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May 16, 2012 Tackling My Junk Drawers (and Closets, Shelves . . . ) By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    There are dark moments when I look at photos of my “idol” teachers’ classrooms, and I freak out. Don’t these teachers ever have piles of papers? Unsorted books? Pencil-smudged tabletops? How are these classrooms so picture perfect? I look around my classroom and sigh — sometimes it feels like one giant junk drawer.

    This year as the last months of school arrived, I’ve decided to truly tackle the mess. I’m lucky that I haven’t moved classrooms in four years, but that means my closets are overflowing with four years of assorted stuff. Come September, I know I will be swept into the bustle of setting up my classroom for my new students, labeling new supplies, and organizing new books.

    Now is the time to get my current mess under control. Yes, I could just close the closet doors, but that’s not the deep-cleaning, power-washing, ultra-purging that my soul craves. Here is a real-time account of how I am de-junking my many junk drawers, one by one.

    Sometimes I get so used to clutter piles, that I don't even see them anymore. I'm going to sort this area next!


    My Random Philosophies on Classroom Feng Shui

    Digging through piles of old projects, yellowed books, and unmentionable urban pest detritus, I’ve had plenty of time to think about my classroom, and what it means as a space. First a couple of truths, according to a dust-covered me. Take it for what it’s worth . . . 

    Truth Number 1:

    Teaching magazines, sitcoms, and teacher bloggers (yes, mea culpa!) will try to make you think that classrooms are orderly, glossy places. Think Post-it Notes stored in rainbow order, tastefully primitive artwork on the walls, and nary a pencil shaving to be found. This is a preposterous expectation for most of us real-world teachers, and we should not feel guilty when our classrooms don’t look like the academic version of a Martha Stewart Living cover.

    Truth Number 2:

    When I began teaching, my professors loved to preach about child-centered classrooms and “making room for students.” I’ve grown up with these teaching philosophies, so I never had a teacher’s desk to miss, and I’m quite comfortable letting my students’ projects colonize the flat surfaces in my classroom. However, at one point this year, with my students’ cardboard box inventions living on the rug, their papier-mÃ¥ché globes drying on the tables, and research posters leaning against all the walls, I had an epiphany. Yes, it is important to make room for my students’ work and their passions, but I also have to leave room for my students! As in, twenty-six bodies that need places to sit and move. Finding this balance is important.

    Truth Number 3:

    Don’t hate me for this one, but I do believe that teaching inherently begets hoarding. We don’t mean to do it. In fact, we teachers are incredibly good at sharing. But when we spend so much money already on our classrooms, it feels wrong to throw or give away items that we may someday put to good use. We’re also an incredibly resourceful bunch — there are so many possibilities for egg cartons! How to have a supply of egg cartons on hand when we need them, without being buried alive in the accumulated stuff, is quite a feat. I’m still working on this one . . . 

    I can't even reach these boxes without a ladder! I wonder how much of this I really need.


    The PLAN

    Here in New York, we still have six more weeks of school to go. About a month ago I decided to tackle one problem spot a week until the end of the school year. My idea is that by the time school ends, my classroom will be clutter-free and sensibly organized for next year. I can try out my different organization schemes now, test what works and what flops, and refine my systems so I’m ready to go come the fall. I’m also clearing out a lot of space, leaving some shelves empty to take on the new materials that come my way next year.

    A newly cleaned shelf makes me feel hopeful and ready for the next challenges.


    My Findings

    This is turning out to be a wonderful way to bring some closure to my school year. As I sort through closets and drawers, I think about what worked this year, what I used, and what I want to change. This deep cleaning is getting me excited for the possibilities of a new year and a new class. More specifically, here’s what I’ve discovered.

    • It feels great to give stuff away! I really don’t need the file-folder games I made when I taught 1st grade. Sure, it took me hours to laminate colored paper pieces, but when I hand the games off to a newer teacher who doesn’t yet have her own collection of center games, it’s more than okay — it feels great!
    • Stay away from the blogs. (Yes, I know this is counterintuitive to hear from a blogger!) There is an endless stream of beautiful classroom organization ideas calling to me from Pinterest, but I’m going to wait until summer break to start browsing. Right now I really want to focus on what I have, what works for me, and on doing some problem solving on my own. This honestly feels more authentic and less overwhelming, and it is making me think about why I want my classroom organized in certain ways, not just what it should look like.
    • Sometimes I need to ask for help. I was totally stressed as I approached my most offensive closet, filled with oddball books, crafts supplies, and shopping bags filled with everything! I ran to a colleague’s room, and she patiently walked me back to my closet and spent an hour helping me sort. No, she didn’t clean the closet out for me — I had to do that myself. But she listened as I talked through the process; she brought me more garbage bags; and she suggested teachers who’d love to inherit some of my cast-offs. A fresh set of eyes really makes a difference!

     My students will love to get this closet back!

    I know my photos here of many of my trouble spots are hardly inspiring. I’ll share my new and improved organization systems another time. But for now, I hope that a few of my fellow teachers who also have problems managing their junk drawers will breathe a sigh of relief and know that they’re not alone. A classroom does NOT have to look perfect to be the perfect place for our students to grow.

    Do you have a junk drawer you’ve been meaning to tackle? Tell me about it, and let me know that I’m not the only messy teacher! Do you have advice for my final push of cleaning? Please bring it on! You can also follow my organizing odyssey on Facebook or Twitter


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Susan Cheyney