflowing with tattered, yellowing books with outdated covers, they’re going to avoid your classroom library. (I talk more about how to prune your classroom library in my downloadable booklet, 8 Ways to Create Lifelong Readers. Look at page 9, under “Weeding.” You can find more information about introducing your classroom library to your kids here.)
2. Paper is not the boss — you are
Several years ago, I asked my fourth grade colleague how she kept her room so meticulous. I’d gotten a hold on clutter and was a master purger. Still, I tended to get that pile on my table. Perhaps you know it? That tottering mound of papers that includes work to be corrected, forms to fill out, field trip permission slips to photocopy, writing assessments you’ve not had a moment to look at yet. It’s a sneaky little pile, which can elevate out of control in a week.
Anyhow, my colleague had a room with no clutter but better yet, no loose papers! Anywhere! I think my words to her were close to this:
Clearly, you are doing something I’m not doing. Why do you not have those paper piles? Don’t be polite. Just give it to me straight. I really want to know how you do this, ’cause that pile of papers on my table is driving me bonkers.
Her solution was to have a place for everything, including extra homework/classwork handouts and all those school forms that need to go home each week. She walked me over to show me where those went. “On Friday after the kids go home,” she explained, “I just empty it all out into recycling. I don’t start my week with any extra papers lying around.” She additionally had a specific place to put work that needed to be corrected, work that needed to be passed back, etc. When there were teacher forms to fill out, she did them right away and got them off her desk.
After three years, I’m still not quite at her level — the woman has a gift — but I’m pretty close!
Classroom management strategies: FOLDERS
Another teacher on my team shared that she puts things to be corrected into folders that are neatly labeled. So, for example, when the students pass in their Unit 3 math tests, they go straight into a labeled folder. As a result, the waiting papers look and feel less intimidating. It’s easier to see them as bite-sized pieces rather than an angry monster pile.
I took this one step further by color coding my folders (see more about color coding further down) and by putting post-its on the front of each folder to label them.
You don’t have to correct everything
Here’s an additional tip that not a lot of people talk about: you can recycle uncorrected student work. Most seasoned teachers occasionally do it, and it can do wonders for your focus. When I occasionally dump ungraded work into the recycling bin, I return to my clear table with with an odd blend of guilt and euphoria.
The key is knowing what the purpose of each assignment is. In the beginning of the year, for example, I go over all work with a fine-toothed comb, because all that data informs my teaching with this new group of learners. Once you know them, though, there are assignments you can spot-check.
Let’s say you’re giving subtraction homework as a review, just to keep them practicing the skill of regrouping. You can save time by just skimming the homework. Look at three key problems on that page to see if they’ve retained the skill. This turns a chore from 15 minutes to 2. Quickly flip through, keeping a little pile for the kids who don’t have it yet and recycling the rest. You can touch base with those who need review later in the day, have them retry the problems, and then send it home.
In a Skillful Teacher training, I learned that it’s important to give feedback to students as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the less effective the feedback is. So if I’ve fallen behind on my correcting during one of the busy seasons (like parent teacher conferences), I’ll often do a brief spot-check and then recycle them. Correcting and returning an old pile of homework has little effect on student learning, which is, after all, why they’re in school. So when you have a pile of student work, look at each assignment and ask yourself, “What is the goal of this?” and try spot-checking a couple of key problems that demonstrate that goal.
It takes time and experience to learn what you can and can’t recycle. It’s not something you should do all the time, but it has its place. Ask your colleagues what they think is acceptable in your school or district and start there. You’ll find that your teaching becomes more efficient.
3. Classroom Management Strategies for Ninjas: Consider giving up your desk
Wait. Don’t click away. This is not something you have to do, but it’s worth considering.
I had a desk for years and couldn’t imagine living without it. A neighboring teacher didn’t have one, and when I asked her why she explained that she wanted as much room as possible for the students to learn. That didn’t jive with me, though. I liked having my space. This was my room too, after all! To heck with martyrdom!
But as time passed and as I got better at purging unnecessary items, my desk started to feel superfluous. One day, I decided to have that dinosaur hauled away. (It was an industrial thing that was hard to even move an inch.) I kept all my planning items next to a round table and used that as my writing surface and meeting area for small groups.
This streamlined approach felt so much better! As silly as it sounds, I felt lighter. A weight had literally been lifted. (Again, heavy desk.) And keeping an organized classroom got easier with one less surface to clutter.
This isn’t something you have to do now or ever. There are plenty of teachers whose desks work brilliantly with their style. Like everything, though, it’s worth asking, “How is this serving me or my students?” If a desk helps — great! Keep it! If you aren’t sure, though, try going without it and see how it feels.
4. Rethink your classroom jobs
Your kids can do the majority of the organizing in your room once you have systems in place. A lot of people enter my room and say, “How do you keep your room so nice?” and my answer is always, “The kids do it all. I’m just a stickler.” I talk in depth about this process and have free downloads for trying these classroom management strategies for job creation here.
The job that saves me time and stress is having a student go through all the finished work and organize it. They put everything into piles, make sure everything is facing the same way and ready to be corrected, and paper clip each separate pile. Then they put the finished pile of work on my round table. I usually pick one or two people who are good at this and enjoy it, and they do it all year long.
At the end of the day, we completely clear tables off, clean them, and stack the chairs. Kids must return all their items to their cubbies. The floor must be spotless. During this time, my coteacher and l often raise the stakes by each announcing, “I see three things right now that are not where they belong. Whoever puts each of those secret items back where it belongs gets an effort dot!” This could be a scrap of paper on the floor or a clipboard left on a bookshelf. Once cleanup is done, we’ll announce who the lucky effort dot winners are.
Often, if there is time, we’ll do a mini-version of this before the kids leave the room for specials or lunch.
5. Keep things fairly uniform
Uniformity is one of the most often ignored classroom management strategies. Uniformity doesn’t have to be boring or institutional, however. When things are pleasing to the eye and ordered, the kids’ brains (and yours!) can focus on the skills they need to learn.
Let’s look at classroom library containers as an example. When they are different sizes and colors and brands, the overall effect is chaotic, and students will unconsciously avoid your library. It’s better if you stick with similar items if you want a sense of order and calm. This can be done fairly cheaply, by taking a trip to the Dollar Store, for example, and buy matching crates.
Alternatively, if you want a bit of difference in sizes for a shabby-chic, homey look, go to your local hardware store and buy spray paint in 2-3 of your favorite colors. Limiting colors gives your classroom a more homogenous, artistic feel. You can go with a matte, ocean-y color scheme, rainbow colors, or a modern metallic look. Go to Pinterest and look up “classroom spray paint,” to find ideas that match your style. A classroom makeover like this costs very little.
Uniformity can work anywhere in your classroom. I used it with the binders in my teacher’s closet and it made a big impact. Whereas before my closet was a mishmash of everything, my curriculum binders are now the same size and have spines that have a similar font/style. When you open the closet, you can immediately tell what’s what and it lends clarity to one’s mind and teaching.
I accidentally stumbled upon this classroom strategy, but boy has it worked! Eleven years ago, when I entered my classroom, the previous teacher had colored coded her curriculum materials. To save time, I followed her lead, and it’s simplified how I do things. Here’s the breakdown:
Blue = Math
Red = Spelling, Writing
Orange = Reading
Green = Social Studies
Yellow = Science
I use these color schemes with my curriculum binders, the folders where I save student work for parent teacher conferences, and in my schedule. (In the schedule, all my specials are purple.) Color-coding makes it easier for your brain to immediately register what’s what.
7. Don’t throw out that cleaning wipe!
This is one of those 2-second tweaks in your classroom management strategies that makes a cumulative difference. After you’ve cleaned something with a wipe, don’t throw it out yet. (Unless you’re cleaning up something sticky like spilled orange juice.) Take that wipe and use it on a surface that needs a little ickiness removed before finally tossing it. Get everything out of that wipe you can.
One of the areas that gets nastiest in my classroom is the chalk/marker tray that lines the bottom of the entire whiteboard. I’ll run the cloth along the length of that and all the funk disappears into the cloth. Seems like a small thing, but if you do that before you throw away any wipe, your room is going to feel a lot better. Other areas: tops of shelves, the wall next to the trash barrel (bleck!), window sills, chairs, etc. (Just don’t use wipes ON the whiteboard. I’ve found that messes up the board somehow. Instead, use a wet cotton cloth to clean your whiteboard immediately followed by a dry cotton cloth to get rid of water streaks.)
That was a lot of classroom management strategies, but remember — you don’t have to do it all at once. Try one thing this month, and something else later. There’s plenty of time.
Now it’s time to hear from you! In the comments below, let us know which of these classroom management strategies might you try? OR — What are some of your classroom management strategies for keeping an organized classroom?
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