The first step to enjoy teaching is to organize your classroom. Without rules, routines, and general order, a teacher becomes overwhelmed, frantic, and unhappy. It’s time to stop treading water. You can gain control of your classroom, students, and stuff.
Over the course of her teaching career, Ms. Sneed learned that six steps kept her afloat.
First, to survive, she: got organized, planned efficiently, and simplified teaching tasks.
Then, to thrive, the teacher got plenty of professional development, employed best practices, and worked to be the best teacher she could be.
How to Organize Your Classroom
Unfortunately, when Ms. Sneed began teaching, she wasn’t sure where to start on classroom organization. Fortunately, her mentor came to the rescue.
“Let’s get you organized,” Mrs. Brown, said. “We’ll work on five categories: classroom management, students, teaching stuff, parent stuff, and professional documents. For each of those, I’ll provide ideas to get started.”
1. Get a Grip on Classroom Management
The next morning, the two teachers sat at the side table for their usual mentoring session.
“Okay,” said Mrs. Brown, “first things first. Before the school year even begins, you need to manage your students. Since this is a big topic on its own, we’ll tackle it next week.”
2. Organize Students and Their Stuff
Mrs. Brown continued, “In addition, students can really clutter your classroom. With just a few strategies, you can organize your classroom to reduce the chaos. Then you’ll begin to feel like you’re in charge.”
The mentor opened her laptop and opened her Google seating chart. “At the beginning of the year, strategically arrange student desks and/or tables to match your teaching style, as well as individual student needs.
“For example, I like my students facing forward. Additionally, we do a lot of think-pair-share activities. Therefore, my kids’ desks are arranged in forward-facing pairs.”
Mrs. Brown stood up and indicated that Ms. Sneed should walk with her.
“Consider where students will store their supplies, and make it work for you. For example, if students play with their rulers during instruction, collect and keep them until needed.” The mentor pointed to a shelf with boxes labeled glue, rulers, and protractors.
“I also collect their pencils and loose-leaf paper for a communal supply. That way, they don’t get lost or wadded up.
“Years ago, I noticed that my teaching partner collected her students’ supplies. To be honest, I thought she was crazy. Then I tried it. You know what? It turned out to be a great strategy to organize your classroom. It has saved me many headaches.”
Next, Mrs. Brown picked up a blue folder. “These Classroom Connector folders have also been lifesavers. As you can see, this side says ‘LEFT at Home,’ while the other states, ‘Bring RIGHT Back to School.’ When kids pack up for the day, they put graded work and parent communication on the left side. Unfinished work goes on the right. It’s the perfect organization system for fourth grade students.”
Continuing to a table near her desk, Mrs. Brown pointed out a plastic organizer with drawers. “This is actually a new addition to my classroom,” she said. “Previously, I had one box to turn in all work. However, one of my students pointed out that I was wasting a lot of time sorting. She suggested something like this. It has worked wonders. No more sorting – and I can quickly count what’s in each drawer to see if all students have submitted their assignments.”
Next, the mentor walked over to the door of her coat closet. “Is that a closet organizer?” Ms. Sneed asked.
“Sure is. This is where I return student work. It saves a lot of time. At the end of the day, kids come here to get graded work and parent communication. Then they stuff it in the left-hand sides of their take-home folders. Actually, my teaching partner uses a literature organizer. It’s the same principle, but mine doesn’t take up any counter space.”
3. Organize Teaching Stuff
Now Mrs. Brown walked around to the back side of her teacher desk. Under the adjacent table, Ms. Sneed saw two more plastic organizers with drawers. Each was labeled with the name of a specific subject. “Worksheets?” she asked.
“Yep. When I make copies, I place them in the drawers in the order that they’ll be used. That way, I can rest assured that the next set of worksheets is always on top.”
“Wow, this seems like a lot. Are you sure it’s not overkill?
Mrs. Brown let out a loud whoop. “No way! When you organize your classroom, your day goes so much better. You’ll see!”
Next, Mrs. Brown pointed to a file box with red folders. “I will admit, however, that not all teacher need this. However, when you have aides in and out of the classroom, it helps. That way, they don’t have to ask where to find materials. As you can see, I place stuff in here weekly.”
Finally, they walked back to the table and sat down. As Mrs. Brown clicked on her Google Drive, Ms. Sneed noticed that the files were neatly arranged. “Hey, you’ve also organized your Drive!” Sure enough, her mentor had organized everything with an abbreviation (e.g., L for literature) and colored folders.
Although Mrs. Brown looked a bit sheepish, she did not apologize. “Organization helps me keep my head above water. It saves time and makes my day run much more smoothly.”
4. Organize Parent Stuff
Once again, the mentor clicked around on her computer. Then she turned and looked at Ms. Sneed. “As you know, communicating with parents is essential. This, however, does not happen naturally. Therefore, you need to purposefully organize parent stuff too. Let’s discuss a few key strategies.”
Create an Email Group
“First,” said Mrs. Brown, “gather all parent emails and create a group. That way, you can quickly email everyone. But remember, you should never address a message to everyone. Instead, blind carbon copy (BCC) them. You definitely don’t want to give parents access to one another’s email addresses.”
Share Information About All Digital Platforms
“Second,” the mentor continued, “communicate information about everything digital. You know, how to sign into Google Classroom, how to find online platforms, any passwords that their child needs, etc.” She pointed to her computer screen, where a sample was already displayed.
Communicate on a Regular Basis
“Third, establish a simple system for communicating with parents on a regular basis. In my opinion, this shouldn’t occur through basic emails. Instead, it should be something more one-way: from you to parents. For this, you could do a weekly or monthly newsletter – either printed or digital – or a website.” Again, she clicked on a document and showed it to her mentee as an example.
Keep Good Records
“Finally, log and file all parent contacts, communication, and conferences. Now I know this is a royal pain in the you-know-what. But you can really get your you-know-what in a sling if you don’t do it. That way, if a parent complains that you didn’t tell them something, you will have evidence that you actually did.”
Ms. Brown sighed and stood up. “Follow me.” When they got to her desk, she opened the bottom drawer. In it, Ms. Sneed saw a set of file folders, each with a child’s name.
“These student folders provide an additional layer of protection for me,” said the mentor. “To be honest, I don’t use them a lot. However, this is where I keep the parent communication logs. Whenever the child encounters a significant problem, I record it and write how I handled it. In addition, I may store checklists that monitor ups and downs of student behavior. From time to time, I add papers that provide evidence of struggling and growth. This provides materials to show during parent-teacher conferences.”
Finding the Time
“When did you have time to do all of this?” Ms. Sneed asked.
“Generally speaking, I organize everything in the summer. Then, just before school starts, I personalize it by adding student names and parent email addresses.”
Ms. Sneed sighed. “But the school year has already begun.”
“I know. It’s a lot of work. But you can do it bit by bit. Or maybe you can find an aide or parent to help you.”
5 Organize Your Professional Stuff
“I know this is not news you’re anxious to receive,” Mrs. Brown continued. “But before too long, the principal will pop in for your first observation. Not only that, but you also need to start collecting evidence.”
“Evidence? What kind of evidence?” Ms. Sneed collapsed on the table.
“Don’t worry. This part is not as hard as what we’ve already discussed.”
“Let’s start with professional development. To keep track of it, just record the date and nature of PD. If you decide to store hard copies, place records inside a file folder. Throw any related literature in with the list. A digital record works the same way. Just make a file on your computer.
“You will keep this folder for your entire career. If you ever need to apply for a new job or grad school or a fellowship or whatever, all of the evidence will be right here.”
“That doesn’t seem too hard,” said Ms Sneed.
Evidence of Professionalism and Leadership
“Additionally,” Mrs. Brown continued, “you need to have evidence for your teacher evaluation. In a similar way, keep track of these categories:
- Contributing to the School – Record evidence of committee work and time you spend working on all-school events.
- Collaborating with Peers – Make note of team meetings and collaborative projects.
- Advocating for Student Success – Keep track of times when you make special effort to help a child succeed.
- Communicating with Parents – We already discussed this. Indicate ways you reach out to parents. Store samples.
“Seriously, it doesn’t have to be fancy. Keep informal lists. Whenever you go to a meeting, toss the agenda or your notes into a file folder.”
Next, Mrs. Brown pulled out her phone. As she scrolled through her pictures, she showed a few to her mentee. “Take lots and lots of photos. As they say, ‘A picture paints a thousand words.’ Every year, I submit a bunch of photos as evidence of good teaching too. These can include:
- working with small groups
- student discussions
- bulletin boards
- and more!
“Just be mindful of the need for evidence. When you shut your door and teach, no one knows what goes on. So you need to be prepared to show them.”
Ms. Sneed sat up straighter and nodded. “It’s a lot, but I can do this,” she said.
One More Word on Classroom Organization
As the pair wrapped up their mentoring session, a small smile crossed Mrs. Brown’s face. “I’ve found that the best way to survive is to make lists, prioritize, and plow through. When each school day is done, I straighten my desk to give myself a clean start the next morning.
“Teaching is like laundry: it just keeps coming. You may never be totally on top of it, but you can be in charge of it and get the job done. Then you’ll love your teaching job even more.”